Flanked by new enemy wave

Heat: Coalition forces try to cope with rising temperatures, which have caused vehicles to break down and some soldiers to pass out.

War in Iraq

April 03, 2003|By Todd Richissin and Scott Calvert | Todd Richissin and Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

IN CENTRAL IRAQ - For all the successes coalition troops have had during the past couple of days, according to Pentagon reports, a new enemy has surrounded them and is beginning to have an effect: the heat.

This is the time of year in the Persian Gulf region when temperatures don't just creep up by a degree or two but jump by 10 or even 20 degrees from one day to the next. And in the past several days, the temperatures have become noticeably higher, hitting 88 in Baghdad, 18 degrees higher than when the war began.

Though rising temperatures are no surprise - 84 is the average high in Baghdad in April, compared with 73 in March - they are far from welcome. And it will only get hotter. Troops can expect highs averaging 96 next month and 105 in June, peaking at 110 in July. Those are average, of course, meaning some days will be even worse, while the average lows are a not-very-cool 78 degrees.

The heat causes problems for men and machines, as the 101st Airborne Division is finding out. Vehicles have been breaking down, and the division's troops often carry out missions on foot with 70 pounds of equipment and ammunition on their backs.

Heat exhaustion

Yesterday, one soldier on a patrol near Najaf nearly passed out from what commanders called heat exhaustion. The soldier, who was driven away in a tractor, was expected to recover.

"There will be a point in time when you will have more casualties from heat," said Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Woodhams, senior noncommissioned officer in the division's 3rd Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment.

Aside from the gear on their backs, troops have been putting on chemical suits to protect them from a range of chemical or biological agents. The suits are designed not to breathe, so body heat is trapped inside while the sun provides further baking. As coalition forces move ever closer to Baghdad - and the threat of a chemical attack becomes ever more real - they probably will have to wear the suits more often.

Added to all of that is the protective body armor. "Flak jackets," as they are commonly known, does not adequately indicate their weight, which is substantial.

The armor plates can stop a 7.62 mm round fired by an AK-47 rifle.

They well may need all that gear to protect them. But heat, too, can kill.

Woodhams said the increased temperatures will force commanders to consider allowing soldiers to shed the body armor and chemical suits, which together can add 15 degrees or more to body temperature.

"You have to measure the worth vs. the negative effects," said Woodhams, who is in charge of soldiers' well-being. "The heat may cause us to stop wearing these."

Ian Kemp, an editor at Jane's Defense Weekly in London, said the goal for troops is to minimize the effects of the temperatures as best they can.

"There are a number of climatic concerns, which we've already seen with the sandstorms and are now seeing with the heat," he said. "What it means is supplying these troops with enough water will become as important a logistical concern as supplying them with adequate gas and ammunition."

He said, though, that the bulk of U.S. troops - more than their British counterparts - have experienced this kind of weather before because military training bases in the United States are concentrated in the South and the desert West.

Anybody who has experienced the warmed-soup atmosphere at Camp Lejeune, N.C., for example, is not going to be too surprised by the weather in Baghdad.

Dan Plesch, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies, said warnings before the war that its beginning should be hastened out of concerns about the weather were probably exaggerated. But, he added, there is no doubt the increased temperatures take a toll on the troops and their equipment.

"Nobody chooses to fight in this weather, if they know what's good for them," he said. "At the same time, it may be unpleasant, but sometimes you have to do it."

Convoys moving north into Iraq have experienced numerous vehicle breakdowns, though that may be as much from the sand as from the heat. As temperatures increase, Plesch said, the breakdowns will become more frequent.

Chance for repairs

The recent pause by troops near Baghdad - whatever the reason - was valuable not only for getting supplies to the front but also for allowing mechanics to fix and tune up military vehicles that suffered in the relentless push north.

"This is equipment that, because of the nature of the systems they carry, run hot anyway," Plesch said. "Whack on another 30 or 40 degrees on top of that, and you have a really hot system - and so you have a high number of breakdowns."

Tanks used by the United States and Britain are designed with the hot temperatures in mind, he said, and are better equipped than the Iraqi tanks for long stays in the desert. The Iraqis use T-55 and T-72 Russian-made tanks, or their clones, which have small, tight compartments, not ideal for troops stuck in them for days of heat at a time.

The British Challenger II tanks and the U.S. M-1s and Bradley fighting vehicles, by contrast, have larger compartments and special systems that help circulate air in case of chemical attacks.

"So there is an advantage there for the coalition, even assuming the Iraqi equipment is functioning as designed, and there are major, major questions about whether it is," said Kemp, from Jane's. "On the other hand, the Iraqis are fighting on their home turf, and they haven't had to travel these distances through the country like the Americans and British have."

The heat offers one benefit, though it is hoped it will be unrealized: Most chemical weapons are less effective in high temperatures because they tend to evaporate more quickly.

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