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This chapter describes the desert environment and how it affects personnel and equipment.

Section I. The Environment

Successful desert operations require adaptation to the environment and to the limitations its terrain and climate impose. Equipment and tactics must be modified and adapted to a dusty and rugged landscape where temperatures vary from extreme highs down to freezing and where visibility may change from 30 miles to 30 feet in a matter of minutes. Deserts are arid, barren regions of the earth incapable of supporting normal life due to lack of water. See Figure 1-1 for arid regions of the world. Temperatures vary according to latitude and season, from over 136 degrees Fahrenheit in the deserts of Mexico and Libya to the bitter cold of winter in the Gobi (East Asia). In some deserts, day-to-night temperature fluctuation exceeds 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Some species of animal and plant life have adapted successfully to desert conditions where annual rainfall may vary from 0 to 10 inches.

Desert terrain also varies considerably from place to place, the sole common denominator being lack of water with its consequent environmental effects, such as sparse, if any, vegetation. The basic land forms are similar to those in other parts of the world, but the topsoil has been eroded due to a combination of lack of water, heat, and wind to give deserts their characteristic barren appearance. The bedrock may be covered by a flat layer of sand, or gravel, or may have been exposed by erosion. Other common features are sand dunes, escarpments, wadis, and depressions. This environment can profoundly affect military operations. See Figure 1-2 for locations of major deserts of the world, and Appendix A for additional information on desert countries of the world.

It is important to realize that deserts are affected by seasons. Those in the Southern Hemisphere have summer between 21 December and 21 March. This 6-month difference from the United States is important when considering equipping and training nonacclimatized soldiers/marines for desert operations south of the equator.


Key terrain in the desert is largely dependent on the restrictions to movement that are present. If the desert floor will not support wheeled vehicle traffic, the few roads and desert tracks become key terrain. Crossroads are vital as they control military operations in a large area. Desert warfare is often a battle for control of the lines of communication (LOC). The side that can protect its own LOC while interdicting those of the enemy will prevail. Water sources are vital, especially if a force is incapable of long distance resupply of its water requirements. Defiles play an important role, where they exist. In the Western Desert of Libya, an escarpment that paralleled the coast was a barrier to movement except through a few passes. Control of these passes was vital. Similar escarpments are found in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Types of Desert Terrain

There are three types of desert terrain: mountain, rocky plateau, and sandy or dune terrain. The following paragraphs discuss these types of terrain.

Mountain Deserts

Mountain deserts are characterized by scattered ranges or areas of barren hills or mountains, separated by dry, flat basins. See Figure 1-3 for an example of mountain desert terrain. High ground may rise gradually or abruptly from flat areas, to a height of several thousand feet above sea level. Most of the infrequent rainfall occurs on high ground and runs off in the form of flash floods, eroding deep gullies and ravines and depositing sand and gravel around the edges of the basins. Water evaporates rapidly, leaving the land as barren as before, although there may be short-lived vegetation. If sufficient water enters the basin to compensate for the rate of evaporation, shallow lakes may develop, such as the Great Salt Lake in Utah or the Dead Sea; most of these have a high salt content.

Rocky Plateau Deserts

Rocky plateau deserts are extensive flat areas with quantities of solid or broken rock at or near the surface. See Figure 1-4 for an example of a rocky plateau desert. They may be wet or dry, steep-walled eroded valleys, known as wadis, gulches, or canyons. Narrow valleys can be extremely dangerous to men and materiel due to flash flooding after rains; although their flat bottoms may be superficially attractive as assembly areas. The National Training Center and the Golan Heights are examples of rocky plateau deserts.

Sandy or Dune Deserts

Sandy or dune deserts are extensive flat areas covered with sand or gravel, the product of ancient deposits or modern wind erosion. "Flat" is relative in this case, as some areas may contain sand dunes that are over 1,000 feet high and 10-15 miles long; trafficability on this type of terrain will depend on windward/leeward gradients of the dunes and the texture of the sand. See Figure 1-5 for an example of a sandy desert. Other areas, however, may be totally flat for distances of 3,000 meters and beyond. Plant life may vary from none to scrub, reaching over 6 feet high. Examples of this type of desert include the ergs of the Sahara, the Empty Quarter of the Arabian desert, areas of California and New Mexico, and the Kalahari in South Africa. See Figure 1-6 for an example of a dune desert.


Roads and trails are rare in the open desert. Complex road systems beyond simple commercial links are not needed. Road systems have been used for centuries to connect centers of commerce, or important religious shrines such as Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. These road systems are supplemented by routes joining oil or other mineral deposits to collection outlet points. Some surfaces, such as lava beds or salt marshes, preclude any form of routine vehicular movement, but generally ground movement is possible in all directions. Speed of movement varies depending on surface texture. Rudimentary trails are used by minor caravans and nomadic tribesmen, with wells or oases approximately every 20 to 40 miles; although there are some waterless stretches which extend over 100 miles. Trails vary in width from a few meters to over 800 meters.

Vehicle travel in mountainous desert country may be severely restricted. Available mutes can be easily blinked by the enemy or by climatic conditions. Hairpin turns are common on the edges of precipitous mountain gorges, and the higher passes may be blocked by snow in the winter.

Natural Factors

The following terrain features require special considerations regarding trafficability.

Wadis or dried water courses, vary from wide, but barely perceptible depressions of soft sand, dotted with bushes, to deep, steep-sided ravines. There frequently is a passable route through the bottom of a dried wadi. Wadis can provide cover from ground observation and camouflage from visual air reconnaissance. The threat of flash floods after heavy rains poses a significant danger to troops and equipment downstream. Flooding may occur in these areas even if it is not raining in the immediate area. See Figure 1-7 for an example of a wadi.

Salt marsh (sebkha) terrain is impassable to tracks and wheels when wet. When dry it has a brittle, crusty surface, negotiable by light wheel vehicles only. Salt marshes develop at points where the water in the subsoil of the desert rose to the surface. Because of the constant evaporation in the desert, the salts carried by the water are deposited, and results in a hard, brittle crust.

Salt marshes are normally impassable, the worst type being those with a dry crust of silt on top. Marsh mud used on desert sand will, however, produce an excellent temporary road. Many desert areas have salt marshes either in the center of a drainage basin or near the sea coast. Old trails or paths may cross the marsh, which are visible during the dry season but not in the wet season. In the wet season trails are indicated by standing water due to the crust being too hard or too thick for it to penetrate. However, such routes should not be tried by load-carrying vehicles without prior reconnaissance and marking. Vehicles may become mired so severely as to render equipment and units combat ineffective. Heavier track-laying vehicles, like tanks, are especially susceptible to these areas, therefore reconnaissance is critical.

Man-made Factors

The ruins of earlier civilizations, scattered across the deserts of the world, often are sited along important avenues of approach and frequently dominate the only available passes in difficult terrain. Control of these positions maybe imperative for any force intending to dominate the immediate area. Currently occupied dwellings have little impact on trafficability except that they are normally located near roads and trails. Apart from nomadic tribesmen who live in tents (see Figure 1-8 for an example of desert nomads), the population lives in thick-walled structures with small windows, usually built of masonry or a mud and straw (adobe) mixture. Figure 1-9 shows common man-made desert structures.

Because of exploration for and production of oil and other resources, wells, pipelines, refineries, quarries, and crushing plants may be of strategic importance in the desert. Pipelines are often raised 1 meter off the ground-where this is the case, pipelines will inhibit movement. Subsurface pipelines can also be an obstacle. In Southwest Asia, the subsurface pipelines were indicated on maps. Often they were buried at such a shallow depth that they could be damaged by heavy vehicles traversing them. Furthermore, if a pipeline is ruptured, not only is the spill of oil a consideration, but the fumes maybe hazardous as well.

Agriculture in desert areas has little effect on trafficability except that canals limit surface mobility. Destruction of an irrigation system, which may be a result of military operations, could have a devastating effect on the local population and should be an important consideration in operational estimates. Figure 1-10 shows an irrigation ditch.


