SPECIAL REPORT: Army Researchers Working to Boost Soldier Performance

A researcher monitors oxygen consumption of a test subject at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.

NATICK, Mass. — A push to prepare warfighters for multi-domain battle and conventional warfare has sparked a renewed interest in Army modernization. At the Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts, researchers and scientists are developing supporting equipment and looking for ways to enhance human performance.

Research at the center covers a variety of focus areas, such as nutrition, biomechanics and neuroscience. To help further these studies, the Army is developing the Soldier and Squad Performance Research Institute, or S2PRINT. The building will undergo construction from fiscal years 2020 to 2022 and be open at full capacity in fiscal year 2023.

The purpose of the facility is to help experts conduct multidisciplinary research in one place, said Cynthia Blackwell, project director for the institute. The building will host 11 different labs that conduct different types of performance research in areas such as human systems integration, marksmanship training and neuroscience.

“Right now, those are [spread] across eight different facilities throughout the post, and so the ability to do … multidisciplinary research is not easy,” Blackwell said.

The building includes a combat maneuver lab, which will allow scientists to study soldier performance in a field environment. Warfighters can conduct and plan a mission in the lab, which will also have configurable features, she noted.

“That 18,000-square-foot lab ends up being a 28,000-square-foot lab depending on how it’s used,” Blackwell said. “We wanted it to be configurable. We wanted whosoever will, to be able to come in and do what they needed to do.”

Scientists at Natick also look at ways to improve clothing used in different environments. Adam Potter, a research physiologist at the biophysics and biomedical modeling division at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, said physics-based tools are used to test aspects such as evaporative heat loss.

“We test pretty much everything that a soldier, airman or Marine would wear,” Potter said. For example, the division tested the Army’s new physical training uniforms to see if it would be beneficial for the service to switch from gray to black clothing.

The division has also developed a decision aid that helps users determine the probability that someone will survive when submerged in water, which can be used in situations such as search-and-rescue missions. This is based on “individual physiologic responses, what we know about the environment, and what we know about the clothing,” he said.

Different factors of the scenario, such as the individual’s layers of clothing, can be adjusted in the tool.

“We can make predictions of how long it’s likely that someone will be alive in the water so they can tailor their responses,” Potter noted.

Researchers at Natick also examine nutrition requirements for soldiers in an operational environment.

“We use operational stressors like exercise, sleep deprivation, altitude exposure, exposure to heat, to understand how those stressors affect physiology and therefore affect what you should be consuming,” said Stefan Pasiakos, nutrition physiologist and deputy chief of the military nutrition division in the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.

There are already guidelines for athletes developed through organizations such as the American College of Sports Medicine, but the Army looks to see how various nutrition standards hold up in an operational environment.

For example, researchers are looking to find the best dietary protein requirements for various scenarios, Pasiakos said. These studies examine the amount of proteins soldiers should consume and the right formulation of those proteins’ components.

“There is a general understanding that requirements are likely higher because they’re physically active,” he said. “But it means more to understand what protein requirements should be in the combat rations, and do the way that they consume that dietary protein actually matter at work?”

The findings from the nutrition division feed into the development of food such as meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs, and the close combat assault ration, which are created at the combat feeding directorate.

Julie Smith, a food technologist in the directorate, said her team is working to increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables to soldiers on the battlefield. Researchers have tested out ideas such as incorporating dehydrated fruits and vegetables into smoothies and pouches with spouts, she noted.

“Obviously having a fresh apple is not going to work for the MRE because it has a shelf life of three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit and six months at 100 [degrees],” she said.

They are trying to identify different alternatives to get more fruits and vegetables within the MRE.

The directorate is also making improvements to the close-combat assault ration, which is designed to sustain units for seven days without resupply. By using microwave vacuum drying technology, the service is working to shrink down everything in the package to be light and easy to transport. Many of the foods, such as cheesecake, are shrunk into a bar form.

The Army wants items “that are quick and fast that they can kind of just grab and go and something that [they] can break down and put in their pockets,” said Meg Walker, another food technologist at the directorate.

The close-combat assault ration is more mission-specific, but similar technologies can be used for both rations, Smith noted.

“The goal is to have lightweight, low-volume rations,” she said. The meal-ready-to-eat will never be the same as the close-combat assault ration, “but it can incorporate some of those high calorie components within it,” she added. “We are looking at nutrient density of the MRE, but our purpose of the MRE is a general-purpose ration that’s acceptable by everyone.”

For test subjects, the Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center recruits human research volunteer soldiers who are fresh out of basic training and advanced individual training. Each volunteer goes through a 120-day test cycle, during which time they participate in multiple experiments.

