America’s New Female Combatants Are Getting Custom Gear
The last thing any soldier wants is to get caught in an IED blast. The next last thing any soldier wants is to get caught in an IED blast wearing armor that doesn’t fit right—making her vulnerable to shockwaves, intense heat, and shrapnel. Getting the right fit is imperative, especially now that qualified women are allowed in all front line combat roles.
Oh, you didn’t hear? Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced it Thursday, giving the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force 30 days to begin the integration process. And for women capable of becoming SEALs, Green Berets, paratroopers, machine gunners, bomb squad techs, and other roles, part of that integration means being issued the right gear for the job.
“Each service has their own unique needs in combat gear,” says Major Ranking Galloway, a spokesman for the Department of Defense. And that’s before you get down to X and Y chromosomes. A Navy SEAL’s waterproof body armor is going to look very different from an Air Force Combat Controller’s parachute-friendly padding. Generally speaking, though, everyone needs essentially the same gear: stuff to protect your head, chest, and pelvis.
But a protective vest designed for a man’s broad shoulders and long torso will cut off a woman’s arm circulation as she’s aiming a rifle, and make it difficult to crouch. Even when you aren’t in the heat of battle, poorly-fitting gear can be a deadly distraction. It’s difficult to keep your wits if you’re constantly tugging at your armor straps and waddling like a toddler. In case you need a reminder, a typical woman’s skeleton has narrower shoulders, a shorter torso length, and wider hips than a man’s.
The services already are on top of these redesigns. For instance, the Army started issuing a female version of the Improved Outer Tactical Vest in Afghanistan in 2012. The vest is darted, to fit a woman’s torso more snugly. It’s also shorter, so women can sit without having the thing ride up into their chins. It even has a collar designed so it won’t snag on a hair bun. Similarly, the Marine Corps’ Plate Carrier (a vest that holds armor plates) is shorter, with narrower straps.
Still, this is about much more than making everything smaller. Another critical class of gear protects the pelvis. The Army developed seven sizes of its female-specific Protective Under Garmets to better fit a woman’s hips. Also, no fly.
That’s just the basic stuff. The Army (along with DARPA and several commercial partners) is developing male and female versions of a futuristic full-body combat suit called the Soldier Protection System. The current mock-ups look like Halo-knock offs, and protect solders against flames, chemicals, bullets, blades, microbes, and even spectral spying.
How do they do this? Lots of testing. Every bit is rigorous. That means sizing and resizing, even using lasers to get the fine detail. Then they break up the infinitely different body types and sizes into different groups (you know, L, M, S, XS). Lumped together, those body sizes resemble a bell curve. And when finished, the SPS should fit every woman from the 3rd to the 97th percentile.
So yeah, men and women are different, and the military recognizes that by building better gear. But underneath it all, every soldier is essentially the same: Full of guts.