The highest known ambient temperature recorded in a desert was 136 degrees Fahrenheit (58 degrees Celsius). Lower temperatures than this produced internal tank temperatures approaching 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius) in the Sahara Desert during the Second World War. Winter temperatures in Siberian deserts and in the Gobi reach minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 45 degrees Celsius). Low temperatures are aggravated by very strong winds producing high windchill factors. The cloudless sky of the desert permits the earth to heat during sunlit hours, yet cool to near freezing at night. In the inland Sinai, for example, day-to-night temperature fluctuations are as much as 72 degrees Fahrenheit.


Desert winds can achieve velocities of near hurricane force; dust and sand suspended within them make life intolerable, maintenance very difficult, and restrict visibility to a few meters. The Sahara "Khamseen", for example, lasts for days at a time; although it normally only occurs in the spring and summer. The deserts of Iran are equally well known for the "wind of 120 days," with sand blowing almost constantly from the north at wind velocities of up to 75 miles per hour.

Although there is no danger of a man being buried alive by a sandstorm, individuals can become separated from their units. In all deserts, rapid temperature changes invariably follow strong winds. Even without wind, the telltale clouds raised by wheels, tracks, and marching troops give away movement. Wind aggravates the problem. As the day gets warmer the wind increases and the dust signatures of vehicles may drift downwind for several hundred meters.

In the evening the wind normally settles down. In many deserts a prevailing wind blows steadily from one cardinal direction for most of the year, and eventually switches to another direction for the remaining months. The equinoctial gales raise huge sandstorms that rise to several thousand feet and may last for several days. Gales and sandstorms in the winter months can be bitterly cold. See Figure 1-11 for an example of wind erosion.

Sandstorms are likely to form suddenly and stop just as suddenly. In a severe sandstorm, sand permeates everything making movement nearly impossible, not only because of limited visibility, but also because blowing sand damages moving parts of machinery.


The lack of water is the most important single characteristic of the desert. The population, if any, varies directly with local water supply. A Sahara oasis may, for its size, be one of the most densely occupied places on earth (see Figure 1-12 for a typical oasis).

Desert rainfall varies from one day in the year to intermittent showers throughout the winter. Severe thunderstorms bring heavy rain, and usually far too much rain falls far too quickly to organize collection on a systematic basis. The water soon soaks into the ground and may result in flash floods. In some cases the rain binds the sand much like a beach after the tide ebbs allowing easy maneuver however, it also turns loam into an impassable quagmire obstacle. Rainstorms tend to be localized, affecting only a few square kilometers at a time. Whenever possible, as storms approach, vehicles should move to rocky areas or high ground to avoid flash floods and becoming mired.

Permanent rivers such as the Nile, the Colorado, or the Kuiseb in the Namib Desert of Southwest Africa are fed by heavy precipitation outside the desert so the river survives despite a high evaporation rate.

Subsurface water may be so far below the surface, or so limited, that wells are normally inadequate to support any great number of people. Because potable water is absolutely vital, a large natural supply may be both tactically and strategically important. Destruction of a water supply system may become a political rather than military decision, because of its lasting effects on the resident civilian population.

Finding Water

When there is no surface water, tap into the earth's water table for ground water. Access to this table and its supply of generally pure water depends on the contour of the land and the type of soil. See Figure 1-13 for water tables.

From Rocky Soil

Look for springs and seepages. Limestone has more and larger springs than any other type rock. Because limestone is easily dissolved, caverns are readily etched in it by ground water. Look in these caverns for springs. Lava rock is a good source of seeping ground water because it is porous. Look for springs along the walls of valleys that cross the lava flow. Look for seepage where a dry canyon cuts through a layer of porous sandstone.

Watch for water indicators in desert environments. Some signs to look for are the direction in which certain birds fly, the location of plants, and the convergence of game trails. Asian sand grouse, crested larks, and zebra birds visit water holes at least once a day. Parrots and pigeons must live within reach of water. Cattails, greasewoods, willows, elderberry, rushes, and salt grass grow only where ground water is near the surface. Look for these signs and dig. If you do not have a bayonet or entrenching tool, dig with a flat rock or sharp stick.

Desert natives often know of lingering surface pools in low places. They cover their surface pools, so look under brush heaps or in sheltered nooks, especially in semiarid and brush country.

Places that are visibly damp, where animals have scratched, or where flies hover, indicate recent surface water. Dig in such places for water. Collect dew on clear nights by sponging it up with a handkerchief. During a heavy dew you should be able to collect about a pint an hour.

Dig in dry stream beds because water may be found under the gravel. When in snow fields, put in a water container and place it in the sun out of the wind.

From Plants

If unsuccessful in your search for ground or runoff water, or if you do not have time to purify the questionable water, a water-yielding plant may be the best source. Clear sap from many plants is easily obtained. This sap is pure and is mostly water.

Plant tissues. Many plants with fleshy leaves or stems store drinkable water. Try them wherever you find them. The barrel cactus of the southwestern United States is a possible source of water (see Figure 1-14). Use it only as a last resort and only if you have the energy to cut through the tough, spine-studded outer rind. Cut off the top of the cactus and smash the pulp within the plant. Catch the liquid in a container. Chunks may be carried as an emergency water source. A barrel cactus 3-1/2 feet high will yield about a quart of milky juice and is an exception to the rule that milky or colored sap-bearing plants should not be eaten.

Roots of desert plants. Desert plants often have their roots near the surface. The Australian water tree, desert oak, and bloodwood are some examples. Pry these roots out of the ground, cut them into 24-36 inch lengths, remove the bark, and suck the water.

Vines. Not all vines yield palatable water, but try any vine found. Use the following method for tapping a vine--it will work on any species:

    Step 1. Cut a deep notch in the vine as high up as you can reach.

    Step 2. Cut the vine off close to the ground and let the water drip into your mouth or into a container.

    Step 3. When the water ceases to drip, cut another section off the top. Repeat this until the supply of fluid is exhausted.

Palms. Burl, coconut, sugar and nipa palms contain a drinkable sugary fluid. To start the flow in coconut palm, bend the flower stalk downward and cut off the top. If a thin slice is cut off the stalk every 12 hours, you can renew the flow and collect up to a quart a day.

Coconut. Select green coconuts. They can be opened easily with a knife and they have more milk than ripe coconuts. The juice of a ripe coconut is extremely laxative; therefore, do not drink more than three or four cups a day.

The milk of a coconut can be obtained by piercing two eyes of the coconut with a sharp object such as a stick or a nail. To break off the outer fibrous covering of the coconut without a knife, slam the coconut forcefully on the point of a rock or protruding stump.

Survival Water Still

You can build a cheap and simple survival still that will produce drinking water in a dry desert. Basic materials for setting up this still are--

  • 6-foot square sheet of clean plastic.

  • A 2- to 4-quart capacity container.

  • A 5-foot piece of flexible plastic tubing.

Pick an unshaded spot for the still, and dig a hole. If no shovel is available, use a stick or even your hands. The hole should be about 3 feet across for a few inches down, then slope the hole toward the bottom as shown in Figure 1-15 which depicts a cross section of a survival still. The hole should be deep enough so the point of the plastic cone will be about 18 inches below ground and will still clear the top of the container. Once the hole is properly dug, tape one end of the plastic drinking tube inside the container and center the container in the bottom of the hole. Leave the top end of the drinking tube free, lay the plastic sheet over the hole, and pile enough dirt around the edge of the plastic to hold it securely. Use a fist-size rock to weight down the center of the plastic; adjust the plastic as necessary to bring it within a couple of inches of the top of the container. Heat from the sun vaporizes the ground water. This vapor condenses under the plastic, trickles down, and drops into the container.


The indigenous vegetation and wildlife of a desert have physiologically adapted to the conditions of the desert environment. For example, the cacti of the American desert store moisture in enlarged stems. Some plants have drought-resistant seeds that may lie dormant for years, followed by a brief, but colorful display of growth after a rainstorm. The available vegetation is usually inadequate to provide much shade, shelter, or concealment, especially from the air. Some plants, like the desert gourd, have vines which grow to 4.5 meters (15 feet). Others have wide lateral roots just below the surface to take advantage of rain and dew, while still others grow deep roots to tap subsurface water. Presence of palm trees usually indicates water within a meter of the surface, salt grass within 2 meters, cottonwood and willows up to 4 meters. In addition to indicating the presence of water, some plants are edible.