Sarah Ross, human research volunteer coordinator, said researchers like using soldiers who are not already psychologically attached to certain equipment, which could lead to more biased answers.

Upon arrival, volunteers are able to pick and choose which studies they would like to participate in “like a buffet,” she noted. The office of medical support and oversight monitors the research and safety protocols.

The soldiers have to be medically qualified to participate, she said. Many of the studies involve different altitudes and temperatures, and “we know that there are risks,” she added.

The Army tries to recruit research volunteers with a variety of military occupational specialties and genders to gain different perspectives, Ross said. For instance, female soldiers were needed to test different types of underwear paired with a device that would allow them to urinate in the field while standing up.

“Us females of course, when we’re in the field, we can’t just go stand behind a tree like … some of the guys,” said Pvt. Jessica Shaver, who participated in the study.

Shaver said she provided feedback on the cleanliness of the urination tube, noting that it was difficult to take apart and transport without getting dirty.

The service also conducted an experiment to see if certain nutrients could help soldiers heal faster, Ross noted. Scientists used a blister method to ensure that all test subjects’ wounds were the same, she said.

Pfc. Caleb Anaya, a participant in the study, said soldiers were also sleep deprived “to kind of shock our immune systems so that we heal slower so they could see if [a nutrient] actually does speed up the process during stressful situations.”

New soldiers also provide feedback on prototype boots. This year, the Army issued about 800 prototype boots to basic combat trainees at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Another 800 boots were also sent to Fort Bliss, Texas.

Al Adams, team leader for soldier clothing and configuration management, said the service has four prototypes that it developed “from the ground up.”

The current issued boots are “like the Abrams tank of footwear, whereas a lot of people would rather have the sports car — they want to have something lightweight, flexible, comfortable that breaks in easily,” Adams said. The service is focusing on creating new products that are lighter, but still durable. All the prototypes weigh less than the current boots and consist of different materials, he noted.

Researchers returned to the Army bases to gather feedback 90 to 120 days after distributing the footwear. Information on the best attributes of each prototype were used to make recommendations for a new iteration of boots to program executive office-soldier, he said.

“The final product will go to [the Defense Logistics Agency], where they will go to a full contract and potentially replace the issued boots that all trainees receive,” he noted.

Natick researchers also study the soldier from a medical standpoint at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.

“For us, it’s about modernizing the soldier and the human,” said the institute’s commander Col. Sean O’Neil. “And modernizing in a way that enhances performance and … optimizes the ability of the soldiers to perform on a battlefield.”

The Army is working on ways to improve soldiers’ performance in multiple environments, he noted. The service is preparing for a future in which it envisions troops working in smaller groups within dense, urban environments.

Warfighters will need “a different way of thinking about how health care is going to be provided on a battlefield,” he said.

“There will be more prolonged periods of time where buddy aid and first-level care will be provided … before we’re able to evacuate soldiers or evacuate someone who’s injured or ill off of the battlefield,” he noted.

One of the institute’s fields of study includes physiological status monitoring, a technology area which has also been improved in the commercial sector. However, the service hopes to use information such as heart rate and skin temperature to see how it can affect a warfighter’s operational performance.

“It’s trying to understand what that data means to a leader, to a medic and to a soldier and how that data can be used to enhance performance,” O’Neil said.

One of the institute’s focus areas includes soldier performance in extreme environmental conditions. As the United States looks to become a larger player in the Arctic region to counter Russia and China, researchers will examine ways to ensure that warfighters are able to operate effectively in cold temperatures.

“We’re directing some of the resources we have in that direction right now,” O’Neil said. “We’re currently going through a cycle in which we’re defining those requirements and then aligning the resources appropriately. … I see us in the near future investing more funding towards cold weather research as that particular requirement starts to emerge.”

The institute is able to study effects in different environments with technologies such as its hypobaric chamber, which allows researchers to simulate different altitude exposures.

Nisha Charkoudian, a research physiologist, said the chamber was one of the tools used to produce a cell phone application that enables soldiers to monitor and make rough estimates on their susceptibility to altitude sickness. By plugging in different factors such as activity levels, the Altitude Readiness Management System can provide predictions on how soldier performance will be affected at different altitudes, including how much slower they will move.

“We know that everyone’s always going to be slower when they’re at altitude because there’s less oxygen in the air,” Charkoudian noted. For example, an average person who would need an hour and 45 minutes to finish an activity at sea level may need two hours and 25 minutes to finish that same activity at a higher altitude before they acclimatize.

The application became available on the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command Application Gateway last year, she noted.

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