What Does ‘Military Grade’ Really Mean?

Lots of consumer products boast of being durable enough for government use. But are they really?
'Military grade' can create confusion.
'Military grade' can create confusion. / Dave Nagel/The Image Bank via Getty Images

Search for the term “phone case” on Amazon and you’ll be greeted with a daunting number: over 100,000 results. You can, of course, narrow it down by color or design, but case manufacturers are also keen on differentiating their products in another way: Claiming their case is “military grade.”

The consumer is left to infer their phone could survive a shelling or chemical warfare—or at least being dropped on the kitchen floor. You can also find the term on everything from vehicles to LED flashlights to baseball bats. But what does “military grade” really mean?

The short answer: Whatever manufacturers want.

Like a lot of vaguely worded consumer product labels, “military grade” can be applied by anyone for any reason. There is no third party—much less the United States government—evaluating it for durability. It’s nothing more than a marketing strategy meant to persuade people into thinking an item is trustworthy enough for military operations.

It’s true there is a military standard developed by the Department of Defense, dubbed MIL-STD-810, which lays out testing protocols for equipment intended for government use. And it’s also true that product manufacturers can apply those protocols to their own products. But it’s by no means mandatory to apply any or all of them. More importantly, manufacturers conduct their own testing. It’s not as though a product has passed or failed a government-supervised inspection. “Military grade” can simply mean it measured up to at least one standard for materials, shock absorption, temperature resistance, vibrations, or other variable. It can also mean someone did no testing at all.

It’s difficult to pin down when the phrase came into widespread use. Ads for a 1990 Sumo home audio component touted “military-grade specifications.” In recent years, Ford has hyped its F-150 truck’s “military-grade, aluminum alloy” body. It’s the same alloy, Ford states, used in some military vehicles.

Writing for Task & Purpose in 2022, author Jeff Schogol argued that a product that strictly adhered to military standards may not be such a good idea anyway. Contracts for simple products are often awarded to the lowest bidders, who may not have an eye on product quality. The result can be a disappointing end-user experience, like sleeping bags that don’t keep anyone warm or earplugs that don’t work.

“For those who have been issued gear only to see it fall apart after the most gentle of wear and tear, something that is ‘military grade’ is ‘a piece of sh-t,’” Schogol writes.

That might be a bit too cynical. Some companies use MIL-STD-810 as a litmus test that results in a demonstrably more durable product. Laptop maker Asus, for example, puts select models through environmental testing that make for a rugged product, though they’re quick to note it “does not indicate a particular fitness for military use.”

When it comes to phone cases, there’s another caveat: While military-style testing might reduce the chances of visible damage, not all companies test for damage to internal components. A case that saves a screen may not save the microphone inside the phone.

In the end, “military grade” holds about as much weight as “space-age materials,” or “world famous.” It’s probably better to focus on the most enduring of consumer slogans: “buyer beware.”

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