Invertebrates such as ground-dwelling spiders, scorpions, and centipedes, together with insects of almost every type, are in the desert. Drawn to man as a source of moisture or food, lice, mites, and flies can be extremely unpleasant and carry diseases such as scrub typhus and dysentery. The stings of scorpions and the bites of centipedes and spiders are extremely painful, though seldom fatal. Some species of scorpion, as well as black widow and recluse spiders, can cause death. The following paragraphs describe some of the wildlife that are encountered in desert areas and the hazards they may pose to man.


Scorpions are prevalent in desert regions. particularly active at night. Scorpions are They prefer damp locations and are easily recognizable by their crab-like appearance, and by their long tail which ends in a sharp stinger. Adult scorpions vary from less than an inch to almost 8 inches in length. Colors range from nearly black to straw to striped. Scorpions hide in clothing, boots, or bedding, so troops should routinely shake these items before using. Although scorpion stings are rarely fatal, they can be painful.


Flies are abundant throughout desert environments. Filth-borne disease is a major health problem posed by flies. Dirt or insects in the desert can cause infection in minor cuts and scratches.


Avoid all dogs and rats which are the major carriers of fleas. Fleas are the primary carriers of plague and murine typhus.


Reptiles are perhaps the most characteristic group of desert animals. Lizards and snakes occur in quantity, and crocodiles are common in some desert rivers. Lizards are normally harmless and can be ignored; although exceptions occur in North America and Saudi Arabia.

Snakes, ranging from the totally harmless to the lethal, abound in the desert. A bite from a poisonous snake under two feet long can easily become infected. Snakes seek shade (cool areas) under bushes, rocks, trees, and shrubs. These areas should be checked before sitting or resting. Troops should always check clothing and boots before putting them on. Vehicle operators should look for snakes when initially conducting before-operations maintenance. Look for snakes in and around suspension components and engine compartments as snakes may seek the warm areas on recently parked vehicles to avoid the cool night temperatures.

Sand vipers have two long and distinctive fangs that may be covered with a curtain of flesh or folded back into the mouth. Sand vipers usually are aggressive and dangerous in spite of their size. A sand viper usually buries itself in the sand and may strike at a passing man; its presence is alerted by a characteristic coiling pattern left on the sand.

The Egyptian cobra can be identified by its characteristic cobra combative posture. In this posture, the upper portion of the body is raised vertically and the head tilted sharply forward. The neck is usually flattened to form a hood. The Egyptian cobra is often found around rocky places and ruins and is fairly common. The distance the cobra can strike in a forward direction is equal to the distance the head is raised above the ground. Poking around in holes and rock piles is particularly dangerous because of the likelihood of encountering a cobra. See Figure 1-16 for an example of a viper and cobra.


The camel is the best known desert mammal. The urine of the camel is very concentrated to reduce water loss, allowing it to lose 30 percent of its body weight without undue distress. A proportionate loss would be fatal to man. The camel regains this weight by drinking up to 27 gallons (120 liters) of water at a time. It cannot, however, live indefinitely without water and will die of dehydration as readily as man in equivalent circumstances. Other mammals, such as gazelles, obtain most of their required water supply from the vegetation they eat and live in areas where there is no open water. Smaller animals, including rodents, conserve their moisture by burrowing underground away from the direct heat of the sun, only emerging for foraging at night. All these living things have adapted to the environment over a period of thousands of years; however, man has not made this adaptation and must carry his food and water with him and must also adapt to this severe environment.

Dogs are often found near mess facilities and tend to be in packs of 8 or 10. Dogs are carriers of rabies and should be avoided. Commanders must decide how to deal with packs of dogs; extermination and avoidance are two options. Dogs also carry fleas which may be transferred upon bodily contact. Rabies is present in most desert mammal populations. Do not take any chances of contracting fleas or rabies from any animal by adopting pets.

Rats are carriers of various parasites and gastrointestinal diseases due to their presence in unsanitary locations.

Section II. Environmental Effects on Personnel

There is no reason to fear the desert environment, and it should not adversely affect the morale of a soldier/marine who is prepared for it. Lack of natural concealment has been known to induce temporary agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) in some troops new to desert conditions, but this fear normally disappears with acclimatization. Remember that there is nothing unique about either living or fighting in deserts; native tribesmen have lived in the Sahara for thousands of years. The British maintained a field army and won a campaign in the Western Desert in World War II at the far end of a 12,000-mile sea line of communication with equipment considerably inferior to that in service now. The desert is neutral, and affects both sides equally; the side whose personnel are best prepared for desert operations has a distinct advantage.

The desert is fatiguing, both physically and mentally. A high standard of discipline is essential, as a single individual's lapse may cause serious damage to his unit or to himself. Commanders must exercise a high level of leadership and train their subordinate leaders to assume greater responsibilities required by the wide dispersion of units common in desert warfare. Soldiers/marines with good leaders are more apt to accept heavy physical exertion and uncomfortable conditions. Every soldier/marine must clearly understand why he is fighting in such harsh conditions and should be kept informed of the operational situation. Ultimately, however, the maintenance of discipline will depend on individual training.

Commanders must pay special attention to the welfare of troops operating in the desert, as troops are unable to find any "comforts" except those provided by the command. Welfare is an essential factor in the maintenance of morale in a harsh environment, especially to the inexperienced. There is more to welfare than the provision of mail and clean clothing. Troops must be kept healthy and physically fit; they must have adequate, palatable, regular food, and be allowed periods of rest and sleep. These things will not always be possible and discomfort is inevitable, but if troops know that their commanders are doing everything they can to make life tolerable, they will more readily accept the extremes brought on by the environment.


The extreme heat of the desert can cause heat exhaustion and heatstroke and puts troops at risk of degraded performance. For optimum mental and physical performance, body temperatures must be maintained within narrow limits. Thus, it is important that the body lose the heat it gains during work. The amount of heat accumulation in the human body depends upon the amount of physical activity, level of hydration, and the state of personal heat acclimatization. Unit leaders must monitor their troops carefully for signs of heat distress and adjust schedules, work rates, rest, and water consumption according to conditions.

Normally, several physical and physiological mechanisms (e.g., convection and evaporation) assure transfer of excess body heat to the air. But when air temperature is above skin temperature (around 92 degrees Fahrenheit) the evaporation of sweat is the only operative mechanism. Following the loss of sweat, water must be consumed to replace the body's lost fluids. If the body fluid lost through sweating is not replaced, dehydration will follow. This will hamper heat dissipation and can lead to heat illness. When humidity is high, evaporation of sweat is inhibited and there is a greater risk of dehydration or heat stress. Consider the following to help prevent dehydration:

  • Heat, wind, and dry air combine to produce a higher individual water requirement, primarily through loss of body water as sweat. Sweat rates can be high even when the skin looks and feels dry.

  • Dehydration nullifies the benefits of heat acclimatization and physical fitness, it increases the susceptibility to heat injury, reduces the capacity to work, and decreases appetite and alertness. A lack of alertness can indicate early stages of dehydration.

  • Thirst is not an adequate indicator of dehydration. The soldier/marine will not sense when he is dehydrated and will fail to replace body water losses, even when drinking water is available. The universal experience in the desert is that troops exhibit "voluntary dehydration" that is, they maintain their hydration status at about 2 percent of body weight (1.5 quarts) below their ideal hydration status without any sense of thirst.

Chronic dehydration increases the incidence of several medical problems: constipation (already an issue in any field situation), piles (hemorrhoids), kidney stones, and urinary infections. The likelihood of these problems occurring can be reduced by enforcing mandatory drinking schedules.

Resting on hot sand will increase heat stress--the more a body surface is in contact with the sand, the greater the heat stress. Ground or sand in full sun is hot, usually 30-45 degrees hotter than the air, and may reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit when the air temperature is 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooler sand is just inches below the surface; a shaded trench will provide a cool resting spot.

At the first evidence of heat illness, have the troops stop work, get into shade, and rehydrate. Early intervention is important. Soldiers/ marines who are not taken care of can become more serious casualties.


Acclimatization to heat is necessary to permit the body to reach and maintain efficiency in its cooling process. A period of approximately 2 weeks should be allowed for acclimatization, with progressive increases in heat exposure and physical exertion. Significant acclimatization can be attained in 4-5 days, but full acclimatization takes 7-14 days, with 2-3 hours per day of exercise in the heat. Gradually increase physical activity until full acclimatization is achieved.

