Friday, November 13, 2015

The Protective Combat Uniform (PCU) History

In 2002, a member of the Special Operations Forces made a call from a crater in the Hindu Kush, Afghanistan to the SOF Special Projects Team at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass: "Send warm clothing."

Unfortunately for that soldier, but representing quite an achievement by the developers, the Protective Combat Uniform (PCU) was delivered, replacing the Lightweight Environmental Protection (LEP) system less than one year later. PCU is a 16 piece, 7 level clothing system that can be worn "layers-appropriate" for the mission, ranging from -50° to 40°F (-46°to 4°C).

The Protective Combat Uniform (PCU)

Instead of finding existing military systems as a starting point, Richard Elder from the Special Projects Team looked to COTS (civilian off the shelf) outdoor gear. After taking recommendations from Master Chief Scott Williams and consulting with extreme alpinist Mark Twight, PCU block 0 was born. Adhering to the Berry Amendmant requiring the DoD to give preference to American produced products, Nextec's Epic, and Malden Mills' polar fleece were utilized. 

ORC Industries produced levels 4, 5 and 6. 
SEKRI produced levels 1, 2, 3 and 7. 

In cooperation with ORC Industries and SEKRI, Natick released the PCU and is replacing the LEP (Light Weight Environmental Protection) which is a 5-level, 7-garment ensemble of clothing for the soldiers. 

The PCU is a 15-piece, 7-level combination designed to protect soldiers in frigid conditions. ORC Industries, a non-profit corporation, produces Levels 4, 5 and 6, while SEKRI produces Levels 1, 2, 3 and 7. Designed in Alpha Green colour, and made of the EPIC fabric by Nextec, the PCU is breathable, stretchable, windproof, and water-repellant protective clothing. In the sidebar of this review, you'll learn more about the PCU Levels as defined by Natick. 

The PCU Level-5 is the “key” to the entire PCU line as it is the shell for the various garments that are included in the PCU specifications. PCU Level 5 soft shell jacket and trousers can be worn with minimum clothing inside, making it an all-weather, and multi-environment clothing set.

Other companies contributing to the military's PCU system include YYK (zippers), Travis (Materials), 3M (insulation and Melody Miller (design).

Even though there are seven layers in the system, it is not expected that on the coldest day you would wear all 15 items and then shed layers as it got warmer. Instead, PCU is most efficient when items are mixed and matched to cater to the anticipated conditions and activities of the operator.

Elder stated that "The key to staying warm is moisture management." The latest Polartec fabrics by Malden Mills insulate and wick moisture away from the skin, while outer garments made with silicone-encapsulated fibers (called Epic by Nextec Applications, Inc.) allow sweat to escape while being highly water and wind-resistant. The idea is to remove moisture faster than you can produce it.

Army Rangers, Marine Force Recon, Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs successfully evaluated the Block 0 uniforms in Alaska in August, 2002. When the Block 1 system was officially fielded in 2006, PCU had been upgraded several times, and a vest was added to the extreme cold level. Any operators in the field between the years of 2002 and 2006 wearing PCU were part of the trial run, and their comments and critiques were incorporated into Block 1.

In 2004 Patagonia introduced their Military Advanced Regulator System (MARS) which includes a number of the PCU levels. They were also rumored to have been the designers behind the current PCU designs.

In July of 2008, ADS and Beyond Tactical announced that they were offering the entire 7-level system in both alpha green and coyote tan in either the complete system or as individual components. On top of providing standard sizing, Beyond Tactical customizes some of the garments to custom fit their customers. ADS also offers a DVD and a pocket guide to describe the PCU components and properly layering the system.

In 2012, Soldier Systems had the opportunity to see the development of the block 2 prototypes and reported on some of the upgrades to the various levels.

Other companies that have in the past or currently manufacture the various levels of PCU include:Blackhawk! Industries, Insport, Patagonia, Propper, Ready One and Steps Inc.

The 16 garments that make up PCU

1. Crew neck silkweight T-Shirt (lvl1)
2. Silkweight boxer shorts (lvl1)
3. Long-Sleeve top (lvl1)
4. Long underwear (lvl1)
5. Long-Sleeve top (lvl2)
6. Long underwear (lvl2)
7. Mid layer jacket (lvl3)
8. Soft windshirt (lvl4)
9. Softshell top (lvl5)
10. Softshell pant (lvl5)
11. Hardshell top (lvl6)
12. Hardshell pant (lvl6)
13. Insulated coat (lvl7)
14. Insulated pant (lvl7)
15. Insulated vest (lvl7)
16. Combat shirt (lvl9)

Ontario Geardo: The Protective Combat Uniform (PCU) History

SSC-Natick Press Release

U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Kansas Street
Natick, MA 01760-5012

Uniform covers 'special' field request

NATICK, Mass. -- Calling from a bomb crater in Afghanistan in the winter of 2002, the Special Forces Soldier had a pointed request for the Special Operations Forces (SOF) Special Projects Team at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.: Send warm clothing.

About one year later, special operators working in frigid battle zones got what they wanted in the Protective Combat Uniform (PCU), an interchangeable 15-piece, seven-level ensemble that can be worn in layers appropriate for the mission.

