U.S. Army clothing experts are testing new, extreme cold weather gear that's designed to be lighter, better-fitting and more effective in colder conditions than the current layering system.
This winter, researchers at the Army's Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center in Natick, Massachusetts, plan to field test the Cold Temperature and Arctic System, a prototype system designed to be effective down to minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
The current Gen III Extended Cold Weather Clothing System (ECWCS) -- a seven-level system that offers options from base layers to an extreme-cold jacket and pants featuring man-made high loft insulation -- is designed to be effective at minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but currently performs "probably at the ... negative 40, negative 45 degree range," said Kate Young, a textile technologist with the Soldier Clothing Configuration Management Team at Natick.
"We want to make the system be effective down to negative 65 degrees," Young said, adding that that range often depends on "if a person runs hot or cold," what layers they're wearing and their activity level.
Since the research effort began in 2017, the Natick team has interviewed soldiers about the current ECWCS system, which performs well but could fit better and provide more breathability, she said.
"We went out to locations in Alaska, Vermont and Fort Drum, New York -- all of the cold places where we were trying to get cold-wet and cold-dry areas," Young said.
The effort has produced several prototype garments designed to improve on many of the comparable layers in ECWCS.
"For all of these layers, we are trying to reduce weight, reduce bulk and have improved performance," Young said, adding that the prototypes are designed to integrate better with body armor.
Here is a look at the new prototype layers:
No-melt, no-drip base layer: This layer would be an alternative to synthetic base layers on the current ECWCS. It could "flame up, but at least it won't stick to your skin," Young said.
"Our subject-matter experts from the cold weather areas have made recommendations to us, and one of those recommendations is that they like wool content in a base layer," she said.
Active insulation jacket: "This would be a jacket that has a batting, non-woven insulation ... and it would be encased in outer layer fabric," Young said. "That's kind of a lightweight insulation, and you can be active in it. And it's going to try to move that moisture well if you are active but also keep you warm."
She added that the jacket would be comparable to the Army's field-jacket liner, a favorite of old-timers before ECWCS came along.
Improved soft-shell layers: This jacket and trousers improve on the current soft-shell layers in ECWCS since they feature a fabric that's "more durable and more water resistant and has a little bit of stretch in it," Young said.
"With this uniform, we had a government design, and we incorporated a lot of the feedback on the current system of what soldiers were needing, like extra length to not have a gap when you bend over," she said.
The jacket is longer, the trousers come up higher and the crotch has extra stretch for better freedom of movement, Young said.
Improved waterproof layers: The jacket is designed to fit over body armor and will feature a more breathable fabric.
"This layer definitely has to move moisture well," Young said. "We have evaluated fabrics to look at -- are they lightweight and waterproof and how breathable they are or do we need highly breathable less waterproof ... so that is something we are testing in the lab is the moisture vapor transfer rate."
Better-fitting extreme cold insulation layer: The current thickly insulated jacket and trousers in the ECWCS are popular items, but they could fit better, Young said.
"What we have heard from some of our subject-matter experts at the Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska is they are active for a little while and then they will be static for a while and then they will start moving again," she said. "So, when they are in that static position, they like to throw on the level seven of the ECWCS, and it helps them dry out."
The problem is that, while it will go over body armor, most soldiers can't zip it up, Young said.
"We have incorporated being able to put level seven over body armor," she said, explaining that the jacket will also feature "gussets on the side that zip up and down so you can zip it smaller to fit your body" when not wearing body armor.
Before developing the prototypes, the team evaluated cold weather gear in use by the other services as well as industry's latest offerings, Young said.
"Now, it is time to bring all these layers together and test as a whole system, so that will go out there this winter to soldiers in Alaska and Vermont," she said, adding that there will likely be a third test location as well.
The test will involve 150 prototype systems that will be evaluated by soldiers from January to March, Young said.
When that is complete, the team will gather feedback from soldier surveys and combine it with other test data, so it can be passed onto Program Executive Office Soldier by September 2020, she said.
The effort has involved complementary field testing for every lab test performed, said Al Adams, team leader for the Soldier Clothing Configuration Management Team.
"A lot of the guidance that [Young] got was from user experts, meaning soldiers with exceptional experience and education for cold weather operations at the Northern Warfare Training Center up in Black Rapids, Alaska, and the Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vermont," Adams said.
It's too early to tell whether the prototype system will replace the current ECWCS, he said.
"Really, that is a decision for PEO Soldier to make ... but we will provide a final recommendation, and PEO Soldier will have to determine if they want a whole new system that replaces ECWCS, piecemeal component replacements or have a separate system that's complementary and stands next to ECWCS," Adams said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.