Acclimatization does not reduce, and may increase, water requirements. Although this strengthens heat resistance, there is no such thing as total protection against the debilitating effects of heat. Situations may arise where it is not possible for men to become fully acclimatized before being required to do heavy labor. When this happens heavy activity should be limited to cooler hours and troops should be allowed to rest frequently. Check the weather daily. Day-to-day and region-to-region variations in temperatures, wind, and humidity can be substantial.


Climatic stress on the human body in hot deserts can be caused by any combination of air temperature, humidity, air movement, and radiant heat. The body is also adversely affected by such factors as lack of acclimatization, being overweight, dehydration, alcohol consumption, lack of sleep, old age, and poor health.

The body maintains its optimum temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit by conduction/convection, radiation, and evaporation (sweat). The most important of these in the daytime desert is evaporation, as air temperature alone is probably already above skin temperature. If, however, relative humidity is high, air will not easily evaporate sweat and the cooling effect is reduced. The following paragraphs describe the effects of radiant light, wind, and sand on personnel in desert areas.

Radiant Light

Radiant light comes from all directions. The sun's rays, either direct or reflected off the ground, affect the skin and can also produce eyestrain and temporarily impaired vision. Not only does glare damage the eyes but it is very tiring; therefore, dark glasses or goggles should be worn.

Overexposure to the sun can cause sunburn. Persons with fair skin, freckled skin, ruddy complexions, or red hair are more susceptible to sunburn than others, but all personnel are susceptible to some degree. Personnel with darker complexions can also sunburn. This is difficult to monitor due to skin pigmentation, so leaders must be ever vigilant to watch for possible sunburn victims. Sunburn is characterized by painful reddened skin, and can result in blistering and lead to other forms of heat illness.

Soldier/marines should acquire a suntan in gradual stages (preferably in the early morning or late afternoon) to gain some protection against sunburn. They should not be permitted to expose bare skin to the sun for longer than five minutes on the first day, increasing exposure gradually at the rate of five minutes per day. They should be fully clothed in loose garments in all operational situations. This will also reduce sweat loss. It is important to remember that--

  • The sun is as dangerous on cloudy days as it is on sunny days.

  • Sunburn ointment is not designed to give complete protection against excessive exposure.

  • Sunbathing or dozing in the desert sun can be fatal.


The wind can be as physically demanding as the heat, burning the face, arms, and any exposed skin with blown sand. Sand gets into eyes, nose, mouth, throat, lungs, ears, and hair, and reaches every part of the body. Even speaking and listening can be difficult. Continual exposure to blown sand is exhausting and demoralizing. Technical work spaces that are protected from dust and sand are likely to be very hot. Work/rest cycles and enforced water consumption will be required.

The combination of wind and dust or sand can cause extreme irritation to mucous membranes, chap the lips and other exposed skin surfaces, and can cause nosebleed. Cracked, chapped lips make eating difficult and cause communication problems. Irritative conjunctivitis, caused when fine particles enter the eyes, is a frequent complaint of vehicle crews, even those wearing goggles. Lip balm and skin and eye ointments must be used by all personnel. Constant wind noise is tiresome and increases soldier/marine fatigue, thus affecting alertness.

When visibility is reduced by sandstorms to the extent that military operations are impossible, soldiers/marines should not be allowed to leave their group for any purpose unless secured by lines for recovery.

The following are special considerations when performing operations in dust or sand:

  • Contact lenses are very difficult to maintain in the dry dusty environment of the desert and should not be worn except by military personnel operating in air conditioned environments, under command guidance.

  • Mucous membranes can be protected by breathing through a wet face cloth, snuffing small amounts of water into nostrils (native water is not safe for this purpose) or coating the nostrils with a small amount of petroleum jelly. Lips should be protected by lip balm.

  • Moving vehicles create their own sandstorms and troops traveling in open vehicles should be protected.

  • Scarves and bandannas can be used to protect the head and face.

  • The face should be washed as often as possible. The eyelids should be cleaned daily.


The temperature of the body is regulated within very narrow limits. Too little salt causes heat cramps; too little salt and insufficient water causes heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion will cause a general collapse of the body's cooling mechanism. This condition is heatstroke, and is potentially fatal. To avoid these illnesses, troops should maintain their physical fitness by eating adequately, drinking sufficient water, and consuming adequate salt. If soldiers/marines expend more calories than they take in, they will be more prone to heat illnesses. Since troops may lose their desire for food in hot climates, they must be encouraged to eat, with the heavier meal of the day scheduled during the cooler hours.

It is necessary to recognize heat stress symptoms quickly. When suffering from heatstroke, the most dangerous condition, there is a tendency for a soldier/marine to creep away from his comrades and attempt to hide in a shady and secluded spot; if not found and treated, he will die. When shade is required during the day, it can best be provided by tarpaulins or camouflage nets, preferably doubled to allow air circulation between layers and dampened with any surplus water.

Approximately 75 percent of the human body is fluid. All chemical activities in the body occur in a water solution, which assists in the removal of toxic body wastes and plays a vital part in the maintenance of an even body temperature. A loss of 2 quarts of body fluid (2.5 percent of body weight) decreases efficiency by 25 percent and a loss of fluid equal to 15 percent of body weight is usually fatal. The following are some considerations when operating in a desert environment:

  • Consider water a tactical weapon. Reduce heat injury by forcing water consumption. Soldiers/marines in armored vehicles, MOPP gear, and in body armor need to increase their water intake.

  • When possible, drink Cool (50-55 degrees Fahrenheit) water.

  • Drink one quart of water in the morning, at each meal, and before strenuous work. In hot climates drink at least one quart of water each hour. At higher temperatures hourly water requirements increase to over two quarts.

  • Take frequent drinks since they are more often effective than drinking the same amount all at once. Larger soldiers/marines need more water.

  • Replace salt loss through eating meals.

  • When possible, work loads and/or duration of physical activity should be less during the first days of exposure to heat, and then should gradually be increased to follow acclimatization.

  • Modify activities when conditions that increase the risk of heat injury (fatigue/loss of sleep, previous heat exhaustion, taking medication) are present.

  • Take frequent rest periods in the shade, if possible. Lower the work rate and work loads as the heat condition increases.

  • Perform heavy work in the cooler hours of the day such as early morning or late evening, if possible.

A description of the symptoms and treatment for heat illnesses follows:

  • Heat cramps.

      - Symptoms: Muscle cramps of arms, legs, and/or stomach. Heavy sweating (wet skin) and extreme thirst.

      - First aid: Move soldier/marine to a shady area and loosen clothing. Slowly give large amounts of cool water. Watch the soldier/marine and continue to give him water, if he accepts it. Get medical help if cramps continue.

  • Heat exhaustion.

      - Symptoms: Heavy sweating with pale, moist, cool skin; headache, weakness, dizziness, and/or loss of appetite; heat cramps, nausea (with or without vomiting), rapid breathing, confusion, and tingling of the hands and/or feet.

      - First aid: Move the soldier/marine to a cool, shady area and loosen/remove clothing. Pour water on the soldier/marine and fan him to increase the cooling effect. Have the soldier/ marine slowly drink at least one full canteen of water. Elevate the soldier's/marine's legs. Get medical help if symptoms continue; watch the soldier/marine until the symptoms are gone or medical aid arrives.

  • Heatstroke.

      - Symptoms: Sweating stops (red, flushed, hot dry skin).

      - First aid: Evacuate to a medical facility immediately. Move the soldier/marine to a cool, shady area and loosen or remove clothing if the situation permits. Start cooling him immediately. Immerse him in water and fan him. Massage his extremities and skin and elevate his legs. If conscious, have the soldier/marine slowly drink one full canteen of water.


Maintaining safe, clean, water supplies is critical. The best containers for small quantities of water (5 gallons) are plastic water cans or coolers. Water in plastic cans will be good for up to 72 hours; storage in metal containers is safe only for 24 hours. Water trailers, if kept cool, will keep water fresh up to five days. If the air temperature exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the water temperature must be monitored. When the temperature exceeds 92 degrees Fahrenheit, the water should be changed, as bacteria will multiply. If the water is not changed the water can become a source of sickness, such as diarrhea. Ice in containers keeps water cool. If ice is put in water trailers, the ice must be removed prior to moving the trailer to prevent damage to the inner lining of the trailer.

