“An army, like a serpent, goes upon its belly”
— Fredrick II, King of Prussia
Ensuring troops are well fed (and fed regularly) has remained a consistent challenge since the beginning of military history.
In fact, the problem of creating a satisfactory Field Ration has never been completely solved. Rather, it represents an evolving compromise between the needs of the military, the needs of the troops, and the needs of the war they are fighting.
For an example, just look at the development of the U.S. Military Field Ration.
Eating on the Move
In the dark days of the American Civil War, hungry Union troops relied on the best rations the existing food preservation technology could provide: salted pork, hardtack, and desiccated vegetables. These materials were often pitched into a communal pot where they formed a hot, sticky, gray goo.
It’s no surprise these soldiers often took to crime…conducting clandestine raids on civilian populations in search of fresh meat, grain, and other foods not reduced to mush.
While some canned (or “tinned”) rations were experimented with in the Civil War, the technology reached widespread use just in time for the United States’ entrance into World War I. Troops were first introduced to the Reserve Ration. Soldiers were issued a variety of menu options such as beef stew, salmon, sardines, and pork and beans.
Canned field rations continued into World War II, with the introduction of the C Ration. Soldiers were given separate “M” units (main meal) and “B” units (bread/dessert). Cans had slightly more variety, but still suffered from weight issues, packing issues, and ease-of-use issues. The large, cylindrical cans were designed to be easily stacked in a kitchen cabinet, not in a soldier’s rucksack.
These large cans were bulky and hard to pack, and the problem would only get worse as modern warfare continued to favor small-scale operational mobility over large-scale battles in fortified positions.
The Packing Problem
The main advantages of canned rations appealed primarily to military quartermasters, not the troops who were stuck eating the meals.
Properly stored canned food could last decades in a storehouse. It could be manufactured in staggering quantities to achieve cost-saving economies of scale and stored for future actions. Sturdy cardboard boxes, filled with rugged olive-drab painted aluminum cans, could be stacked high and used to maintain supply lines when war broke out.
As long as those meals could still deliver calories when needed, other aspects of the end-user experience could be mostly ignored.
Vietnam presented a highly-mobile defensive war, where troops were deployed to far-flung corners of Vietnam by helicopter. Patrols moved through the heavy jungle, across varied and inhospitable terrain, only to be picked up again at the end of the mission again by helicopter.
In their backpacks, they were expected to carry their own food. 3 square meals of the Vietnam War Field Ration (the MCI, aka Meal Combat Individual) weighted almost 8 lbs., and was comprised of 12 different-sized metal cans of food.
The cans weren’t just heavy. They took up a startling amount of space, made packing inefficient, and created an alarm-raising amount of noise if 2 cans came into contact. Troops improvised by stripping rations down as much as possible, throwing out anything unnecessary. To silence clanking cans, innovative troops threw them into socks and hung them from the outside of their backpacks.
Towards the end of the war, bulky rations were on the way out.
Troops stuck with the most important missions saw a new ration, the LRP: Long Range Patrol ration.
Weight was vastly reduced in 2 main ways: First, eliminating metal cans and switching instead to vacuum sealing, and secondly removing as much water as possible by freeze drying. These soft, flexible, plastic punches of food could be thrown into a backpack without wasted space, without noisy clatter, and without extra weight. Troops just needed to add their own water and heat, and a nourishing meal could be prepared.
Enter the Modern MRE
Today’s MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) takes a lot of lessons learned from the LRP in meeting the needs of mobility in modern warfare.
All components of an MRE are wrapped in thick plastic. Meals are pressure-treated, heat-treated, and vacuum sealed. While a typical MRE might weight 18 to 26 oz., the weight of total packaging is about 5-6 oz. Unlike the LRP’s, entrees in the MRE system aren’t freeze-dried. Instead, as the name implies, they are ready to eat right out of the bag. An included heating element can be used to add warmth to the food…a potentially morale-building psychological benefit, but when necessary the meal can be consumed with no preparation of any kind.
While the packaging is light, the durability requirements of the MRE means these meals are no softies. Current U.S. military specifications require that packages can withstand parachute drops, shorter non-parachute drops, and broad temperature extremes from -60ºF up to 120ºF.
The standard MRE contains a main entree, desert, bread item, various spreads, various powdered beverage mixes, accessory pack, seasonings, coffee powder, plastic eating utensil, and more. Each item is sealed in its own bag, and the design of the MRE allows the user to cut the bag open, sort through the contents, and re-build the MRE to contain only the items essential for the mission ahead.
If space is an absolute premium, just the entree alone will weight far less than the total pack, while also carrying the large majority of the calories.
Besides portability and durability there’s one additional problem area MRE planners have attempted to address: the meal choices. The enemy of any MRE menu is familiarity…people naturally get sick of eating the same things everyday. While this problem is still far from licked, the United State Defense Logistics Agency currently uses a rotating list of 24 different MRE Menu choices to try to keep things at least a little fresh.
Steve1989MREInfo – Certainly the bravest and most compelling MRE reviewer on Youtube. Steve has sampled historical and current field ration offerings from around the world, and saved the videos for your enjoyment.
Meals, Ready-To-Eat – The U.S. Army’s official page on MREs.
Remembering C-Rations – A Vietnam Vet remembers the ups and downs of the Vietnam-era Field Ration