March 15, 2004
Mar/Apr 2004 -- Wool's place in the new high-tech U.S. military depends on its adaptability in helping soldiers survive and become more lethal.
"Our job is to help the soldier come home alive," said David Audet, who manages research and development of clothing and individual equipment for U.S. soldiers. "The focus is on the soldier, not the industry, irrespective of whether it's cotton, wool or synthetics. I'll insert something into the system because it improves the system, not because it's a particular type of fabric."
Audet, senior systems integrator in the Individual Protection Directorate at the U.S. Army's Natick Laboratories in Massachusetts, told sheep producers that wool's best current opportunity for use is in the military's legacy items, which are items that are currently in use, and will remain in use, as new items are developed and fielded.
As for the future, wool's success depends on its fit into the Objective Force Warrior Program, the Army's biggest program for the individual soldier, which is looking at everything the soldier wears, carries or consumes.
"We're looking at cutting-edge technology and looking at the soldier as a system from the skin out within a unit of action," said Audet. "We're developing items to increase lethality."
He said textiles of all kinds will play roles as long as they can fill some of these criteria: have a high moisture wicking capacity, provide passive thermal management, stretch, resist flame and provide durability. He called durability the biggest hurdle, noting that his program wants to extend the current durability threshold of 120 combat days to 365 days.
Lightweight components will also have an edge.
"We weigh every element of the uniform, from boots to belts, and our goal is to reduce to 50 percent the average fighting load per soldier," said Audet.
The research and development program is also looking at the printability of fabrics, spacer materials for air flow and fabrics into which communications lines and sensors for automatic wound detection can be woven.
Audet said it may take 20 years to get the objective force warrior program up and running for the entire military, so the wool industry should look for the "huge opportunity for legacy items and legacy systems."