WASHINGTON -- As official Washington argues over the spiraling price of the war in Iraq, consider this: Outfitting a soldier for battle costs a hundred times more now than it did in World War II. It was $170 then, is about $17,500 now and could be an estimated $28,000 to $60,000 by the middle of the next decade.
Captain Eric Orsini wearing field gear during training in World War II. The cost of his gear was about $170. U.S. Army
"The ground soldier was perceived to be a relatively inexpensive instrument of war" in the past, said Brig. Gen. Mark Brown, head of the Army agency for developing and fielding soldier equipment. Now, the Pentagon spends tens of billions of dollars annually to protect troops and make them more lethal on the battlefield.
In the 1940s, a GI went to war with little more than a uniform, weapon, helmet, bedroll and canteen. He carried some 35 pounds of gear that cost $170 in 2006 inflation-adjusted dollars, according to Army figures. That rose to about $1,100 by the 1970s as the military added a flak vest, new weapons and other equipment during the Vietnam War.
Today, troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are outfitted with advanced armor and other protection, including high-tech vests, anti-ballistic eyewear, earplugs and fire-retardant gloves. Night-vision eyewear, thermal weapons sights and other gear makes them more deadly to the adversary. In all, soldiers today are packing more than 80 items -- weighing about 75 pounds -- from socks to disposable handcuffs to a strap cutter for slashing open a seatbelt if they have to flee a burning vehicle.
Sgt. William Randall, a spur candidate with C Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, packs up his equipment. To uniform and arm Sgt. Randall currently costs about $17,000--100 times that to equip a trooper during WWII. U.S. Army
Several items were added since 2002, when troops in Afghanistan complained that their equipment was outdated and not best suited to the new campaign. Still, newer gear is just around the corner.
Between 2012 and 2014, officials want troops to have head-to-toe protection, a weapon that can shoot around corners so soldiers don't have to expose themselves to their enemy and a helmet-mounted 1.5-inch computer screen showing maps of the battlefield.
Drawings of the gear -- some parts already in prototype and in the field -- look like futuristic "Master Chief," the human super-soldier who battles aliens in the popular sci-fi video game Halo. Researchers prefer to call it "the F-16-on-legs concept," a nod to U.S. fighter jets.
The wide range in price -- an estimated $28,000 to $60,000 a person -- is partly because not all troops will have all of the equipment. Some of it, such as a planning tool, is only for unit leaders. The ensemble makes the soldier a highly protected "walking computer hub" who can send out and take in information such as maps showing where all friendly and enemy forces are arrayed, said Dutch DeGay, equipment specialist at the Army's research and development center in Natick, Mass. "Your tax dollars at work," he said.