Navy to cool off missile operators in test to duplicate stress of combat

December 11, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- Stung by a string of deadly weapon accidents in the last few years, the Navy will conduct tests to find out how its members handle themselves under the stress of combat while operating its new computer-controlled missile defense systems.

The experiments involve exposing volunteers to cold air. The body's reaction to the cold approximates its response to the stress of combat.

The Navy's medical research laboratory at New London, Conn., issued a call last month for volunteers to participate in an experiment to learn how to "design consoles that are more usable during hectic evolutions."

The volunteers will perform in a mock combat information center using the same types of computers and displays aboard warships at sea. The combat information center is the nerve center of a modern warship, where data from radars, sonars and other sensors are displayed and where ships' weapons can be operated by remote control.

According to an overview of the experiment, half of the 20 test subjects will be exposed to 40-degree air for an hour before the test. The other half will be tested in a normal, 72-degree environment as a control group. Officer and enlisted volunteers are being sought, but all test subjects must have at least one year of experience with the Aegis air defense system or the Navy Tactical Data System, both of which represent some of the Navy's most advanced and complex systems.

The 60-minute exposure to cold air does not produce frostbite or a change in the body's core temperature but does stimulate the body to pump adrenalin into the bloodstream.

While such factors as fear, performance pressure and pain are not the same as cold, the body's biochemical response is similar, and the use of cold "takes a step toward a more realistic simulation of high stress aboard shipboard conditions," according to the experiment proposal.

Each volunteer will have an intravenous needle inserted in his arm, and blood samples will be taken during the trial runs to measure levels of stress hormones.

During the test, each individual will operate an anti-air warfare electronic console and be required to seek out information from the so-called geographic tactical plot and monitor the display for new unknown or hostile targets.

Adm. Frank Kelso, chief of naval operations, ordered a review of the operation and training requirements for all Navy weapons systems after the most recent accident, in which the carrier Saratoga fired two Sea Sparrow missiles at the Turkish destroyer Muavenet, killing the captain and four others and injuring 13.

The ships were participating in a joint training exercise in the Mediterranean. In the Oct. 2 incident, there was confusion about whether it was a real firing situation or an exercise.

Adm. Mike Boorda, commander in chief of U.S. forces in Europe, has called the incident "a training problem and a performance problem."

Lt. Kate Mueller, a Navy spokeswoman, said the cold-exposure test is not a direct fallout of the Saratoga accident but is more closely related to the 1988 shooting down of an Iran Air Airbus airliner by the Aegis cruiser Vincennes while it was on patrol in the Persian Gulf. All 290 aboard the plane were killed.

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