‘Soldier’s load’ in Iraq

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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 improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

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 tradeoffs. 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, constantly.

Experience always exacts a price. A cramp caused by water-loss and failure to “drink constantly” is a painful, though comparatively easy, individual lesson.

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 many 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. Maj. Gen. 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 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 a 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’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 U.S. “up-armored” trucks and Humvees. Now, terrorists use IEDs with more punch. Larger IEDs, however, are often easier to detect. That’s a tradeoff for the bad guys.

The Pentagon is 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 — like a grenade with a camera. Don’t laugh yet. The High-Altitude Unit Navigated Tactical Imaging Round (HUNTIR) is undergoing Army evaluation tests. 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.

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