(Repost from 2009)

We’ve covered helicopters here before, such as the Huey, the Blackhawk, the OH-58 Kiowa and of course, Cobra and Apache gunships. Let’s talk about the big boy on the block. The Chinook. Or as it became known almost instantly in the Army, the Shithook. The CH-47 is the Army’s largest helicopter, used to transport critical logistical items, troops and artillery around the battlefield.


The Chinook has been around for a long time. It’s first flight was in 1961. But the issues surrounding its development deserve a little attention. In the late 1950s, the Army and helicopter designers began to realize that piston engines would never become a very efficient way of powering helicopters. Gas turbines (jet engines that provided power through a driveshaft, rather than thrust) were finally becoming a practical option for military use. With the advent of these new engines, the Army took a long look at what the next generation of helicopters should look like. Just how big should they be? At the same time, the concept of “air assault” or landing troops directly on the battlefied started to form. What was the best way to move troop unit? Should you use a smaller helicopter that could lift a squad? Or would the better bet be to use somewhat larger helicopters that could lift 15-20 men?  Smaller helicopters would cost more in the long run, but losing one helicopter in the assault wouldn’t result in as many casualties. The Army first decided to go with the larger helicopter, of about 20 men. The Vertol Company (later bought by Boeing) provided the Model 107. But the debate in the Army over helicopter size raged on. Some thought that the new UH-1B Huey could be scaled up to carry a full squad. That would handle most air assualt requirements, and still have a relatively cheap helicopter. The Model 107 would be larger than was needed. The other half of the problem was moving artillery and supplies. The Model 107 was just a bit too small for that job. The ideal was to move a 105mm howitzer, its crew, and a load of ammunition all in one lift by one helicopter. Boeing went back to the drawing board. The Model 114 was the result, and was soon bought by the Army as the CH-47 Chinook. And it wasn’t very long before the Chinook found itself in Vietnam, as part of the airmobile 1st Cavalry Division.  With Hueys to conduct the initial assualt, and Chinooks bringing in the follow-on elements and moving artillery, the Army’s pattern of air assault missions was set so soundly that it is relatively unchanged 40-odd years later.

But don’t feel bad for the Model 107. Even though it wasn’t selected by the Army, its development continued. Largely because the Marines didn’t have a lot of space on the Navy’s helicopter carriers, they were forced to go with  a somewhat larger helicopter. And the Model 107 fit the bill perfectly. They bought it as the CH-46 and operate it to this day.

Early Chinooks had engines of about 2,200 horsepower each. This was very quickly upgraded to about 2,600hp each. And improvements didn’t stop there. The rotor blades, rear pylon design, and transmission were all upgraded through the A, B, and C models to improve performance.  In the 1980s, the design was again refreshed, with attention focusing again on more horsepower, but also greatly improved avionics and better reliability, resulting in the CH-47D. Many “D” models were conversions from older models, but there were also quite a few new built airframes. These were delivered up until 2002.  And right about the time the last “D” model was delivered, the work on the latest model moved into high gear.

The newest model, the CH-47F is really an old model. While there will be some newbuild airframes, most will be remanufactured CH-47Ds. And since most of the “D” models were remanufactured earlier models, there will be some airframes well over 30 years old that will be expected to soldier on for another 20. Because of this, a large part of the program will be rebuilding them to make them easier to maintain, reducing vibration, making sure the components don’t have any fatigue issues, and making any issues easier to detect. Improvements in the avionics will include updating the instruments to the latest common “glass cockpit” standard, as well as building in the cabapility of operating in the Force XXI digital environment, which is the Army’s version of a battlefield internet.  Not surprisingly, the Army is going with more powerful engines as well. The latest version of the Chinook engines put out almost 4,900 hp each. The Chinook has gone from a useful load of 7,000 pounds in its early days, to over 21,000 pounds in the “F” modeland the new models are faster. Think about that. How many of us are faster and stronger now that we’re over 40?

