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South Florida Sun-Sentinel March 17, 2003

U.S. military's nastiest foe could well be climate

By Robert Nolin

(KRT) - The U.S. military might be the most technologically superior force ever to take the field, yet it could be held hostage to a figurative grain of sand.

If the United States invades Iraq, its greatest enemy may not be the enemy, but rather the environment: unrelenting desert heat, moonlit nights, raging sandstorms. Though military leaders downplay the significance of Iraq's climate on the timetable for war and operations on the ground, independent analysts say that hostile environment may be the ultimate test of the military's training and technology.

Iraq's humid summer is a main concern, with temperatures rising to an average of 84 degrees in April, 96 in May, 105 in June and 110 by July. Trudging across the desert under 40-pound packs in such heat can degrade an army's forces by about 30 percent, said Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies and a former major in the British Royal Army. That means 30 percent more troops must be included among the estimated 300,000 now in place in the Mideast.

"They'll get exhausted more quickly, they'll get dehydrated, they'll take longer to recover," Heyman said from his London home.

Bill Fraser, 35, was one of the sweat-soaked soldiers who endured the Iraqi heat during the first Gulf War in 1991 - and he fought in the cooler winter months. "It takes the energy right out of you," said the former Army helicopter crew chief. "You lived off water. You're drinking over a gallon of water a day."

One analyst said troops in summer may need as much as two to five gallons of water a day.

Top military brass say weather is not forcing a deadline for invasion. "Weather is not a factor," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in January. But good generals hedge their bets, experts say, and consider weather an important ally or enemy.

Weather will force commanders to adjust their tactics, experts said. "One option that's been proposed is that U.S. troops are equipped with night vision equipment and a great deal of fighting is done at night," when it's cooler, said Matthew Baker, chief analyst at Austin, Texas-based Stratfor.com, a military strategy group.

British and American troops prefer night combat, where their more sophisticated night vision affords them an advantage over the enemy. But the enemy must cooperate to an extent by engaging in battle.

The heat won't affect missile or artillery operations, experts said, but will hinder helicopter movement. "The hotter it is, the more difficult it is for helicopters to perform," said John Thompson, a former Canadian Army captain now with the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto think tank. "The air is less dense, so there's less bite for the rotor to get into."

Compounding the heat problem is the MOPP - or mission-oriented protective position - suit to protect the soldier from biological or chemical attack. The 10-pound charcoal impregnated suit traps body heat and can raise temperatures internally by 20 degrees. With a gas mask on, it's tough for the soldier to breathe or even drink - a process that can take up to a dozen movements.

Fighting capability in the bulky suit could be reduced by 50 percent, said www.GlobalSecurity.org, a military affairs organization.

Darren Davila, an Army special operations reservist from Austin who saw action in Afghanistan, is familiar with the MOPP suit, and its drawbacks.

"You're sweating in this suit. You will dry out; you will overheat," said Davila, an analyst at Stratfor.com. "People fall out. This happens pretty commonly."

Apart from the blistering heat, early summer means sandstorm season in Iraq. Fierce winds of sand mixed with rain, called shamals, rage down from the north with gusts of up to 85 mph. One such storm, bearing winds of 50 mph, scoured a U.S. military camp in Kuwait last week.

The sand makes simple movement difficult. It quickly erodes equipment, and weapons have to be cleaned twice a day. "It gets into everything," Baker said. "It wears on engines, it wears on any moving part of any vehicle. It messes with your optics, it will affect laser targeting."

The shamals also cut down on air maneuvers, forcing pilots to rely on instruments rather than sight. "The sandstorms, they'll stop you in your tracks," Fraser said. They also increase the chance of air accidents, experts said.

Moonlight, too, will affect operations. The moon right now is waxing, and will be officially full on March 18, a bad sign for aircraft pilots and foot soldiers. Planes making bombing runs are seen easier during a full or bright moon, and night vision equipment doesn't work as effectively for soldiers fighting at night.

"You don't want a bright moon," Baker said. "A full moon takes away a great deal of the advantage the U.S. has in night vision." A new moon occurs on April 1.

Troops have been trained for hot weather and are expected to perform regardless. "This is what soldiers do, they have to operate in all conditions of climate," said Heyman of Jane's World Armies.

"It's just another thing you take into account," said Bernard E. Trainor of Lexington, Mass., a retired lieutenant general and Marine Corps deputy to the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served in the Gulf War.

And U.S. troops don't have a monopoly on bad weather. It also affects the enemy. Said Davila: "They're in the same shape as you."


Copyright 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel