Polartec's Alpha Fabric Is Tough Enough for U.S. Special Ops

The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) must operate under conditions that are much different from a general outdoor enthusiast. Unlike a skier or mountain climber who is typically engaged in those activities for enjoyment, and can progress at his or her leisure, the U.S. Special Ops are involved in time-sensitive and often dangerous missions.

As such, they cannot stop and put on layers, or shed layers, due to changes in the weather, especially as they are usually wearing body armor and load-carrying harnesses, and do not have the luxury of stopping to take them on or off. It's a scenario that calls for a highly versatile garment that can adapt to changing external and internal conditions.

"U.S. Special Operations is always looking for game changing technologies to enhance the battlefield efficacy of our operators who have to be able to work effectively in any global environmental extreme," says a spokesperson for USSOCOM.

One of the ongoing challenges in creating garments for cold-weather conditions is developing materials that are breatheable yet also moisture-resistant. Typical puffy garments that require "down-proof" or high-density woven layers create a vapor barrier that, although it works well in static conditions, traps moisture inside the garment during even minimal activity.

Typically USSOCOM leverages commercially off-the-shelf technology, but in seeking a solution to this problem it approached Polartec, working with the company in the upfront development of a new form of insulation that would be 1) lightweight; 2) packable; 3) breathable; 4) weather resistant; and 5) warm. One of the particular challenges of many recent deployments has been the high heat garments are subject to in storage facilities in overseas field environments prior to being deployed to colder/higher altitude environments. USSOCOM was seeking an insulation that would not be affected by this high heat, and it also wanted to minimize the negative effects of laundering.

In developing the new insulation, the team at Polartec pulled together various options that resulted in 18 different construction conceptions, and after multiple lab tests, process trials and "some of the harshest field testing" with the U.S. Special Ops themselves — including jumping in a freezing lake in Kodiak, Alaska, so that their body temperatures plummeted, and then walking until the garments were dry — the knit fabric that is now called Alpha® "proved its worth." It was added to the PCU (the U.S. Special Ops eight-layer Protective Combat Uniform) and is now also being used in commercial applications as well.

Polartec Alpha eliminated the potential of fiber migration, allowing garment makers to use breathable fabric choices. Because of its fabric structure, Polartec Alpha can also be dyed, lending it a unique aesthetic feature that other insulations do not have. Within the ranks of Special Operations Command, Alpha has been a huge success, says USSOCOM's spokesperson.

"Alpha has proven its worth in field trials and now in combat deployments around the globe. It is light, warm, breathable and dries faster than our baseline materials," add the spokesperson. "It has increased the cold weather capabilities of our operators, while reducing weight and increasing the compressibility of our garments using an approach that challenged the conventional thinking of insulation."

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel.

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