By now, you ought to have figured out that the ‘hook is a pretty capable helicopter. Lots of other folks have reached that conclusion as well. Very few other nations have the same air assault capability that we do, but having a few heavy lift helicopters around is handy for them as well. Several other nations, notable Great Britain, the Dutch, and the Japanese have bought various versions of the Chinook. When Great Britain attacked to recapture the Falklands in 1982, they lost several Chinooks aboard the Atlantic Conveyor. Their one remaining Chinook was put to work, doing the job of several helicopters. In one instance, instead of carrying its normal load of 55 troops, the sole Chinook lifted 105 fully loaded troops. There are several tales of Chinooks in the Vietnam war carrying over 100 people (though usually lightly loaded Vietnamese civilians). I’ve been in a Chinook with about 40 other people- I can’t imagine just how crowded it was with over 100.

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that without  the Chinook, the Army in Afghanistan would be crippled. Many of the smaller outposts can only be reached by helicopter. Given the high elevations and hot weather there, Blackhawks, normally very capable birds, struggle to carry a useful load. The Chinook, with its greater power, is able to support these high/hot outposts.

With the new “F’ models just beginning to come into service, we can expect this long serving veteran to serve for as much as 30 more years.

Mind you, we’ve scrimped on discussing the gunship version, or the several special operations versions. But here’s  a last look at the bird for you.

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Filed under Afghanistan, army, ARMY TRAINING, infantry, iraq

Range Time

One of the things about the Army I disliked the most was its ability to take one of life’s more enjoyable activities, shooting, and suck just about every scintilla of pleasure from it.  Endless, repetitive safety briefings, rodding the barrel on the line, clearing again and again, unrealistic scenarios, uncomfortable firing positions (seriously, every range worldwide uses the same uncomfortable gravel- what’s wrong with grass?), rodding off the line, brass and ammo checks.

Life fire maneuver events were marginally better, but still less than they could have been. Sometimes because of range geography, maneuver was severely constrained. Other times, the risk aversion was so high, it led to unrealistic maneuver, reinforcing bad habits, rather than good training.

One of the big risk mitigation techniques back before the current wars was an absolute ban on any kind of fire while standing or moving. While troops did this all the time using blanks or during force on force training, it was utterly verbotten during any sort of live ammunition event.

Of course, that silly restriction has changed as the reality of warfare has led to changes in training.  But because teams often fire while moving, intense training has to take place.  The three big rules of firearms safety don’t go away just because you are headed for combat.

If you have a large enough area, it doesn’t take a lot to devise a useful close combat range, at least for small elements, from individual to team sized.

I find it interesting that the teams are composed of members from all services. I’m not knocking the other services, but defining teams by service would seem to decrease friction, and speed training. But that’s just me.



Ammo Shortage

Pinon Canyon Maneuver Training Site was (and is) a large tract of land in southern Colorado that the Army uses to train brigades in the field. A modern heavy brigade or Brigade Combat Team takes up a lot of space, and there is only so much land in the US that the Army is allowed to go charging around on with tanks and other tracked vehicles. Unlike the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, PCMTS is solely a maneuver area. There are no live fire ranges. Gunnery with live ammo has to be practiced elsewhere.

But the ecology and archeology of the area is quite fragile. As good stewards of the land it is responsible for, the Army goes out of its way to ensure as little damage is done as possible. Any fuel or oil spill calls for immediate and fairly drastic mitigation measures. Tracked vehicles can’t be moved if there is any rain or the soil is damp, to prevent rutting and soil erosion. Great care must be taken to not hit any of the pinon trees with vehicles, or otherwise damage them. Parts of the terrain are off limits because of their historical or archeological value.  Fire prevention and suppression is stressed, as grassfires can quickly spread across the dry terrain by even the slightest breeze, leading to soil erosion.

Accordingly, before any brigade actually enters the maneuver area, all troops are assembled in the cantonment area for a briefing, delivered by a nature and wildlife conservation officer.

So there we were.  One hundred Bradleys, 50 tanks, and another 400 pieces of rolling stock, and 5000 soldiers, every one of us armed to the teeth.

As we sat listening again to the caution that anyone damaging a pinon tree would be fined $500, my gunner noted the irony.

“Sergeant, did you notice that out of the five thousand and one people here, the only guy with live ammunition is the civilian park ranger?”




Believe it or not, during operations in the field, Army men don’t just run around willy-nilly doing whatever they want. They all actually are working according to a plan. It may be a good plan, or a bad one, but it is a plan nonetheless.

