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It doesn't happen often, but today it has. US troops, serving alongside British forces in combat, have looked enviously at the kit furnished to our boys and girls and demanded that the Pentagon get off its ass and buy them similar stuff.

More normally, things would be the other way around.

The kit in question is the armoured underpants which are now issued to all our troops in Afghanistan. Standard UK body armour is vastly improved from what it was just a decade ago, and has saved many lives in the years since, but until last December it still left the groin unprotected.

This meant that a high proportion of the fatal or dangerous injuries seen from bombs, bullets etc were now in the pelvic area: furthermore, soldiers – as they tend to do with any official kit which they deem lacking – began to buy various kinds of supposedly protective garment themselves.

In normal times, the Ministry of Defence wouldn't have moved to sort things out with any great speed, but significant extra funds can be extracted from the Treasury for anything related to Afghanistan using a special fast-track procurement procedure.

Thus it was that as of last December, servicemen and women headed for Helmand province began to be issued with special armoured underpants. According to the MoD:

Using cutting-edge science and technology developed by the MOD and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the underwear is manufactured from scientifically-tested ballistic silk material that provides an initial level of protection to mitigate against the effects of blasts, including shrapnel.

Troops routinely operating "outside the wire" are also being issued with something a bit more substantial than "ballistic silk" cycle pants. The real combat personnel who venture beyond heavily fortified base perimeters also get a more substantial protective pouch which can be rolled up and strapped to their belt for greater mobility – or at times of danger velcroed into place between the legs to protect the wedding tackle and groin in general.

Something still sturdier is in the works for use by those at especial risk of being blown up – for instance the "Vallon man" of each team, sweeping ahead of his mates with a metal detector.

All this – especially the underpants – has aroused envy in the breasts of the US Marines, serving alongside our forces in Helmand. This has led American officers at Camp Leatherneck (the Marine HQ, co-located with Blighty's Camp Bastion) to issue an urgent buying order for the same underpants bought by the MoD. Major David O'Hearn, formally justifying his decision not to hold a competitive bid process, writes:

Ballistic underwear is currently being used by British forces in Regional Command South West and they have significantly less injuries to the genital and perinea areas... this is the only source that provides the antimicrobial double-weave silk undergarments that have been battlefield tested.  Through our research we discovered no other source that provides a battlefield tested undergarment.

The major intends to spend some $2m on 27,500 sets of pants from the same supplier as the MoD – Cooneen, Watts and Stone of Northern Ireland.

It would appear that the actual protection effect of the pants is relatively small: the cleverness of them is more that their silver-thread weave kills microbes, which not only keeps our troops fresh but helps to prevent wounds becoming infected. Similarly, silk fibres don't get carried into a wound in the fashion that cotton, wool or other fabrics might – foreign objects in a wound, especially a gut wound, are a major source of problems in treatment.

Some of this was discovered long ago – naval officers in the Napoleonic Wars were advised to wear expensive silk next to their skin in combat if they could possibly afford to, as it was known that this would mean a better prognosis should they be wounded.

In any case, it's nice for once to see British troops ahead on a matter of kit – rather than borrowing from the Yanks as has so often been the case before. ®

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