Some of you shared my enthusiasm for the exploratory nature of Adidas' Springblade kicks; others did not (you Cassandras, you). But if there's one area of footwear design wherein innovation of design, durability, comfort and performance are unquestionably crucial, and where marketing is of absolutely no concern, it is in the design of military footwear.
In late 2010, the U.S. Army released a footwear-related design brief, seeking an industry partner to design and manufacture a boot with the following traits:
[We're] conducting a market research investigation for non-waterproof, hot weather mountain combat boots.... [Criteria:]
1.) durable, light hiking-style mountain boot that reduces shock impact while enhancing stability and support to the ankle. These boots, though stiffer and slightly heavier than traditional combat boots, are specially constructed to support movement and stabilize the foot and the ankle over more rugged terrain.
2.) Provides for maximum breathability and water drainage during hot, wet conditions.
3.) Outsoles that provide propulsion and torsional support while allow for breaking and stability while moving down and unstable decline.
4.) Able to keep trail debris out of boot while maneuvering.
5.) Designed to reduce pressure points and discomfort during descents on uneven, rugged terrain.
6.) Prevents blistering during extended use.
7.) Neutral color [such as brown, coyote or olive].
8.) Provide for quick break-in.
9.) Stiff-soled with tread that grips rocky terrain and loose, however flexible enough to remain comfortable for long periods of activity.
It seems no secret that these were intended for Afghanistan. In any case, several manufacturers piped up stating they could manufacture the shoe. In 2011 they began collaborating with Army footwear engineers from the Footwear Performance Laboratory at the Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center.
Ben Cooper, pictured top left, was one of the Natick guys on the resultant HWMCB, or Hot Weather Mountain Combat Boot project. (Cooper is still involved, though he's now a materials engineer for the Air Force.) "Due to Afghanistan's unique climate and environment, [our troops] needed a boot that not only would provide them ankle stability and traction and durability, but they also needed greater breathability," said Cooper in an article on the U.S. Army's website. "It's a balancing act. We were constantly walking that fine line. I think that we have worked with industry tirelessly on trying to make sure that we accomplish exactly what the warfighter wants and needs."
Bob Hall, pictured top right, was also on the project. In the past year 200,000 "phase one" versions of the HWMCB were distributed to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. "(For) the amount of boots that are out there, we've had very, very few complaints," Hall said. What few complaints did come in, however, were incorporated into the design of the "phase two" boot.
"We cherry-picked the very best features on each of the boots, and we provided that feedback to industry," Cooper said. "They responded and provided new solutions, updated solutions."
Three new styles are now being evaluated at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., by units from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, based at Fort Carson, Colo. Each boot is nearly a half-pound lighter than the original mountain boot.
...Industry made the boots more breathable by including moisture-wicking linings, perforating the leather, and inserting textiles wherever possible between the leather and rubber, without compromising stability.
...The goal is a technical specification for a boot that could be supplied by any manufacturer. When it's achieved, said Cooper, it will be because of the "collaborative atmosphere" at Natick.
"I can walk down the hall and speak with the foremost expert in (fire-resistant) clothing and apparel," Cooper said. "I can walk down the other end of the hall and talk to the foremost expert in cold-weather equipment, in mountaineering gear, in footwear.
"I think that's just part of the culture that is here, and I'm proud to be a part of that," he continued. "We were able to leverage all the resources that we have available to us."
This July 4th, most of us Americans will be Stateside, wearing sandals and sitting around a barbecue. For the U.S. troops in Afghanistan wearing the HWMCBs, we know it's no fun being over there, and we know you may never learn Cooper and Hall's names, but there is a design team toiling away at Natick. And they're thinking about your feet.