After 237 years, the Army has come up with a few ways of organizing the chaos of battle. Orders are one of the primary methods of doing that.

When a civilian hears the word “orders” they tend to think of an NCO telling a Private to drop and give him 20 or take out the trash or something. In an administrative sense, to “come down on orders” means to be transferred to another posting.  But in organizing and controlling operations in theater, “field orders” are the commanders method of control.  Cribbing from other armies, using its institutional knowledge, and a smidgen of common sense, the Army has set up a template for orders to ensure that units have the information needed, no important information is left out, and that errors in communication are minimized.  These templates, these field orders, control the lives of soldiers.

There are three primary types of field orders:

  1. Warning order
  2. Operations Order
  3. Fragmentary Order

Let’s take a brief look at each one.

—————————————————————————————————The Warning Order

The Warning Order (WARNO) is just that- a warning to subordinate units that an operation is forthcoming, and preparations must be made.  A brief description of the current tactical situation is given. Then the mission to be ordered is announced. For instance,  3/8 CAV attacks along Axis Anvil to destroy enemy reinforced mech infantry co. vic. Hill 781 NLT 031545Z NOV  12  to ensure passage of 3BCT/1CAV. Any special preparations the unit needs to make should be listed, and the time and place where the actual operations order will be issued is given.


The Operations Order

The Operations Order is the meat and potatoes of planning in the Army. It’s the way a leader tells subordinates what is is he wants them to do.  From a squad leader planning a patrol, to Eisenhower invading France, every operation in the Army is planned using the Operations Order or OPORD. To make sure leaders hit all the high points, a standard template of the OPORD has evolved, a 5-paragraph format that the lowliest Private and the 4-star General both understand.

  1. Situation
  2. Mission
  3. Execution
  4. Sustainment
  5. Command and Control

Let’s take a slightly more in-depth look at the OPORD

1. Situation

Paragraph 1, Situation gives an overview of what the current tactical situation is. 

First off is Task Organization. For any given mission, most units will have teams or units attached or detached. Task Organization spells out just who will be attached or detached.

Next up is Enemy Situation. Who is the enemy? What is their strength? What operations do they have planned? What are they trying to accomplish?

Next is Friendly Forces- What is the mission of the next higher headquarters? For instance, 3/8 CAV, a part of the 3rd BCT of the 1st CAV Division, needs to know what brigade is up to.  What is brigade trying to accomplish? An overview of the situation of the other units of the brigade also follows (and if the units alongside are from another brigade or division, you need to know what they’re up to also, if only to avoid running into them).Lastly, what units are providing fire support? Is it just the organic mortars in the battalion, or is the Direct Support Artillery battalion available? Or are there even more artillery units available? How about close air support? We’re not talking yet about the specifics of what they’ll provide, just which players are in the game.

2. Mission

The mission paragraph of an OPORD is the 5W’s. The who, what, when, where, and why of the order. Remember this sentence above?

3/8 CAV attacks along Axis Anvil to destroy enemy reinforced mech infantry co. vic. Hill 781 NLT 031545Z NOV 12 to ensure passage of 3BCT/1CAV

Let’s break that down into English for the civilians and folks like URR that struggle with jargon.

Who?  3/8 CAV -The 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.

What?  attacks along Axis Anvil to destroy enemy reinforced mech infantry co. vic. Hill 781 – The phrasing “to destroy” tells the unit that there objective isn’t Hill 781. By saying “to destroy” that says the key element is the enemy force, not the terrain. Had the order said “to seize Hill 781” that would mean the objective was to gain terrain. Here, our unit needs to key off the enemy force, rather than the terrain.

Where? Along Axis Anvil.**

When? NLT 031545Z NOV 12 . “No Later Than 3:45pm (Greenwich Mean Time) on the 3rd of November, 2012. Other units are on a timeline as well.  3/8 CAV has to launch its attack on time.

