Soldiers on the move in small units need a shelter they can set up quickly, use as an operations center and still get a good night's sleep, Army researchers say.
A project is underway to give soldiers a solution, one that infantry soldiers have already put to the test.
The Small Unit Sustainment System is in development at the Army's Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.
The system can support soldiers for three days as a self-sufficient facility without needing to resupply fuel, according to Ariana Costa, program integrator for Natick's Expeditionary Basing & Collective Protection Directorate.
The system, called SUSS, is a set of two shelters that can be transported in two trailers towed behind a Humvee, Costa said.
When it is set up, which takes eight soldiers less than an hour to do, SUSS becomes a tactical operations center with heating and cooling, a generator, solar panels, LED lighting and a portable shower and latrine.
SUSS is designed to sleep about 10 soldiers in a billeting shelter stocked with their sleeping bags and gear, and it can sleep about three soldiers in the TOC shelter, which also contains tables and equipment.
Soldiers would have sleeping bags rather than cots because of the expeditionary nature of the system, Costa said.
For short missions, the system is intended to solve a capability gap.
"SUSS can be used for any type of mission in which shelter, power and environmental control are required," Costa said in an email to Army Times.
SUSS is well suited to missions that need an expeditionary command post, for example, or humanitarian and disaster relief operations, researchers say.
It needs only a few soldiers to set it up, ideally four to eight working together.
The group using SUSS for a mission "could be smaller than a squad," Costa said.
Getting some rest
One of the key benefits of the system is giving soldiers a place to lie down and sleep, and get cleaned up. That's good for performance, health and morale, researchers say.
"When an Army unit goes out in the field and they don't have shelter provided for them, they provide their own and will sleep in vehicles in inclement weather," Jay Kopp, NSRDEC equipment specialist, said in an Army release. He speaks from experience; he was in the infantry for 23 years.
"If you don't take care of yourself in the field with proper rest and the ability to maintain proper hygiene, you're hurting yourself and your ability to do your job, which impacts the entire unit," Kopp said. "As a soldier, you have to keep yourself in the fight, and this system helps."
The system is also designed to handle extreme temperatures, from minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit to 120 degrees. In addition to environmental control units, SUSS packs heaters for extremely cold weather.
Soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division gave the system a try, working with Natick. They used it in several exercises and situations to compile feedback for the project's technical team.
They set it up, used it, took it apart and then told Natick what they liked and what they would like to see improved.
"It gives the unit all the capabilities of a large TOC kit but with a small package," said Sgt. Maj. Kalep Perez Gonzalez in the Army release. "No other tent system has a way to control the lights, ECUs, from the same place. I think as a small TOC kit for an expeditionary unit, the SUSS has no equal."
Natick provided Army Times with some of the feedback from soldiers:
What soldiers liked
* Quick set-up time, simpler than other shelters the unit has worked with.
* Battery backup saves fuel consumption.
* TOC box to control the lights, ECUs, etc., from the same place. No other system has that feature, according to Natick.
* LED light strips save installation time by packing in the liner instead of separately.
* Labels and color-coding.
* Two ladders, included with the system, make set up easier.
* Double-purpose tables for trailer roof and inside TOC, saving space.
* Dividers for privacy, although men and women weren't sleeping in the same shelter.
* Internal air duct doesn't take up space within the TOC.
* Closet provides clean storage space.
* Shade fly provides connection between tents, and can be used as a work and repair space, like when an ECU broke down and was fixed out of the rain.
* Hoist made taking ECUs on and off the trailer easy and safe.
* Stake puller used for removing stakes and grounding rod.
Improvements they suggested
* Add fuel gauge to accurately show how much fuel is left.
* Add covers for ECU duct holes to protect units during transport.
* Change to waterproof zipper instead of Velcro, which is difficult to connect, especially with gloves on.
* More bags for latrine.
* Improve window by allowing it to open without rain coming in.
* Adjustable ladder.
* Improve tables to be lighter (currently requires four soldiers to remove from trailer) and prevent rippling from expansion/contraction of plastic in the heat.
* Add electrical outlet to billet box.
* Closet Velcro needs to be stronger to secure it to inside of shade fly.
* Smaller window length, as it takes two people to roll windows up.
* Tarps/covers to protect trailer during transport.
* Add drain holes in the ECU to prevent future short of transformer in case of water leakage; improve weatherproofing of ECUs.
* Integrate lights into TOC liner.
Before the system can be fielded, there are a few more steps to take.
The soldiers' suggestions will be incorporated into the system when additional funding is found, Costa said.
Natick is searching for a transition partner for the project, and, with additional funding, there's a potential to contract for producing improved prototypes, she said.
"Our current plan is to leverage the feedback from this design into future expeditionary basing systems," Costa said.
Kathleen Curthoys is editor of Army Times. She has been an editor at Military Times for 20 years, covering issues that affect service members. She previously worked as an editor and staff writer at newspapers in Columbus, Georgia; Huntsville, Alabama; Bloomington, Indiana; Monterey, California and in Germany.