With the recent budget cut announced for 2020 defense spending, there’s one thing I know from my years in the Marine Corps: our troops need all the protection they can get against a set of threats that grows more menacing every day, from IEDs to urban warfare and extreme weather conditions.
Combat gear must now be stronger and more durable than ever, to protect yroops from threats without hindering their mobility or adding an excessive — and potentially dangerous — amount of weight to troops’ loads.
Times have changed from when our grandfathers went to battle — and even since I joined the Marine Corps back in the mid-1980s. Today, our troops need access to the strongest, most reliable equipment to face these new challenges and safely protect our nation.
That means investing in the highest quality equipment available — gear that is extremely durable, yet will not add substantial weight to soldiers’ loads during grueling days. As equipment manufacturers seek to address the new and changing threats that soldiers encounter in modern war zones, they are increasingly turning to new materials made from petrochemicals to better protect from head injury, ballistic threats and blunt impacts. And thanks to the lightweight and incredibly strong polymers they create, petrochemicals are playing an increasing role in lightening soldiers’ loads on the battlefield and keeping them safe.
From the Enhanced Combat Helmet made with bulletproof polyethylene that is 40 percent stronger than Kevlar to the futuristic shear-thickening fluids that will further disperse the force of an incoming bullet, advanced materials made from petrochemicals are everywhere — and their role in protecting soldiers is expanding every day. The clothing that operators now wear is a blend of tough, high-tech polyester and cotton. Boots are made using polyurethane and very tough nylon, both of which are made from petrochemicals. Body armor is typically made from Kevlar, and polycarbonate lenses are used almost universally in protective eyewear.
The imperative for manufacturing stronger gear is clear, yet the need to lighten soldiers’ loads goes far beyond making their lives a bit less strenuous during intense missions. Lightweight equipment is increasingly becoming a medical necessity. An Army Science Board study from 2001 noted that weight carried by soldiers can decrease mobility and may ultimately increase injury and fatigue — and any soldier or Marine who has experienced a long day in a full load knows it’s no small task. The study recommended that no combatant carry more than 50 pounds for any period of time — a goal that Army leaders hoped to achieve by 2010.
Yet according to service-provided data, the typical total load in 2016 for Army and Marine Corps ground combat personnel averaged about 119 pounds and 117 pounds, respectively, of which the primary combat gear represented about 27 pounds. Another report found that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to carry an average of 119 pounds apiece — and as a result, one-third of medical evacuations on the battlefield from 2004 to 2007 were due to spinal, connective tissue or musculoskeletal injuries. That figure is twice as many injuries as were sustained from combat.
The long-term implications for these injuries are significant. Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans are increasingly facing diagnoses of degenerative arthritis, cervical strains and other chronic musculoskeletal injuries. From 2003 to 2009 alone, the number of retired Army soldiers reporting musculoskeletal injuries increased tenfold. Annual disability benefits paid for these injuries by the Department of Veterans Affairs already exceed $500 million, and that figure is expected to grow each year as more veterans apply for compensation.
The writing is on the wall. We need strong gear able to resists bullets, blunt force, and the wear and tear of modern warfare. Yet this gear must become lighter — and fast — if we hope to best protect our soldiers. The lightweight, advanced plastics created with petrochemicals can check both of those boxes — a feat that most other materials simply cannot do.
Faced with a decreased defense budget in 2020 — and a budget that will likely remain fixed over the next five years — we must not cut corners when it comes to the protection of our soldiers. We must continue to invest in high quality materials that are strong and durable, yet lightweight enough that they will not cause undue injury to the women and men risking their lives for our country.
This Veterans Month, I salute all persons who have served in our armed forces — and I ask that our legislators continue to invest in the heroes actively sacrificing for our country each day.
Jim Cooper is a senior petrochemicals adviser at American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and a veteran of the Marine Corps.