Why?  to ensure passage of 3BCT/1CAV-  The who, what, where, and when only tell a commander what he must do. The why tells the commander what he must accomplish.  There’s a little reading behind the lines involved here. While the commander of 3/8 CAV has been assigned the mission of destroying an enemy mech infantry company, the whole point is, the brigade commander is trying to pass the rest of the formation through an area. If 3/8 CAV destroys the company, but there is still an enemy unit or other reason that the brigade can’t pass, that tells the 3/8 commander his work isn’t done. If 3/8 CAV seizes Hill 781, but there’s no enemy company, the work isn’t done. The mission is to destroy that company. Conversely, if he can’t destroy the company, but can suppress it enough to allow passage of the brigade, well, that’s good enough.  3/8 CAV wasn’t assigned the mission of destroying the enemy company just to be bloody minded. The whole point is to allow the brigade to pass.

3.  Execution

Paragraph 3, Execution, is the “how” of the order.  The first part of paragraph three is the Commander’s Intent. The CI is unscripted, but is basically the end-state the commander desires, and explains the whole point of the operation and his vision for how the mission will be accomplished.


a. Concept of operations.

This is where the order actually describes how the mission will be conducted. The concept is detailed through each of seven providers of combat power. 
(1) Maneuver

The direct fires and  movements of a units organic and attached assets have to be synchronized in time and space. This subparagraph is often lavishly detailed via maps and graphics, to help visualize how the operation will unfold.

(2) Fires

Planning for indirect organic and supporting mortar, artillery and air support fires is a key element for any operation. Planning includes preplanned missions, prioritizing which subordinate units will get support, and listing the priority of unplanned targets. There are almost always more potential targets than tubes to  support a mission, so prioritizing helps ensure the most critical targets are hit, and support isn’t wasted on non-essential targets. URR will get around to writing in depth on the planning process one day. At my level, it was generally quite simple. At the battalion and above echelons, it becomes quite complex.

(3) Reconnaissance and Surveillance

Virtually every debacle on the battlefield the Army has ever suffered has been a result of poor reconnaissance/surveillance, and its partner intelligence. There’s an old German saying: “Time spent on reconnaissance is never time wasted.”  In fact, while R&S is detailed in the actual order, usually, almost as soon as the Warning Order has been received, the Scout Platoon is put to work.  The battalion may augment that effort with additional platoons from the maneuver companies, or with support from the Brigade Combat Team’s cavalry squadron, or UAV support. The most obvious goal of any R&S plan is to locate the enemy forces. But that’s only  a portion of the job. R&S also has to determine if the maps of the area are accurate. Are the roads trafficable by the unit’s vehicles? Are bridges still standing? Will they hold the weight of the unit vehicles? Are there any roads washed out? Has the enemy emplaced obstacles or minefields? The R&S effort is the reality check that the Operations Order relies on to ensure the plan is based on the real world.

(4) Intelligence

Intelligence is a two way street. Higher echelons will provide information and support (such as communications intercept teams) to our notional battalion. But our unit commander and higher echelons also use combat to generate intelligence. In addition to detailing what support the unit will receive, this sub-paragraph details the specific information units need to gather.

(5) Engineer

Engineer support is always critically short. There are always more tasks than engineers. By prioritizing which mobility, counter-mobility and force protection measures are critical, the limited engineer support can be prioritized to best support the mission. For instance, in our notional attack, engineer support would likely be focused on breaching any minefields or anti-tank ditches encountered. 

(6) Air Defense

Obviously, in the two wars of the 21st century, our troops haven’t had to focus much on AD. But if we didn’t have air superiority, this sub-paragraph would describe passive measures, such as camouflage, and active measures, such as Stinger missile teams, to limit the ability of enemy airpower to inhibit our own operations. 

(7) Information Operations

To be honest, we never had to deal with information operations in my day.

b. Tasks to maneuver units.

While the concept of operations described the overall scheme of maneuver, this tasking gives specific tasks to each of the subordinate companies and any independent maneuver platoons. For instance, Company A may be tasked to seize a hilltop short of the objective, and attack by direct fire, while Companies B and C are tasked to conduct the actual assault on  Hill 781.

c. Tasks to combat support units.
(1) Intelligence (2) Engineer (3) Fire Support (4) Air Defense (5) Signal (6) NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) (7) Provost Marshal (8) PSYOP (9) Civil military.

Similarly, specific jobs for each of these areas are detailed. Some will be routine, and addressed by the unit’s Standard Operating Procedure, but other taskings, particularly in engineering and fire support will be detailed every time.

d. Coordinating instructions.
(1) Time or condition when a plan or order becomes effective

(2) CCIR (Commander’s Critical Information Requirements)

(3) Risk reduction control measures

(4) Rules of engagement

(5) Environmental considerations

(6) Force protection

Much of this will be under the unit SOP, but for successful operations, the devil is often in the details. 


