Troops finding gulf weather a formidable foe

Operations hindered by sandstorm

forces brace for summertime

War In Iraq

March 27, 2003|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Besides fighting Iraqi soldiers, U.S.-led forces in the Persian Gulf are also battling a predictable yet troublesome enemy that has stymied armored columns, grounded helicopters, and which could be melting equipment and incapacitating soldiers if the war drags on.

The weather in Iraq already has proved to be a most formidable foe. A sandstorm yesterday, the second in two days, brought the war to a halt in some sectors, turning day into night and prompting some American soldiers to tie themselves to their tanks with rope, lest they wander into the blackness and get lost a few feet away. At times yesterday, tank units reportedly could not distinguish between enemy vehicles and desert shrubbery.

But in a land where sandstorms strike even at sea, and where summer temperatures might hover at 120 degrees, American and British forces are girding for still more battles with nature.

"We ran into rain and sand in the air at the same time, sort of a storm of mud," said retired Maj. Gen. Bob Frix, who served in the headquarters of the U.S. 3rd Army during the gulf war in 1991. "That's a phenomenon you're not used to - it stings, it causes discomfort in your eyes, fouls up equipment - and it's not the only thing they're dealing with. The harsh environment is just a fact of life out there."

Pentagon planners insist weather is of little consequence in a modern military operation. Night-vision sensors can see through clouds and storms, and satellite guidance systems work in virtually all conditions, they say. And the effects of heat, they maintain, are countered with an abundant supply chain of water and a high level of physical fitness, along with improvements in clothing and protective gear.

But six days into the war, the Army has seen its potent "all weather" attack helicopters bested by a sandstorm, and the Navy was forced to halt some operations in the Persian Gulf because of the billowing brown grit. Sandstorms on the Iraqi desert can blow as high as 20,000 feet into the air, choking soldiers on the ground and depriving them for a time of the air power that protects supply lines and guards the troops.

Units from the Army's 101st Airborne Division were "one tank of fuel from Baghdad" yesterday, but had to dig in against the elements, according to Col. Michael Linnington, leader of the division's 3rd Brigade.

"The 101st is grounded," Linnington told the Associated Press. "We're not doing what we do best, which is air assault operations and attacks."

Yesterday's sandstorm was regarded as the worst in decades, with 50 mph winds. But the hot, dry shamal winds are a regular feature of the Iraqi spring, beating sand into clothing, food and folds of skin. Helicopter pilots swear that sand intrudes even into sealed mechanical components, grinding away at gears and pitting delicate rotor blades.

Even more disabling is the dreaded haboob - essentially a sandstorm wrapped around a thunderstorm. Frix says American troops encountered one at the start of the ground war in 1991, and were slowed by the flying mud.

But perhaps most renowned is the gulf region's summer heat. The temperatures in Iraq today are typically in the 70s. But at the height of summer, temperatures above 120 are not unheard of. When soldiers were deployed in August of 1990 in anticipation of the first gulf war, some complained of melting rubber straps and failed adhesives on gas masks and other equipment.

American forces are better equipped to handle harsh weather than they were 12 years ago, Pentagon officials say. One notable improvement is the new chemical and biological warfare protection suits, which are much lighter and cooler than their heavy rubber predecessors.

Weapons are more weather-hardened as well. Most American bombs are guided by satellites, and thus less susceptible to weather-related interference than their laser-guided counterparts. Soldiers in Iraq today are outfitted with a new night-vision scope, used over one eye, that offers improved vision and depth perception in blinding elements.

Armored vehicles have upgraded thermal sensors that see through all but the angriest of storms. The military's ability to get water to the troops is critical to counter the heat. Soldiers are ordered to drink at least eight quarts of water a day during combat conditions in summertime.

Among the troops fighting today are a handful of Air Force special forces soldiers called "combat weathermen," who drop into a battle zone, collect weather data and forecast the conditions for a potential fight. Military weathermen have a long history in combat. British meteorologist James Martin Stagg, who assured Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower of acceptable weather on the French coast for the D-Day invasion, was knighted 10 years later.

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