"He said 'We're cold. You gotta do something to help,'" said Richard Elder, an equipment specialist on the Special Projects Team and project officer for the PCU, recounting the conversation that started the process. "It's exciting that in less than 12 months, the system was fielded into theater. That's never been done before."

The PCU will replace the existing Lightweight Environmental Protection (LEP) developed under the Special Operations Forces Equipment Advanced Requirements (SPEAR), a program to produce modular equipment systems that focus on mission tailoring, enhanced survivability, and enhanced mobility while reducing weight, bulk and heat stress.

The LEP consists of light and mid-weight underwear, medium stretch bib overalls, pile jacket and wind-resistant jacket along with the outer water-resistant shell of the Extended Cold Weather Clothing System parka and trousers. Special operators' other option was to purchase commercial items on their own.

The PCU takes cold-weather gear to the highest level.

"The goal is to give the special operators a system as good or better than anything commercially available and build a system that stays with the commercial market instead of falling behind so you're not getting six-year-old technology," Elder said.

In place of gathering and assessing clothing sold in stores, the Special Projects Team started from scratch. The team consulted with extreme alpinists and outdoor apparel companies, and followed recommendations from a joint panel of special operators to introduce a product the Special Operations community would approve.

"We wanted to make sure we didn't overlook anything. As a system, we wanted it competed nationally," Elder said. "This acquisition model has proven itself to be extremely efficient. To build something in real-time to meet users' needs is how it should be done all the time."

Wearing the PCU is a matter of mixing and matching the gray garments according to the anticipated conditions and activities of the user. Comfort levels range from minus 50 to 45 degrees F, and although there are seven levels of protection, Elder said clothing in each level is not progressively added or removed the colder or warmer the environment.

"We actually get more out of fewer pieces by training the SOF operator how to pack and because of the efficiency of the clothing itself," he said.

He said the key to staying warm is moisture management. The latest Polartec fabrics by Malden Mills insulate and wick moisture away from the skin, while outer garments made with silicone-encapsulated fibers by Nextec Applications, Inc. allow sweat to escape while being highly water and wind-resistant. The idea is to remove moisture faster than he can produce it.

The product also breaks new ground for military protective clothing with anti-microbial fibers, a stretch shell, and a design that functions as a complete system through its seaming, grading and fabrics.

Army Rangers, Marine Force Reconnaissance, Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs successfully evaluated the uniforms in Alaska in August 2002. By the time the uniform officially fields in 2006, the product will have been upgraded several times with another shell system and alternate vest as part of a catalog of components to further adjust to the specific mission. Until full fielding, those who need the uniforms are getting them and are involved in the evolution of the design with their comments from the battlefield.

"They like it. They're taking it as soon as they can get it," Elder said. "It was exactly what they were looking for. They're even wearing it outside of the profile it was designed for. It speaks well to the system that they're even doing that."

Protective Combat Uniform levels

Level 1

A durable, silkweight Polartec Power Dry fabric worn next to the skin wicks away moisture and dries fast. It consists of a crew neck T-shirt and boxer shorts, or is available in long-sleeve top with invisible zipper and pants, built for comfort and minimal weight.

Level 2

A long-sleeve shirt and pants made from Polartec Power Dry fabric are worn next to the skin for extra warmth in extreme conditions, but still wicks away moisture quickly from skin and dries fast. An inserted side panel of Polartec X-Static fabric enhances fit and flexibility.

The top has a front 15-inch zip for extra venting and a soft lining around the collar. Comfort features include an articulated side seam on the pants to minimize chafe on the kneecap.

Level 3

An insulative mid-layer jacket made from Polartec Thermal Pro fabric is water-repellent yet breathable. It is worn as an outer jacket in mild temperatures or as a heavy insulative layer in extreme cold. Seamless shoulders minimize chafe, which are then lined for extra warmth and padding for heavy pack straps.

Level 4

The soft windshirt is made from an encapsulated microfiber that repels water but also breathes for a variety of conditions. It's designed to pair with a next-to-skin layer for intense activity in cooler temperatures or with the Level 5 soft shell as a mid-layer. It stuffs into its own pocket for easy packing.

Level 5

The key to the entire system, this soft shell fabric jacket and pants are made with fibers encapsulated with silicone that are highly stretchable, windproof, water repellant and breathable. They are paired with Level 1 or 2 next-to-skin layers, ready for any cold weather aerobic activity.

Level 6

A lightweight waterproof and coated nylon hard shell is slightly oversized to fit easily and quickly over gear. The jacket features water-resistant zippers and armpit zips for maximum ventilation, pocket openings to quickly access inside layers and a hood that incorporates a stiff brim. The pants borrow the same design from Level 5 but provide waterproof protection.

Level 7

For extreme conditions, this lightweight, loft-insulated level in a jacket, vest and pants has the feel of down but retains its warmth when wet. Silicone-encapsulated fabric sheds water and is paired with Primaloft insulation for maximum warmth while the liner pulls away moisture.

For more information about the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center, please visit our website at

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