Sustainment is the term to cover all the logistical and administrative needs to keep the force in the field. Some are obvious issues, like getting fuel, food and ammo to the force. Others are less immediately obvious, like how to recover vehicles that are damaged or broken down. At the battalion level, much of this is standard operating procedure. But at higher echelons, where operations tend to be planned for a longer period of time, the plan has to be crafted in somewhat greater detail. For instance, a theater commander will have to concern himself with things like providing laundry and shower services, as well as replacement uniforms. Even providing support for payroll services has to be addressed. Troops may not have a lot of options for spending money, but they still want to be paid.

a. Support concept.

b. Materiel and services.

c. Medical evacuation and hospitalization.

d. Personnel.

e. Civil military.

5. COMMAND AND CONTROL (formerly Command and Signal)

Command is an art. Much as a painter can be taught to a certain level of competence, so to with command. But superlative command takes an innate, native ability. Fortunately, in most instances, the average level of competence is sufficient. Control is a science. It is the set of tools a commander uses to effectively conduct command.

a. Command.

Where will the commander be during the operation? Where will the other key leaders be? If there are casualties in the command group, what is the line of succession?

b. Control.

A large part of this section comes from the Signal Operating Instructions, which lists the frequencies to be used by each unit. A heavy battalion has several radio networks. The command net, the admin/logistics net, and the intel net. Further, the battalion also communicates with higher headquarters on their nets. Each subordinate company has its own radio net, as well as each platoon. This doesn’t even address the data networks that all units use now. Other control measures can also be used, such as pyrotechnic smoke and flares. Graphical control measures on the map are also, by used.

The Five Paragraph Operations order is “scaleable.” The basic format is used from the rifle squad to the highest echelons. Obviously, the higher you go, the more detailed the order. At platoon and squad level, the order is often given verbally (though every evaluator in the Army wants to see EVERY soldier write down, at a minimum, the mission statement and commanders intent).

The order is also something of a matroyshka doll. From our notional battalion operations order, each company commander will extract his mission and specific tasks, and write his own operations order for his company. His platoon leaders will then take that order, and write their own. In theory, so would each squad leader, but as a practical matter, platoon and squad orders tend to be repeats of the company order.

One great example of this series of orders coming from on high down to the lowest level is the invasion of Normandy. Every level of command, from the Allied Expeditionary Headquarters down to individual squads had their own, specific orders, with the lower orders all acting like a series of bricks to build the structure of the entire allied operation.

Since each subordinate needs to craft his own order, the rule of thumb is that a leader should use one third of the available time to craft his order, leaving two thirds of the time for his subordinate echelons to craft theirs, and prepare for the operation. Sadly, this is often honored more in the breach. But good staffs know to get as much information as possible to lower echelons as soon as possible to let them prepare as much as possible.

The final order format is the FRAGO, or Fragmentary Order.  When a change of mission occurs, or the situation on the ground changes, and the time doesn’t allow for the full order planning process, a fragmentary order is issued. It has no set format, though commanders are encouraged to use as much of the Operations Order format as feasible. It may be verbal or it may be written. At a minimum, it should contain the 5 W’s of the mission statement, and if at all possible, a commander’s intent.



*as opposed to other possible missions such as defend, or occupy, or conduct a movement to contact

**”Axis Anvil” is an example of a “graphical control measure.”  Units are given areas marked by boundaries, within which they can move. To control the movement of units, routes, axes, objectives and other arbitrary lines are drawn on the map. These measures are then given arbitrary code names. Axis Anvil might be the general flow of a valley, for instance. “Route Cinnamon” would be a specific road or pathway. They’re “graphical” in that in the age of paper maps, they were drawn on the map with grease pencils. Today, they’re computer graphics overlaid on a computer map.