Potable drinking water is the single most important need in the desert. Ensure nonpotable water is never mistaken for drinking water. Water that is not fit to drink but is not otherwise dangerous (it may be merely oversalinated) may be used to aid cooling. It can be used to wet clothing, for example, so the body does not use too much of its internal store of water.

Use only government-issued water containers for drinking water. Carry enough water on a vehicle to last the crew until the next planned resupply. It is wise to provide a small reserve. Carry water containers in positions that--

  • Prevent vibration by clamping them firmly to the vehicle body.

  • Are in the shade and benefit from an air draft.

  • Are protected from puncture by shell splinters.

  • Are easily dismounted in case of vehicle evacuation.

Troops must be trained not to waste water. Water that has been used for washing socks, for example, is perfectly adequate for a vehicle cooling system.

Obtain drinking water only from approved sources to avoid disease or water that may have been deliberately polluted. Be careful to guard against pollution of water sources. If rationing is in effect, water should be issued under the close supervision of officers and noncommissioned officers.

Humans cannot perform to maximum efficiency on a decreased water intake. An acclimatized soldier/marine will need as much (if not more) water as the nonacclimatized soldier/marine, as he sweats more readily. If the ration water is not sufficient, there is no alternative but to reduce physical activity or restrict it to the cooler parts of the day.

In very hot conditions it is better to drink smaller quantities of water often rather than large quantities occasionally. Drinking large quantities causes excessive sweating and may induce heat cramps. Use of alcohol lessens resistance to heat due to its dehydrating effect. As activities increase or conditions become more severe, increase water intake accordingly.

The optimum water drinking temperature is between 10 degrees Celsius and 15.5 degrees Celsius (50-60 degrees Fahrenheit). Use lister bags or even wet cloth around metal containers to help cool water.

Units performing heavy activities on a sustained basis, such as a forced march or digging in, at 80 degrees wet bulb globe temperature index, may require more than 3 gallons of drinking water per man. Any increase in the heat stress will increase this need. In high temperatures, the average soldier/marine will require 9 quarts of water per day to survive, but 5 gallons are recommended. Details on water consumption and planning factors are contained in Appendix G.

While working in high desert temperatures, a man at rest may lose as much as a pint of water per hour from sweating. In very high temperatures and low humidity, sweating is not noticeable as it evaporates so fast the skin will appear dry. Whenever possible, sweat should be retained on the skin to improve the cooling process; however, the only way to do this is to avoid direct sun on the skin. This is the most important reason why desert troops must remain fully clothed. If a soldier/marine is working, his water loss through sweating (and subsequent requirement for replenishment) increases in proportion to the amount of work done (movement). Troops will not always drink their required amount of liquid readily and will need to be encouraged or ordered to drink more than they think is necessary as the sensation of thirst is not felt until there is a body deficit of 1 to 2 quarts of water. This is particularly true during the period of acclimatization. Packets of artificial fruit flavoring encourages consumption due to the variety of pleasant tastes.

All unit leaders must understand the critical importance of maintaining the proper hydration status. Almost any contingency of military operations will act to interfere with the maintenance of hydration. Urine provides the best indicator of proper hydration. The following are considerations for proper hydration during desert operations:

  • Water is the key to your health and survival. Drink before you become thirsty and drink often, When you become thirsty you will be about a "quart and a half low".

  • Carry as much water as possible when away from approved sources of drinking water. Man can live longer without food than without water.

  • Drink before you work; carry water in your belly, do not "save" it in your canteen. Learn to drink a quart or more of water at one time and drink frequently to replace sweat losses.

  • Ensure troops have at least one canteen of water in reserve, and know where and when water resupply will be available.

  • Carbohydrate/electrolyte beverages (e.g., Gatorade) are not required, and if used, should not be the only source of water. They are too concentrated to be used alone. Many athletes prefer to dilute these 1:1 with water. Gaseous drinks, sodas, beer, and milk are not good substitutes for water because of their dehydrating effects.

  • If urine is more colored than diluted lemonade, or the last urination cannot be remembered, there is probably insufficient water intake. Collect urine samples in field expedient containers and spot check the color as a guide to ensuring proper hydration. Very dark urine warns of dehydration. Soldiers/marines should observe their own urine, and use the buddy system to watch for signs of dehydration in others.

  • Diseases, especially diarrheal diseases, will complicate and often prevent maintenance of proper hydration.

Salt, in correct proportions, is vital to the human body; however, the more a man sweats, the more salt he loses. The issue ration has enough salt for a soldier/marine drinking up to 4 quarts of water per day. Unacclimatized troops need additional salt during their first few days of exposure and all soldiers/marines need additional salt when sweating heavily. If the water demand to balance sweat loss rises, extra salt must be taken under medical direction. Salt, in excess of body requirements, may cause increased thirst and a feeling of sickness, and can be dangerous. Water must be tested before adding salt as some sources are already saline, especially those close to the sea.


The desert can be combine to produce dangerously cold. The dry air, wind, and clear sky can bone-chilling discomfort and even injury. The ability of the body to maintain body temperature within a narrow range is as important in the cold as in the heat. Loss of body heat to the environment can lead to cold injury; a general lowering of the body temperature can result in hypothermia, and local freezing of body tissues can lead to frostbite. Hypothermia is the major threat from the cold in the desert, but frostbite also occurs.

Troops must have enough clothing and shelter to keep warm. Remember, wood is difficult to find; any that is available is probably already in use. Troops maybe tempted to leave clothing and equipment behind that seems unnecessary (and burdensome) during the heat of the day. Cold-wet injuries (immersion foot or trench foot) may be a problem for dismounted troops operating in the coastal marshes of the Persian Gulf during the winter. Some guidelines to follow when operating in the cold are--

  • Anticipate an increased risk of cold-wet injuries if a proposed operation includes lowland or marshes. Prolonged exposure of the feet in cold water causes immersion foot injury, which is completely disabling.

  • Check the weather-know what conditions you will be confronting. The daytime temperature is no guide to the nighttime temperature; 90-degree-Fahrenheit days can turn into 30-degree-Fahrenheit nights.

  • The effects of the wind on the perception of cold is well known. Windchill charts contained in FM 21-10 allow estimation of the combined cooling power of air temperature and wind speed compared to the effects of an equally cooling still-air temperature.


Uniforms should be worn to protect against sunlight and wind. Wear the uniform loosely. Use hats, goggles, and sunscreen. Standard lightweight clothing is suitable for desert operations but should be camouflaged in desert colors, not green. Wear nonstarched long-sleeved shirts, and full-length trousers tucked into combat boots. Wear a scarf or triangular bandanna loosely around the neck (as a sweat rag) to protect the face and neck during sandstorms against the sand and the sun. In extremely hot and dry conditions a wet sweat rag worn loosely around the neck will assist in body cooling.

Combat boots wear out quickly in desert terrain, especially if the terrain is rocky. The leather drys out and cracks unless a nongreasy mixture such as saddle soap is applied. Covering the ventilation holes on jungle boots with glue or epoxies prevents excessive sand from entering the boots. Although difficult to do, keep clothing relatively clean by washing in any surplus water that is available. When water is not available, air and sun clothing to help kill bacteria.

Change socks when they become wet. Prolonged wear of wet socks can lead to foot injury. Although dry desert air promotes evaporation of water from exposed clothing and may actually promote cooling, sweat tends to accumulate in boots.

Soldier/marines may tend to stay in thin clothing until too late in the desert day and become susceptible to chills--so respiratory infections may be common. Personnel should gradually add layers of clothing at night (such as sweaters), and gradually remove them in the morning. Where the danger of cold weather injury exists in the desert, commanders must guard against attempts by inexperienced troops to discard cold weather clothing during the heat of the day.

Compared to the desert battle dress uniform (DBDU) the relative impermeability of the battle dress overgarment (BDO) reduces evaporative cooling capacity. Wearing underwear and the complete DBDU, with sleeves rolled down and under the chemical protective garment, provides additional protection against chemical poisoning. However, this also increases the likelihood of heat stress casualties.


