by Austin Bay
September 13, 2005
Take 40 pounds of Kevlar body armor, armor inserts, helmet and
support equipment, then add weapon and ammunition. Heat to 125 degrees
Fahrenheit, using the Mesopotamian sun as an oven. Now hike down the Baghdad
boulevard and remain alert for snipers and IEDs (improvised explosive
In terms of weight and summer weather, that's a typical "soldier
load" for a daytime mission in Iraq. Body armor saves lives, but in war
there are always trade-offs. Ask any troop: humping armor and extra ammo
while doing hard work in high heat takes a physical toll.
So soldiers prepare for it with tough physical conditioning and
training. Smart training includes "keeping a weather eye" for signs of heat
exhaustion or heat stroke. Leaders also emphasize constant hydration --
drink water, and drink it constantly.
Experience always exacts a price. A cramp caused by water-loss
and failure to "drink constantly" is a painful, though comparatively easy,
It is never easy when the price of experience is lives lost.
German strategist Carl von Clausewitz called war the realm of "friction."
"Everything is very simple in war," Clausewitz wrote, "but the simplest
thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction,
which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war."
Friction is the unexpected. It is also Murphy's Law -- if it can
go wrong, it will.
Combating enemy IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan are a case study in
confronting the unexpected and overcoming mistakes. IEDs are cheap to make
and relatively effective. The enemy can produce lots of them, and when they
blow they usually kill. When I asked about countering IEDs, one senior
CENTCOM officer told me: "We are constantly looking for technologies and
tactics that can give us the edge. ... We don't talk a lot about the efforts
of people looking at IEDs or other threats, but they are doing a tremendous
amount of work to help the war effort."
The military is reluctant to discuss counter-IED measures because the enemy also experiments, makes mistakes, and learns. Major General Doug Lute, CENTCOM Operations Director, sees constant change on the battlefield. "This enemy thinks, learns, adapts. We use a constant action - reaction -counter-reaction cycle as both sides adapt in a tough, sophisticated battlefield." Terrorists also scan the press for details�which is one reason Lute and his staff avoid specifics.
Marine aviators will acknowledge that they use electronic warfare capabilities to �sweep� highways in Iraq for electronically detonated IEDS�but don�t go beyond that. The Navy learned one of its aircraft infrared targeting systems can detect the flash of sniper rifle on the ground. Soldiers and Marines praise this �sniper pod.� If the pilots can�t take out the sniper themselves they quickly relay the enemy sniper�s position to air controllers who feed the information to the troops under fire. I suspect the military will discuss this system because discussion sends a deterrent message to every enemy sniper: shoot and we can detect you.
�The armor race� is no secret. Surprised by the enemy�s adept use of IEDs, the US �up armored� trucks and Humvees. Now terrorists use IEDs with more punch. Larger IEDs, however, are often easier to detect. That�s a trade-off for the bad guys. The Pentagon is now upgrading body armor. The new armor is slightly heavier, which means more weight on the soldier and thus trades a degree of mobility for added protection.
After action reports and just plain gripes from the battlefield push research and development programs-- like a grenade with a camera. Don�t laugh yet. The High-Altitude Unit Navigated Tactical Imaging Round (HUNTIR) is undergoing evaluation tests by the Army. The idea is ingenious, though the engineering tricky. Using a standard grenade launcher, a soldier fires the HUNTIR grenade over suspicious terrain. The grenade pops and ejects a camera with a parachute. According to StrategyPage.com, the descending camera sends live imagery to a tv controlled by the soldier�s unit. In a war of alleys, streets, mountain valleys, and dark corners, the gadget gives every platoon its own aerial surveillance capability.
It is, obviously, a tool for spotting snipers and IEDs.