Filed under ARMY TRAINING, infantry

Into the Box

So, friend of the Blog Esli is headed to the National Training Center today.  Rotations to NTC were a fixture of life in stateside heavy brigades during the 80s and 90s. The missions might vary a bit from rotation to rotation, but the basic template was the same. Show up, draw equipment and prep for about half a week, spend a week and a half “in the box” fighting against the resident OpFor (Opposing Force), then spend another week and a half doing live fire maneuver on NTC’s massive range complex, then finally spend a few hectic days struggling to turn in equipment before returning to the home station.  The original paradigm for NTC was very much a reflection of the times. The mission sets very closely matched the mission of stateside heavy units to deploy to Germany, draw pre-positioned sets of equipment, and roll into battle with the Warsaw Pact.

NTC has long been the capstone maneuver exercise for brigade sized elements. To be honest, at the combat arms squad sized level, troops didn’t really get much out of it. But for battalion and brigade staffs, it was an all to rare opportunity to actually put into play the techniques of planning and executing combined arms operations. For the logistical and supporting elements of the parent division, it was often the only chance in a training cycle they had to actually conduct their missions under actual field conditions. 

The cost of moving 5000 or so soldiers, and putting them in the field for almost a month is quite high. So the Army, from Day One, strove to get as much value from the training opportunity as possible. Stealing ideas from TOPGUN and RED FLAG, they fielded a dedicated aggressor force (the aforementioned OpFor).

Further, most home station training is evaluated by that units own chain of command, with umpires and evaluators coming from sister units, but ultimately graded by that brigade’s parent division. Yes, a commander has a responsibility to evaluate the training of his subordinate units. But an outside “reality check” is also a good idea. So the NTC has a cadre know as the O/C’s, or Observer/Controllers. Every element of the brigade down to the platoon has an O/C assigned. Each O/C has successfully performed the role which he is evaluation. *

Another aspect of NTC is that the whole thing is wired for sound. And video! Long before the Army even thought of networking vehicles into an internet environment with tools like Blue Force Tracker and FB2C2, every combat vehicle “in the box” at NTC was tracked, most of the movement was videotaped, and key radio networks were recorded.

After every mission, came the AAR or After Action Review. Going out and doing a mission has training value. But the AAR was where the real lessons learned came from.  Each unit would gather with their O/C, and review what it was that was supposed to happen, and then what really happened. And because the whole mission had been recorded, trying to BS your way past your shortcomings and failures was virtually impossible.

You:“I never got the order to move to the flank!”

O/C: “Let’s roll tape!”

Tape: “Move to the flank, roger!”

You: **facepalm**

The goal isn’t to make you look stupid (though it often does) but rather to show weak spots and trends that need improvement. Occasionally, you’ll even see what you do well.

NTC also strives to sow stress and confusion. Combat is stressful and confusing, and NTC has long tried to emulate that as much as possible. The deck is almost always stacked against the visiting team. If you do well on your first missions, they’ll just make later ones harder. The yardstick isn’t so much how many times you defeat the OpFor, but how well you demonstrate the ability to plan and conduct operations under the stress of battle.

NTC isn’t static. The demise of the Warsaw pact saw changes in the way NTC structured rotations (eventually, anyway) making the threat scenario better reflect the geopolitical reality. And during the war in Iraq, as Heavy Brigade Combat Teams rotated into an insurgency torn country, the traditional model was set aside and the BCTs were faced with missions that reflected as closely as possible the operations and threats they would actually face on the ground. Iraqi villages and roadside bombs, meetings with local nationals and supporting host-nation security forces were the order of the day.

But heavy BCTs aren’t being used in Afghanistan, and the Army needs the capability to face any threat, be it an insurgency or a near-peer mechanized maneuver force. Accordingly, recent rotations, including Esli’s current one, will return to a more force-on-force paradigm, while still including the lessons learned from a decade of war.


*At the platoon level, the O/C is usually a Sergeant First Class with successful experience as a platoon sergeant, rather than an officer. After all, an SFC with 15-20 years in the Army is likely to be a better judge of tactical competence than a Lieutenant with 18-20 months of experience as  a platoon leader.



Saturday Tactics Lesson

Lot’s of M-14 goodness here.




It is officially winter. And it’s cold. Many of us* will brave bitter, freezing weather this year. And we’ll bundle up in warm clothing, and head from our heated homes to our heated cars to our heated offices.