Personal hygiene is absolutely critical to sustaining physical fitness. Take every opportunity to wash. Poor personal hygiene and lack of attention to siting of latrines cause more casualties than actual combat. Field Marshal Rommel lost over 28,400 soldiers of his Afrika Corps to disease in 1942. During the desert campaigns of 1942, for every one combat injury, there were three hospitalized for disease. Hygiene and sanitation are covered in detail in FM 21-10. This section highlights some of the points that are of special importance to the commander in the desert.

Proper standards of personal hygiene must be maintained not only as a deterrent to disease but as a reinforcement to discipline and morale. If water is available, shave and bathe daily. Cleaning the areas of the body that sweat heavily is especially important; change underwear and socks frequently, and use foot powder often. Units deployed in remote desert areas must have a means of cutting hair therefore, barber kits should be maintained and inventoried prior to any deployment. If sufficient water is not available, troops should clean themselves with sponge baths, solution-impregnated pads, a damp rag, or even a dry, clean cloth. Ensure that waste water is disposed of in an approved area to prevent insect infestation. If sufficient water is not available for washing, a field expedient alternative is powder baths, that is, using talcum or baby powder to dry bathe.

Check troops for any sign of injury, no matter how slight, as dirt or insects can cause infection in minor cuts and scratches. Small quantities of disinfectant in washing water reduces the chance of infection. Minor sickness can have serious effects in the desert. Prickly heat for example, upsets the sweating mechanism and diarrhea increases water loss, making the soldier/marine more prone to heat illnesses. The buddy system helps to ensure that prompt attention is given to these problems before they incapacitate individuals.

Intestinal diseases can easily increase in the desert. Proper mess sanitation is essential. Site latrines well away and downwind of troop areas and lagers. Trench-type latrines should be used where the soil is suitable but must be dug deeply, as shallow latrines become exposed in areas of shifting sand. Funnels dug into a sump work well as urinals. Layer the bottom of slit trenches with lime and cover the top prior to being filled in. Ensure lime is available after each use of the latrine. Flies area perpetual source of irritation and carry infections. Only good sanitation can keep the fly problem to a minimum. Avoid all local tribe camps since they are frequently a source of disease and vermin.


Diseases common to the desert include plague, typhus, malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, cholera, and typhoid. Diseases which adversely impact hydration, such as those which include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea among their symptoms, can act to dramatically increase the risk of heat (and cold) illness or injury. Infectious diseases can result in a fever; this may make it difficult to diagnose heat illness. Occurrences of heat illness in troops suffering from other diseases complicate recovery from both ailments.

Many native desert animals and plants are hazardous. In addition to injuries as a result of bites, these natural inhabitants of the desert can be a source of infectious diseases.

Many desert plants and shrubs have a toxic resin that can cause blisters, or spines that can cause infection. Consider milky sap, all red beans, and smoke from burning oleander shrubs, poisonous. Poisonous snakes, scorpions, and spiders are common in all deserts. Coastal waters of the Persian Gulf contain hazardous marine animals including sea snakes, poisonous jellyfish, and sea urchins.

Skin diseases can result from polluted water so untreated water should not be used for washing clothes; although it can be used for vehicle cooling systems or vehicle decontamination.

The excessive sweating common in hot climates brings on prickly heat and some forms of fungus infections of the skin. The higher the humidity, the greater the possibility of their occurrence. Although many deserts are not humid, there are exceptions, and these ailments are common to humid conditions.

The following are additional health-related considerations when operating in a desert environment:

  • The most common and significant diseases in deserts include diarrheal and insectborne febrile (i.e., fever causing) illnesses-both types of these diseases are preventable.

  • Most diarrheal diseases result from ingestion of water or food contaminated with feces. Flies, mosquitoes, and other insects carry fever-causing illnesses such as malaria, sand fly fever, dengue (fever with severe pain in the joints), typhus, and tick fevers.

  • There are no safe natural water sources in the desert. Standing water is usually infectious or too brackish to be safe for consumption. Units and troops must always know where and how to get safe drinking water.

  • Avoid brackish water (i.e., salty). It, like sea water, increases thirst; it also dehydrates the soldier/marine faster than were no water consumed. Brackish water is common even in public water supplies, Iodine tablets only kill germs, they do not reduce brackishness.

  • Water supplies with insufficient chlorine residuals, native food and drink, and ice from all sources are common sources of infective organisms.


Both diarrheal and insectborne diseases can be prevented through a strategy which breaks the chain of transmission from infected sources to susceptible soldiers/marines by effectively applying the preventive measures contained in FM 21-10. Additional preventive measures are described below:

  • Careful storage, handling and purification/preparation of water and food are the keys to prevention of diarrheal disease. Procure all food, water, ice, and beverages from US military approved sources and inspect them routinely.

  • Well-cooked foods that are "steaming hot" when eaten are generally safe, as are peeled fruits and vegetables.

  • Local dairy products and raw leafy vegetables are generally unsafe.

  • Consider the food in native markets hazardous. Avoid local food unless approved by medical personnel officials.

  • Assume raw ice and native water to be contaminated--raw ice cannot be properly disinfected. Ice has been a major source of illness in all prior conflicts; therefore, use ice only from approved sources.

  • If any uncertainty exists concerning the quality of drinking water, troops should disinfect their supplies using approved field-expedient methods (e.g., hypochlorite for lister bags, iodine tablets for canteens, boiling).

  • Untreated water used for washing or bathing risks infection.

  • Hand washing facilities should be established at both latrines and mess facilities. Particular attention should be given to the cleanliness of hands and fingernails. Dirty hands are the primary means of transmitting disease.

  • Dispose of human waste and garbage as specified in FM 21-10. Additional considerations regarding human waste and garbage are--

      - Sanitary disposal is important in preventing the spread of disease from insects, animals, and infected individuals, to healthy soldiers/marines.

      - Construction and maintenance of sanitary latrines are essential.

      - Burning is the best solution for waste.

      - Trench latrines can be used if the ground is suitable, but they must be dug deeply enough so that they are not exposed to shifting sand, and they must have protection against flies and other insects that can use them as breeding places.

      - Food and garbage attract animals--do not sleep where you eat and keep refuse areas away from living areas.

  • Survey the unit area for potential animal hazards.

  • Shake out boots, clothing, and bedding before using them.

Section III. Environmental Effects on Equipment

Conditions in an arid environment can damage military equipment and facilities. Temperatures and dryness are major causes of equipment failure, and wind action lifts and spreads sand and dust, clogging and jamming anything that has moving parts. Vehicles, aircraft, sensors, and weapons are all affected. Rubber components such as gaskets and seals become brittle, and oil leaks are more frequent. Ten characteristics of the desert environment may adversely affect equipment used in the desert:

  • Terrain.

  • Heat.

  • Winds.

  • Dust and sand.

  • Humidity.

  • Temperature variations.

  • Thermal bending.

  • Optical path bending.

  • Static electricity.

  • Radiant light.

The relative importance of each characteristic varies from desert to desert. Humidity, for example, can be discounted in most deserts but is important in the Persian Gulf.


Terrain varies from nearly flat, with high trafficability, to lava beds and salt marshes with little or no trafficability. Drivers must be well trained in judging terrain over which they are driving so they can select the best method of overcoming the varying conditions they will encounter. Techniques for driving and operating equipment in desert conditions are contained in Appendix C.

Track vehicles are well suited for desert operations. Wheel vehicles may be acceptable as they can go many places that track vehicles can go; however, their lower speed average in poor terrain maybe unacceptable during some operations. Vehicles should be equipped with extra fan belts, tires, (and other items apt to malfunction), tow ropes (if not equipped with a winch), extra water cans, and desert camouflage nets. Air-recognition panels, signal mirrors, and a tarpaulin for crew sun protection are very useful. Wheel vehicles should also carry mats, or channels as appropriate, to assist in freeing mired vehicles.

The harsh environment requires a very high standard of maintenance, which may have to be performed well away from specialized support personnel. Operators must be fully trained in operating and maintaining their equipment. Some types of terrain can have a severe effect on suspension and transmission systems, especially those of wheel vehicles. Tanks are prone to throw tracks when traveling over rocks.

