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Flame Retardant Uniforms, and Other Issues

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-Article by Mike Kupari

Over the last several years, there has been a push across the services to give troops on the ground flame retardant uniforms. Often, these uniforms are described as providing protection from IEDs, but that's not exactly true. An Improvised Explosive Device is still just an explosive. Many IEDs have utilized conventional ordnance as the main charge, and even homemade explosives don't necessarily produce big fireballs. You're not any more likely to be set on fire by an IED than you are by a land mine, artillery shell, or any other explosive device.

Burns are a wounding factor in explosions, but even with IEDs, the primary wounding mechanisms remain fragmentation and blast. Primary fragmentation is from the device itself, like a hand grenade or an IED filled with ball bearings. Secondary fragmentation, "sticks, stones, and bones", can also cause significant wounds over distance.

Blast overpressure has a much shorter hazardous radius than fragmentation, but can be much more dangerous. Even low levels of overpressure can cause serious damage to internal organs or a traumatic brain injury. Burns can occur from explosions as well, but in many cases if you're close enough to get burned you're already within the hazardous range of the overpressure. Fire-retardant clothing is likely to be torn away by the blast.

That said, many military personnel have suffered horrific burns in the long war since 9/11. Many of these have been caused by vehicles, hit by IEDs, catching fire with the occupants still inside. This is not a new danger, by any means. Air crews and tankers have been wearing fire-retardant coveralls for decades. But the push was made in the last few years to get every American GI on the ground a flame-retardant uniform.

The efforts began by fielding off-the-shelf Nomex flight suits to ground troops. These were available, but there were downsides. They were only available in green or tan, not camouflage colors, and were not designed for infantry use. Simple things like reliving oneself in the field can be complicated by a one-piece uniform, especially for female personnel. The uniforms were heavier than regular fatigues, and hot.

So each of the services pushed for an FR uniform of their own. The Army fielded the FR ACU, originally. The Marines came along with their FROG ensemble. The Air Force fielded the Airman Battle System-Ground as well. Once Army forces in Afghanistan began switching to the Multicam OCP uniforms, it was determined that all of these would be flame retardant.

The standard OCP uniform is made by Propper, of flame-retardant Defender-M fabric. It was adopted by the Army first, then by the Air Force, and is also in use by Navy personnel directly supporting Army units. The Multicam pattern works well in Afghanistan, and the uniforms were a popular upgrade over the ACU.

There have been issues, however. The OCPs have had durability issues. The flame-retardant material, when brand new, looked faded, and colors reportedly washed out quickly. Trouser crotches commonly tore open, and hook & loop fasteners wore out. Such is the nature of wearing a uniform in combat.

The issue of cost arises, then. A flame retardant uniform can cost two or three times as much as a standard nylon/cotton uniform, and in some cases will be less durable. Moreover, in the US military, camouflage fatigues are used as basic utility uniforms more than they're actually used in combat, and a protection from fire isn't necessarily a requirement.

There are several ways that this could be handled. One option is to simply issue everyone a fire-retardant camouflage uniform, regardless of expense. This would reduce the logistical hassle, and everyone's uniform would be combat capable.

Another option is to issue entirely separate garrison/training and combat uniforms. To some extent this is what's happening now. OCPs are typically only worn in Afghanistan, and across all services the flame retardant uniforms are generally not standard issue items. This does create the potential for a logistical burden, if the standard issue uniform is judged to be not suitable for combat use. Many military personnel, Air Force aircraft maintainers or Navy crewmen, for example, will very likely never be involved in ground combat operations. But other personnel from non-combat careers across all branches could find themselves on the battlefield in a contingency situation, and a strong argument could be made that all US servicemembers deserve the added layer of protection that a fire-retardant uniform provides.

What do you think? Should every US military utility or combat uniform be FR, or should the military simply separate combat uniforms from utility uniforms altogether?