One of the physical challenges soldiers face in the field is that the exposure to cold weather is unrelenting.  Hours, days, weeks of unceasing exposure to the cold. Warm clothing becomes far more than a matter of comfort, but an essential for mere survival, much less functionality.

Designing warm clothing that is durable and light has long been one of the greater challenges for armies. For centuries, the best insulator for clothes was wool. It was relatively lightweight. It was warm, and it was still somewhat effective when wet. In fact, right up through the mid 1980s, virtually all cold weather clothing in our Army was still woolen.  Starting on the eve of World War II, thick heavy woolen greatcoats fell out of favor, and the concept of layers of clothing came into use. The most iconic piece of cold weather clothing from World War II was the M1943 Field Jacket. It was a short jacket of a sturdy cotton duck, but could be worn with a woolen liner.


Soldiers in winter face two different threats, the cold dry environment, and the cold wet environment.  The Army designed  clothing ensembles for both environments.  While the two ensembles were distinct, both used as many common components as possible. Further, each could be tailored to the specific temperatures encountered.

The challenge of the cold dry environment is extreme low temperatures, such as in the Arctic, high in mountainous regions and glaciated regions. Ice and powdered snow abound, along with continuously below freezing temps. The cold dry ensemble started with wool long johns, then the basic combat uniform. The field jacket and matching field pants (and their respective liners) were next. Finally, a hooded, lined parka and matching lined wind pants formed the outer layer. Accessories such as mittens with woolen liners and a pile cap and face mask helped isolate the wearer from the cold. One of the most difficult things to keep warm is the soldier’s feet. The answer there was the “Mickey Mouse” boot.  These were heavy rubber boots that could be inflated. This air pocket between the foot and the cold worked much like a Thermos bottle or dewar flask. The air was a poor transmitter of heat, and thus a good insulator. Wool socks and oversocks meant that feet might not be toasty warm, but frostbite was unlikely.

The cold wet environment is actually the more challenging of the two to deal with. Nothing degrades the insulating properties of clothing like water. Once a soldier gets wet, he will be almost impossible to keep warm. The cotton of the basic combat uniform is almost worthless when wet. And even wool suffers badly when wet. Further, wool takes unusually long to dry.

Once again, layering was key to the cold-wet ensemble. Woolen long johns, the basic combat uniform and the field pants and field coat, with or without the liners, formed the insulating portions of the outfit. Over this, a rubberized cotton or nylon rain parka and rain pants provided protection from wetness. This rubberized rain suit was waterproof, to be sure. But it also trapped in a soldier’s perspiration, and even mild exertion would leave a soldier damp and clammy, and soon quite cold.

Footwear in the cold-wet environment is an especial challenge. The leather combat boot is not waterproof, and soon becomes saturated. Feet subjected to prolonged cold, wet conditions soon develop what is known as “trench foot”.  You know how if you stay in the tub or pool too long and your skin on your feet becomes soft and wrinkly? Take that a couple orders of magnitude higher. Trench foot is both painful, and debilitating, and can easily result in gangrene and even amputation of toes or the whole foot if not caught quickly. Often in the winter of 1944, casualties among US forces were far higher from trench foot than from German actions. But the troops were still casualties, and had to be pulled from the line. One attempt to minimize cases of trench foot was the Shoepack. L.L. Bean produced a boot with leather uppers, and a rubber sole and lower. It provided much better protection against cold wet conditions than the regular leather combat boot.


The Shoepack was pretty good for keeping feet dry, but was impractical for long marches. Also, it was pretty uncomfortable if the weather was warmer. In the Cold War era, the Shoepack was replaced by the standard leather combat boot, and a rubber overshoe, or, if you will, galoshes. 

As textile technology improved, so did the ensemble. Between World War II and the mid 1980s, the major change in the ensemble was the shift from woolen pile liners to nylon shells with polyester batting liners. They were much lighter, provided good insulation, and dried very quickly. This construction was similar to that of the poncho liner.  These relatively small changes still left the Army with clothing technology that would not have been too amiss during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

But the mid-1980s were a boon time for outdoor sports, and the explosive growth of companies like Nike and others led to great strides being made in textile technologies. The Army was fairly slow to adapt them, but eventually, synthetic fibers and fabrics came to play ever greater roles in field clothing.

