As a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, I take great pride in acknowledging my comrades in all services during this week, in which both Veteran’s Day and the Marine Corps Birthday are celebrated. I’ve been looking forward to this year in particular because AFPM is allowing me to give a specific shout-out to Special Operations. From Marine Recon, Scout Snipers and Raiders, to Navy SEALS and Army Special Forces, to Air Force Search and Rescue, operators are an integral part of modern warfare, achieving astonishing results in the most dangerous situations. Operators are a unique breed that, because of operational security, are rarely recognized for their contributions to this country.

Back in the day, during the mid-1980s, I found myself entering a brand new world that changed my life forever. After graduating from the Defense Language Institute in Persian-Afghan Studies, I allowed myself to be talked into joining the new Marine Corps Radio Reconnaissance unit that had just formed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Over the years Radio Recon has worked with just about every other special operations unit in the US military, as well as many Special Ops units from other NATO countries.

One of the most interesting things about my unique professional career has been the occasional crossover of skills and knowledge acquired over many years of eclectic experiences. For example, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I was fortunate enough to be part of an industry team that helped the U.S. Department of Homeland Security develop new approaches to identifying and protecting chemical plants that could potentially be used as terrorist targets. Because of my military training and experience, in addition to my knowledge of chemistry and hazardous materials, people have actually let me get involved in things of which I had never dreamed.

These days I get to talk about petrochemical building blocks that are used to make many essential products. That’s why I asked our folks if I could dedicate this particular blog to our Special Ops. Whether it’s insertion on a fast rope, parachuting from a helicopter, an over-the-horizon insert on a Zodiac, extracting on a Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction (SPIE) rig or protecting our warriors, the petrochemical industry has provided the raw materials to bring high-tech special operations to the next level.

Let’s begin with the petrochemicals used to make the items worn by operators, such as uniforms and body armor. Protection and mobility in hostile environments are paramount. Everything on an operator’s body must be lightweight, pliable and able to withstand the harshest physical environments. The clothing that operators now wear is a blend of tough, high-tech polyester and cotton. That polyester is made from building block petrochemicals like ethylene and benzene. Boots are made using polyurethane and very tough nylon, both of which are made from petrochemicals. Helmets and body armor are made from Kevlar, which is made from a petrochemical derivative called aramid fiber. Newer advances in body protection include a special type of high-tech material called Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene. Research is now underway using nanoparticles suspended in a special type of plastic liquid made from petrochemicals, which will revolutionize not only body armor, but also the anti-ballistic panels used in vehicles.

Now, let’s turn to tactical insertions and extractions, which means getting operators where they need to be, very quickly and very safely. Vehicles used to deliver and remove operators are vulnerable because they usually go deep into hostile enemy territory. Air insertions are especially dangerous because aircraft are vulnerable to missiles and small arms fire. A short insertion time is of the essence and requires the use of a simple, yet strong and effective means of getting from a helicopter to a landing surface, so the helicopter doesn’t have to land. Fast ropes are thick, synthetic fiber ropes that special operators literally slide down (like sliding down a fire pole) when a situation calls for extreme speed and does not offer an area for a helicopter to land, such as inserting on a tall building in an urban environment.


Credit: Johnny Dao/Shutterstock

A technique used to extract operators by helicopter, without landing, employs SPIE Rigging, which is another type of thick, synthetic rope with clasps to which operators hook specialty harnesses for the purpose of being lifted by a helicopter and flown suspended to a safe landing zone outside of hostile territory. Both the fast rope and SPIE Rigging are made from synthetic fibers because of their superior strength; chemical, UV and water resistance, and their light weight. The most common materials for insertion and extraction ropes are aramid and polyester fibers, which both use ethylene and xylene as petrochemical building blocks. Most harnesses are also made from polyester.

Another way to tactically insert behind enemy lines is by parachute. Parachute canopies are typically made from rip-stop nylon. Harnesses and suspension lines are also nylon. Propylene, butadiene, benzene and xylene are the building blocks that can be used to make different types of nylon.

For Navy SEALS and Marine Corps special ops units, a common method of insertion and extraction is by rigid inflatable boat. One such brand is Zodiac, which is a term often used to generally describe the boats used by operators. There are several different materials used to make these boats, all of which use petrochemicals as building blocks. During the 1980s a popular material was Hypalon, which was used with neoprene for the inflatable tubes. Both use ethylene as a building block. PVC fiber was another alternative and that too uses ethylene as the starting material. Newer boats are using polyurethane, polyester and other advanced fibers, which use ethylene and xylene as building blocks.

When it comes to equipment, I could go on for days naming all of the advanced materials that are used in vehicles, aircraft, electronic equipment, weaponry, etc., which use petrochemicals as building blocks. Everything you see around you that isn’t made from metal, plant fiber or wood is made from petrochemicals. A great deal has changed since my days in the Corps; however, the bonds formed among operators last forever.

AFPM salutes our veterans and gives a special shout-out to our military’s special operators, many of whom will never be known for their great deeds and sacrifice for our country.

Jim Cooper

Posted by Jim Cooper

Jim Cooper is the Senior Petrochemical Advisor for AFPM. To learn more about AFPM, visit AFPM.org.