Track components require special care in the desert. Grit, heat, and bad track tension accelerate track failure. Sprockets wear out quickly in sandy conditions. Track pins break more easily in high temperatures and high temperatures also increase rubber/metal separation on road wheels. Proper track tension is critical, as loose track is easily thrown and excessive tension causes undue stress on track components.

Increase the unit PLL of tires and tracks as sand temperatures of 165 degrees Fahrenheit are extremely detrimental to rubber, and weaken resistance to sharp rocks and plant spines, Items affected by mileage such as wheels, steering, track wedge bolts and sprocket nuts, and transmission shafts, must be checked for undue wear when conducting before-, during-, and after-operations maintenance.


Vehicle coding and lubrication systems are interdependent. A malfunction by one will rapidly place the other system under severe strain. In temperature extremes, all types of engines are apt to operate above optimum temperatures, leading to excessive wear, or leaking oil seals in the power packs, and ultimately, engine failure. Commanders should be aware which types of vehicles are prone to excessive overheating, and ensure extra care is applied to their maintenance. The following are considerations for ensuring engines do not overheat:

  • Check oil levels frequently to ensure proper levels are maintained (too high may be as bad as too low), that seals are not leaking, and oil consumption is not higher than normal.

  • Keep radiators and air flow areas around engines clean and free of debris and other obstructions.

  • Fit water-cooled engines with condensers to avoid steam escaping through the overflow pipe.

  • Cooling hoses must be kept tight (a drip a second loses 7 gallons of fluid in 24 hours).

  • Operators should not remove hood side panels from engine compartments while the engine is running as this causes air turbulence and leads to ineffective cooling.

Batteries do not hold their charge efficiently in intense heat. Check them twice daily. The following are additional considerations for maintaining batteries in intense heat:

  • Change battery specific gravity to adjust to the desert environment (see vehicle TMs for details).

  • Keep batteries full, but not overfilled, and carry a reserve of distilled water.

  • Keep air vents clean, or vapors may build up pressure and cause the battery to explode.

  • Set voltage regulators as low as practical.

  • Increase dry battery supplies to offset high attrition rate caused by heat exposure.

Severe heat increases pressure in closed pressurized systems such as the M2 fire burner unit, and increases the volume of liquids. Ensure that the working pressure of all equipment is within safety limits and be careful when removing items such as filler caps.

Treat Halon fire extinguishers with care. High temperatures may cause them to discharge spontaneously. Put wet rags on them during the hottest part of the day to keep them cooler.

Some items of equipment are fitted with thermal cutouts that open circuit breakers whenever equipment begins to overheat. Overheating is often caused by high ambient temperatures, and can be partly avoided by keeping the item in the shade or wrapping it in a wet cloth to maintain a lower temperature by evaporation.

Flying time and performance of helicopters are degraded as the altitude and heat increases. Helicopter performance is also affected by humidity. Aircraft canopies have been known to bubble under direct heat and should be covered when not in use.

Ammunition must be out of direct heat and sunlight. Use camouflage nets and tarpaulins to provide cover. Ammunition cool enough to be held by bare hands is safe to fire.

Wood shrinks in a high-temperature, low-humidity environment. Equipment, such as axes carried on track vehicles, can become safety hazards as heads are likely to fly off shrunken handles.

Radiators require special attention. Proper cooling-system operation is critical in high-temperature environments. Check cooling systems for serviceability prior to deployment. Local water maybe high in mineral content which will calcify in cooling systems. Distilled water is better since tap water contains chemicals that will form a crusty coating inside the radiator and will ultimately clog it. A mixture of 40 percent antifreeze and 60 percent water is usually acceptable--check your appropriate technical manual to be certain.

During movement, and at operation sites where extremely hot temperatures exist, continuous protection from the heat is necessary for medical items and supplies, which deteriorate rapidly.

Air and all fluids expand and contract according to temperature. If tires are inflated to correct pressure during the cool of night, they may burst during the heat of day. If fuel tanks are filled to the brim at night, they will overflow at midday. Servicing these items during the heat of day can result in low tire pressure, overheating of tires, and a lack of endurance if the fuel tanks were not filled to their correct levels. Air pressure in tires must be checked when the equipment is operating at efficient working temperatures, and fuel tanks must be filled to their correct capacity as defined in the appropriate technical manual. These items should be checked several times a day and again at night.

The major problem with radios in a desert environment is overheating. The following steps can help prevent overheating of radios:

  • Keep radios out of direct sunlight.

  • Place a piece of wood on top of the radio. Leaving space between the wood and the top of the radio will help cool the equipment. Operating on low power whenever possible will also help.

  • Place wet rags on top of radios to help keep them cool and operational. Do not cover the vents.

Any oil or fuel blown onto a cooler (heat exchanger) will gather and quickly degrade cooling. Fix even slight leaks promptly. Do not remove cooling ducts or shrouds. Check them for complete coverage--use tape to seal cracks. Do not remove serviceable thermostats if overheating occurs.


Desert winds, by their velocity alone, can be very destructive to large and relatively light materiel such as aircraft, tentage, and antenna systems. To minimize the possibility of wind damage, materiel should be sited to benefit from wind protection and should be firmly picketed to the ground.


Dust and sand are probably the greatest danger to the efficient functioning of equipment in the desert. It is almost impossible to avoid particles settling on moving parts and acting as an abrasive. Sand mixed with oil forms an abrasive paste.

Lubricants must be of the correct viscosity for the temperature and kept to the recommended absolute minimum in the case of exposed or semiexposed moving parts. Lubrication fittings are critical items and should be checked frequently. If they are missing, sand will enter the housing causing bearing failure. Teflon bearings require constant inspection to ensure that the coating is not being eroded.

Proper lubrication is crucial for success. Wipe off all grease fittings before you attach the grease gun and after use. Keep cans of grease covered to prevent sand contamination. Preserve opened grease containers by covering and sealing with plastic bags. Use of grease cartridges in lieu of bulk grease is preferred. All POL dispensing tools must be stored in protected areas to prevent contamination. Place a tarpaulin, or other material, under equipment being repaired to prevent tools and components from being lost in the sand. The automotive-artillery grease possesses a significantly high-temperature capability. If not available, an alternative is general purpose wide-temperature range (WTR) aircraft grease.

Oil should be changed about twice as often under desert conditions as under US or European conditions, not only because grit accumulates in the oil pan, but also because noncombusted low-octane fuel seeps down the cylinder walls and dilutes the reservoir. Diluted lubricants cool less effectively, and evaporate at the higher temperatures generated during engine operation. Oil changes and lubrication of undercarriage points at more frequent intervals will prolong engine and vehicle life under desert conditions. Units employed in desert environments should reevaluate their engine oil requirements and plan accordingly.

Keeping sand out of maintenance areas is critical due to the strong possibility of sand or dust entering the cylinders or other moving parts when the equipment is stripped. Baggies, cloth, or plastic can be used to protect open or disassembled components from blowing sand and dust. The same applies for disconnected water, oil, or other fluid lines. Be sure to cover both ends of the connection if stored. It is essential to have screens against blowing sand (which also provides shade for mechanics). The surrounding ground may be soaked in used oil or covered with rocks to bind it down. Mechanics must keep their tools clean.

Dust and sand can easily cause failure of such items as radio and signal distribution panels, and circuit breakers, and cause small electrical motors to burn out. Wheel and flight control bearings may require daily cleaning and repacking, and engines should be flushed of contaminants daily.

Rotor heads have reduced life, requiring more frequent inspections than in temperate climates. Pay particular attention to sand-caused wear on rotor heads, leading edges of rotor blades, and exposed flight controls. Over 200 pounds of dirt has been known to accumulate in the fuselage area of helicopters operating in desert conditions. These areas must be routinely checked and cleaned to prevent a pound-for-pound reduction in aircraft-lift capability.

Filters must be used when refueling any type of vehicle, and the gap between the nozzle and the fuel tank filler pipe must be kept covered. It takes comparatively little dirt to block a fuel line. Fuel filters will require more frequent cleaning and will need to be checked and replaced often. Engine oil should be changed more often and oil filters replaced more frequently than in temperate climates.