Around this time, the Army finally took the leap and introduced an entirely new cold weather clothing system, ECWCS (pronounced “ick-wicks), or Extreme Cold Weather Clothing System).  No longer could clothing be a uniform, it had to be a system! But the ECWCS really was a system, it’s components intended to be used together as a whole. It has three layers. First was a set of long johns made from polypropylene. Lighter and quicker drying than wool, they tended to be more comfortable as well.  Next was a deep pile polyester trousers and coat undergarment known as “bearskins” from their brown color and thick, shaggy appearance. This deep pile provided great loft and insulation, and dried quickly. The outermost layer was a a shell consisting of a parka and trousers. The parka and trousers were made of a waterproof, windproof Gore-Tex fabric, with an inner nylon lining. Careful attention was paid to ventilation, so a perspiring soldier wouldn’t overheat.  With appropriate accessories for headgear, footgear and hands, the ECWCS could protect soldiers in temperatures as low as –60F.  It’s waterproof  Gore-Tex outer shell made it suitable for use in the cold-wet environment.  Variations of the ECWCS are still the primary cold weather clothing system in use today.


But despite untold millions in research dollars spent developing the system, it’s actually rarely used as intended. Look at the layers above. What’s missing? The basic combat uniform, either the BDU or today’s ACU.

In fact, most of the time, troops don’t need the full ensemble. The long johns are handy and popular** The bearskins are simply too thick and warm for most environments, and don’t fit under the combat uniform. They’re too fragile to serve as outer garments. But the parka, almost universally referred to simply as a “Gore-Tex,” is pretty much the standard jacket Army wide. But because it was designed to work in concert with the other layers, it has virtually no insulating properties itself, nor can it accept a simple button-in liner like the M-65 field jacket did.  So most troops slip either an old field jacket liner or other warm weather gear under the jacket of their uniform.

One of the nice things about the Army not generally appreciated by the civilian population is that there is a wide latitude given to troops when it comes to boots and clothing accessories. You can get by well enough on what the Army issues you, but if you want to buy something better, as long as it meets certain guidelines, that’s perfectly fine as well. And in the days when the Army still wore black boots, in cold weather regions, it was a very rare troop that didn’t own a pair of Matterhorns. *** These boots were far more water-resistant than the issue boot, had insulation, and were far warmer, suitable for the cold wet environment and still compatible with the rubber overshoe if more waterproofing was needed.  Similarly, most guys kept the D-3A leather glove and wool liner at home, and bought black insulated ski gloves.

And while I describe the Army as switching to the ECWCS in the late 1980s, in fact, it wasn’t so simple.  As Organizational Clothing, it was only issued to those units that were likely to be deployed in cold weather conditions. Further, the changover wasn’t instantaneous. Some units would still issue the older ensemble for well over a decade after the ECWCS was first introduced. In fact, I was never issued the ECWCS, despite serving in Germany and Colorado, both quite cold environments. But the parka, at least, was offered for sale, and authorized for wear, almost from day one at the Clothing Sales store on post. So I bought one right away, back in 1989. ****

The Gore-Tex pants weren’t offered for sale, but they were authorized for wear, so I ponied up an outrageous sum of money and ordered a pair from US Cavalry and had them shipped to Germany.

During peacetime, even with relatively robust budgets, the Army tends to spend its procurement dollars on big ticket items. One of the effects of a shooting war or two, however, is to show shortcomings in individual clothing and equipment. Commanders at relatively low levels have been given much greater freedom (and budgets) to get the equipment they need for their soldiers.  Virtually every piece of individual clothing or equipment worn by soldiers has been replaced or upgraded or significantly modified since 9/11. The cost is relatively minor compared to, say, buying an aircraft carrier, but the improvement to the soldier’s lot has been great.

But no matter the improvements in clothing, the infantryman will still find himself cold and wet and tired. Just  maybe not as bad as his forebears.

*Well, not me. I’m in Southern California. Bitter cold weather here is overnight lows in the 40s.

**and flammable, unfortunately. I’ve heard that troops have gone back to woolen long johns to avoid having melted polypro stuck to them.

***I see they’re now marketed under the Corcoran brand, but back in the day, they were Matterhorns.

****I bought a LOT of snivel gear. I hate the cold. And I snivel a lot.


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