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US soldiers in midst of equipment revolution

09 october 2011, 18:21
Kevlar underwear, enhanced night-vision goggles and portable solar panels: the US military is seeing a gear revolution, thanks to the lessons learned during 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, AFP reports.

The M4 rifle remains the basic firearm of the American GI, but the addition of many gizmos now makes the soldier look more like Inspector Gadget than GI Joe: the typical gear kit includes 73 items, from clothes to weapons.

Program Executive Office Soldier, the military unit responsible for inventing and producing army equipment, says some items are designed to better protect soldiers on the ground, while others help them understand the terrain.

Since 2004, every soldier has been issued a bulletproof vest with extra protection panels.

But the increased use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), responsible for more than half the deaths of US soldiers in Afghanistan, has led to the development of new protective gear.

Over the next two months, "tens of thousands" of Kevlar outergarments to protect the pelvic area will be sent to US soldiers in Afghanistan, according to Colonel William Cole, who is part of the PEO Soldier unit.

"It protects soldiers if they step on an anti-personnel IED. It can really mitigate their injuries," he told reporters.

The protective outergarment is worn over the soldier's fatigues.

Soldiers in Afghanistan also will have a Kevlar undergarment, similar to a pair of biker shorts, which helps protect them against infections caused by dirt and stones kicked up in a blast.

"When you keep the wound area clean, you prevent follow-on infections," Cole said.

To combat the frequent traumatic brain injuries suffered by troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, which doctors say often lead to cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, helmets are being tricked out with sensors.

"When a soldier is caught in an IED event, we will be able to immediately download the data from his helmet to determine what kind of impact the helmet got to help the medical community correlate that to what kind of brain injury he might have," Cole said.

Colonel Stephanie Foster, the program manager for the unit's Soldiers, Sensors and Lasers project, expresses her pride in the new "Individual Gunshot Detector" system, which will help soldiers locate hidden snipers.

"You can wear it on the shoulder or other parts of your equipment," Foster said of the IGD sensor, 5,000 of which are already being used on the ground.

"Basically you have the ability to have counter-sniper situational awareness. With its acoustic device, you'll be able to get the range and direction of the incoming fire."

For night-time combat, modern armies have the upper hand over insurgents thanks to night-vision goggles. The new-generation eyewear, which is just reaching the field, will allow troops to more easily detect enemy fighters.

Other gadgets in the works -- like the lightweight Joint Effects Targeting System -- will allow soldiers to use a laser target to guide an air strike.

The US military currently uses a laser designator weighing several kilos (pounds) which is mounted on a tripod.

The use of too many electronic gadgets can be cause for concern.

"When you're in an hostile environment, how do you recharge your batteries?" wonders Bill Brower, a deputy project manager, displaying a box as big as a pack of cigarettes.

"It's basically a power manager. With it, I can take power from virtually any source. If I come across an old car battery, I can plug this in."

If there are no power sources around, soldiers can always use a portable solar blanket covered with mini-solar panels, which can be used to charge up a small computer.

By Mathieu Rabechault

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