Compression-ignition engines depend on clean air; therefore, examine and clean air cleaners of every type of equipment at frequent intervals. The exact interval depends on the operating conditions, but as a minimum, should be checked at least daily.

Air compressors are valuable pieces of equipment in the desert. They are essential for cleaning air filters and removing dust and sand from components. Intake filters require cleaning daily.

Windblown sand and grit, in addition to heat, will damage electrical wire insulation over a period of time. All cables that are likely to be damaged should be protected with tape before insulation becomes worn. Sand will also find its way into parts of items such as "spaghetti cord" plugs, either preventing electrical contact or making it impossible to join the plugs together. Use a brush, such as an old toothbrush, to brush out such items before they are joined. Electrical tape placed over the ends of spaghetti cords also works.

Radio is the primary means of communications in the desert. It can be employed effectively in desert climates and terrain to provide the reliable communications demanded by widely dispersed forces. However, desert terrain provides poor electrical ground, and a counterpoise (an artificial ground) is needed to improve the range of certain antennas.

Some receiver-transmitters have ventilating ports and channels that can get clogged with dust. These must be checked regularly and kept clean to prevent overheating. Mobile subscriber equipment may require the deployment of additional radio access units (RAU) AN/VRC-191. These assemblages are the primary link for the mobile subscriber radio telephone terminal (MSRT) AN/VRC-97s which are located down to battalion level. The normal operating range of the receiver-transmitter used with these radios may only be 10 kilometers in the desert.

Dust and sand adversely affect the performance of weapons. Weapons may jam or missiles lock on launching rails due to sand and dust accumulation. Sand- or dust-clogged barrels lead to in-bore detonations. Daily supervised cleaning of weapons is essential. Particular attention should be given to magazines which are often clogged, interrupting the feeding of weapons. Cover missiles on launchers until required for use. To avoid jamming due to the accumulation of sand, the working parts of weapons must have the absolute minimum amount of lubrication. It may even be preferable to have them totally dry, as any damage caused during firing will be less than that produced by the sand/oil abrasive paste. Paintbrushes are among the most useful tools to bring to the desert; they are extremely effective in cleaning weapons and optics.

Take precautions to prevent exposure of floppy disks and computers to dust or sand. Covering them in plastic bags is a technique that has worked for several different units. A number of units have successfully operated PLL computers in inflatable medical NBC shelters (MIS 1). This technique has obvious drawbacks since the shelter was not designed for this; however, until a materiel fix is developed, this sort of innovation may be necessary. Compressed air cans, locally purchased from computer vendors, will facilitate the cleaning of keyboards and other components of computer systems.

All optics are affected by blown sand, which gradually degrade their performance due to small pitting and scratching. It is necessary to guard against buildup of dust on optics, which may not be apparent until the low light optical performance has severely deteriorated. It may be advisable to keep optics covered with some form of cellophane film until operations are about to start, especially if the unit is in a sandstorm. A cover that has no sand on the underside should also be used and must be secured so it cannot vibrate against the wind screen. Both of these measures are equally important to tactical security as sun reflected from these optics will reveal positions.

Sand and dirt can easily accumulate in hull bottoms of armored vehicles. This accumulation, combined with condensation or oil, can cause jamming of control linkages. Sand accumulation at the air-bleeder valve can inhibit heat from escaping from the transmission and result in damage to the transmission. Park tactical wheeled vehicles with the rear facing the wind to keep sand out of the radiator. Tracked vehicles should park to protect the engine compartment (grille doors away from wind) from the same sort of damage. The operator's checks and services increase in importance in this environment.


Some deserts are humid. Where this is the case, humidity plus heat encourages rust on bare metal and mold in enclosed spaces such as optics. Bare metal surfaces on equipment not required for immediate use must be kept clean and very lightly lubricated.

Items such as optics must be stored in dry conditions; those in use should be kept where air can circulate around them, and should be purged at frequent intervals. Aircraft must be washed daily, particularly if there is salt in the air, using low-pressure sprays.


In deserts with relatively high-dew levels and high humidity, overnight condensation can occur wherever surfaces (such as metal exposed to air) are cooler than the air temperature. Condensation can affect such items as optics, fuel lines, and air tanks. Drain fuel lines both at night and in the morning (whenever necessary). Clean optics and weapons frequently. Weapons, even if not lubricated, accumulate sand and dirt due to condensation.


Weapon systems such as the tank cannon are affected in several ways by the desert. One is thermal bending, which is the uneven heating and cooling of a gun tube due to ambient temperature changes. Modem tanks, like the Ml, have been designed to compensate for these factors. The muzzle reference system (MRS) allows the crew to monitor any loss of gun sight relationship and to comet for any error using the MRS update at regular intervals. Ml-series tanks are equipped with a thermal shroud, allowing for more even heating and cooling of the gun tube. Both factors can greatly reduce the accuracy of a tank weapon system. By boresighting at regular intervals and constant monitoring of the fire control system, the tank crew can maximize its readiness. "Gun tube droop" can be countered using the MRS update at least four times in a 24-hour period: at dawn as part of stand-to; at noon to compensate for gun tube temperature chang: before EENT, for TIS reticle confirmation; and at 0100 hours to compensate for gun tube temperature changes.


The apparent illusion of target displacement is commonly called refraction. Under certain light and environmental conditions, the path of light (line of sight) may not appear to travel in a straight line. Refraction may cause problems for tank crews attempting engagements at ranges beyond 1,500 meters. Figure 1-17 shows an example of optical path bending in the desert. Refraction may occur in the following conditions:

  • Day--Clear sky, flat terrain, winds less than 10 miles per hour.

  • Night--Clear sky, flat terrain, winds under 4 miles per hour.
NOTE: Any time
heat shimmer is
present, refraction may
also exist.

The effect of refraction is to make the target appear lower during the day; the sight picture, though it appears center of visible mass to the gunner, is actually below the target. This may result in a short round. At night, the effects are the opposite and may result in an over round. Crews must not be fooled by what appears to be a good range from their laser range finder (LRF); the laser beam will refract with other light rays and still hit the desired target.

The most effective measure available to the crew to minimize refraction is an elevated firing position. A position at least 10 meters above intervening terrain will generally negate any effects. If this type of position is not available, a crew operating under conditions favorable to refraction, and having missed with their first round, should apply the following:

  • Day--Adjust sight picture up 1/2 target form. See Figures 1-18 and 1-19 for examples of day and night refraction, respectively.

  • Night--Adjust sight picture down 1/2 target form.
NOTE:Crews do not
need to make a
correction for refraction
at ranges of less
than 1,500 meters.

Boresight does not correct refraction, but crews must ensure that all prepare-to-fire checks and boresighting procedures are performed correctly. When a crew is missing targets under these conditions, the cause is refraction and not crew error or loss of boresight due to improper procedures.


Static electricity is prevalent and poses a danger in the desert. It is caused by atmospheric conditions coupled with an inability to ground out due to dryness of the terrain. It is particularly prevalent with aircraft or vehicles having no conductor contact with the soil. The difference of electrical potential between separate materials may cause an electrical discharge between them when contact is made, and if flammable gases are present, they may explode and cause a fire. Poor grounding conditions aggravate the problem. Be sure to tape all sharp edges (tips) of antennas to reduce wind-caused static electricity. If you are operating from a fixed position, ensure that equipment is properly grounded.

Establish a metal circuit between fuel tankers and vehicles before and during refueling. Ensure the fuel tankers and vehicles are grounded (for example, by a cable and picket or by a crowbar). Grounding of vehicles and equipment should be accomplished in accordance with appropriate operations manuals.

Static electricity is also a hazard with helicopter sling loads. Exercise care when handling and transporting unlike materials that might generate static electricity. Also turn off all switches, uncouple electrical connectors, and ground vehicle or aircraft electrically-operated weapon systems before reaming. Static electricity will also ruin circuit boards and other electronic equipment.


Radiant light may be detrimental to plastics, lubricants, pressurized gases, some chemicals, and infrared tracking and guidance systems. Items like CO² fire extinguishers, M13 decontamination and reimpregnating kits, and Stinger missiles must be kept out of constant direct sunlight. Optics have been known to discolor under direct sunlight (although this is unusual), so it is wise to minimize their exposure to the sun's rays.

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