February 8, 2008: The U.S. Army sent
the first of its Stryker Mobile Gun Systems to Iraq last year. This is a
Stryker armed with 105mm gun. There is a three man crew, mainly because the gun
has an automatic loader. The gun is stabilized, and can be fired on the move.
Once in Iraq, the gun performed well. There were some problems, however. In
order to get all the gear needed for a 105mm gun into a Stryker vehicle, there
was no room for air conditioning. In summertime Iraq, this presents a problem.
The three man crew had to be equipped with something that would prevent heat
stroke. The solution was the "air conditioned suit" of legend, and science
fiction. Back in 2003, after three years of development, the U.S. Army put into
service the "Air Warrior Microclimate Cooling System." It's a vest
full of tiny tubes that carry cooled water (with some non-toxic antifreeze
added). Worn under the flak jacket, it keeps the trunk of the wearer cool, thus
greatly reducing the "heat load" and potential for heat stroke or
heat fatigue. It was originally meant to be used by pilots in smaller
(un-air-conditioned) helicopters or door gunners of larger choppers.
Helicopter crews, especially the crew
chiefs who man a machine-gun mounted on an open door, have always had a problem
with the weather. Few military helicopters have air conditioning, even for the
pilots, and the crew chief on the UH-60 Blackhawk has to stay on his feet, and
alert, for up to three hours at a time. In tropical areas, be they Vietnam four
decades ago, or Iraq today, that can be a real chore. The crew chief wears a
fire-resistant jumpsuit, flak jacket and helmet. Flying low to the ground, the
heat is often over 100 degrees. Often there's not much breeze, for the chopper
frequently hovers or moves slowly (under
fifty kilometers an hour.) So the crew chief has to fight the heat while
staying alert to any potential threats below. When the helicopter lands, the
crew chief has to help with loading or unloading personnel or cargo, and maybe
run around the chopper to check for any damage.
The cooling vest can only be used in
vehicles, because the entire unit consists of the vest, a 13 pound cooling unit
and an umbilical cord that attached to the vest. The cooling unit is plugged
into the vehicle electrical system. Those first
vests cost about $7,000 each, but the price has come down a bit as more
were manufactured. Some of the vests had already been used in armored vehicles,
usually for the turret gunner, who had his chest and head out in the heat for
hours at a time.
Before getting the vests, the Mobile
Gun System crews tried other solutions, one being an intravenous drip (water
going into their body via a needle). This was awkward, especially if you had to
get out of the vehicle in a hurry. That, in turn, revealed another problem with
the Mobile Gun System; the hatches were
too small for larger troops, wearing the cooling vest and their protective
vest, to quickly exit the vehicle. Moreover, two of the hatches are blocked by
the overhang from the turret. The crews were rather amazed that all these
design flaws could have occurred in the first place, and then remained through
years of development. The real problem was that a lot of senior officers and
civilians wanted the Mobile Gun System really, really bad. They were less
concerned with crew survival.