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ABCNews.com March 25, 2003

Seeing Through Sandstorms

Technology for Desert Warfare

By Ned Potter

- The modern military, they say, can fight anywhere. But sand does slow it down.

"The American military has always known it has to plan for bad weather," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org and an ABCNEWS consultant. "This isn't the first time they've encountered bad weather at a bad time, and unfortunately it won't be the last."

So today, even though troops were blinded and helicopters sat useless in the blowing sandstorms, the campaign in Iraq continued - from miles overhead.

American spy satellites have been devised to see through storms in a variety of wavelengths. U-2 reconnaissance planes fly over Iraq at altitudes of more than 70,000 feet.

Photographic Detail

In addition, the Air Force has upgraded its E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, known as "Joint STARS." It is actually a military version of the Boeing 707 commercial jet, extensively modified with modern radar and other sensors. Many of them are shrouded in a 24-foot-long housing under the forward fuselage. Depending on its mission and altitude, it can scan up to 20,000 square miles at once.

"It sees movement, and it sees it down to such detail that sometimes they can tell a tank from a truck, for example," said former Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, the air commander for Operation Desert Storm in 1991. "It almost looks like a photograph. It's very high detail."

Based on such intelligence, cruise missiles can be launched from ships and high-altitude bombers. The missiles navigate with help from the satellite-based Global Positioning System, so they can find their targets, regardless of whether those targets are visible.

"It really doesn't matter whether there's smoke, clouds or sandstorms, you can continue to identify and attack targets regardless of weather conditions," said analyst Pike.

Slow Going

But for all the technology the U.S. brings to the battle, ground action has to slow when one simply cannot see very well. American and British troops have largely stayed in place during the current sandstorm, some of them trying, however uncomfortably, to catch up on sleep.

"Our guys have to move very carefully, we just can't blow our way through places, because we don't want to kill civilians," said Horner. "They're going to have to see what they're shooting at, and they just can't go at the same speed they can when they can see a long way."

So it's been slow going. But in another day, forecasts say the skies over the battlefield should clear.


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