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Invasion planners race scorching heat, storms


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2003

CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait -- Already the climb toward triple-digit heat has begun. Already the blinding dust storms have started to swirl.

The haboob can't be far behind.

This month in Baghdad, the average daily high temperature is a comfortable 71. In April it climbs to a balmy 85 degrees.

Then the gloves come off: In May the average daily high is 97; in June it is 105, and in July and August it is a brutal 110.

The Pentagon says it can win a war against Iraq in any kind of weather. But for the soldier in the field, fighting now is better than later.

"We're not geared up for that kind of weather," said Staff Sgt. Michael Hemphill, a training coordinator for the 101st Airborne Division, referring to April temperatures.

"And with JLIST, ha!" he said, referring to the heavy rubberized chemical protective suits all soldiers carry. "That adds another 98 degrees."

Invasion planners kept an eye on the moon, too, since U.S. forces have huge equipment and training advantages over the Iraqis for night fighting.

Last weekend began a full moon in Iraq; skies go dark again at month's end.

Hemphill, who served with an armored unit during Desert Storm, said he will never forget the late spring of 1991. The sun blazed so fiercely that soldiers were forbidden to work during mid-day and sand storms blinded units for days, he said. Dehydration was a constant worry.

Roughly the size of California, Iraq has a climate much like that of the extreme southwestern United States. December through February is the most benign, with temperatures ranging between 45 and 85 degrees. Beginning in March, the heat builds and dry winds howl, sometimes so powerfully it is hard to stand up straight or see more than a few feet.

And then there is the haboob -- a Bedouin word meaning loosely "the worst possible combination of things." A haboob is a thunderstorm embedded in a sandstorm, together producing a kind of mudstorm.

"There is not a word to describe the desert in the summer," said Husain Alyoussi, 18, a student at Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait City, speaking of the blowing sand. "The wind carries everything ... dust and sand, it hurts your eyes and gets in your mouth and nose. Even your teeth."

And the heat? "I think you'll die if you go to the desert," Alyoussi said. "You have to stay in someplace cool, or you're going to die."

U.S. medical officials say getting troops in the region early has helped them acclimate, so the summer heat won't come as such a shock.

"That's about the only shred of good news I can hang onto as far as the weather goes," said Army Capt. Chad Hood, 32, an internal medicine doctor who trained at Tampa General Hospital before joining the 86th Combat Support Hospital at Fort Campbell, Ky.

"It's going to change fast, but it's a lot better than if we just dropped (the soldiers) off in the middle of July. It's still going to be a big challenge."

Medical officials are already urging commanders to look for signs of overheating and dehydration, as well as other heat- and sand-related ailments like rashes, irritated eyes and breathing difficulties.

Already they regularly order their young charges to drink water frequently. Many units, even those that aren't in infantry, also are wearing their heavy Kevlar flak vests and helmets, to get them accustomed to being hot.

"Supervisors and leaders are constantly saying, 'Drink water, drink water, eat -- I know you're hot and don't want to eat, but eat'," said Capt. Sean P. Fay, officer in charge at the 86th Combat Support Hospital. Without adequate nutrition, it's easier to get heatstroke, he said.

He said the military also is applying lessons learned during the first Gulf War. He showed off a pair of Wiley X goggles -- essentially, a pair of sunglasses with a rubber seal around each eye that are sold commercially to motorcyclists. The military also is issuing thin scarves that will help prevent soldiers from inhaling sand.

Although acknowledging the challenges of desert warfare, the Pentagon won't agree that it is an unduly dangerous constraint.

"Many battles have been fought in the heat of summer," Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently.

Other experts agree.

Anthony Cordesman, military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the notion that U.S. troops would be significantly impaired is "militarily ridiculous."

But throughout history, major battles have been won and lost because of the weather. The examples are too numerous to count, but here are a few:

Freezing of marshlands allowed Hannibal's army to invade Italy in 217 B.C., and Genghis Kahn to do the same in China in 1200 A.D.

In 1915, wind blew chemicals back on German troops who had used them, destroying four Prussian regiments.

In 1944, Allied forces waited for what Army historians call the most famous forecast in history -- favorable air, sea and land conditions -- before launching the D-Day invasion of Europe.

In 1980, during the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission, U.S. Army intelligence officers failed to pass on forecasts of dust effects on helicopter engines.

"Weather has influenced everything from disease rates to the ease -- or difficulty -- of moving troops or supplies," said Temple military historian Gregory Urwin.

In the dozen years since the Gulf war, advances in technology and training have made U.S. forces better at all-weather combat, analysts say. During the Gulf War, U.S. bombing was at the mercy of both clouds and dust. Then, both the old-fashioned "gravity" bombs, or dumb bombs, and the new high-tech precision munitions needed good visibility for accuracy.

Bad weather often scuttled combat air sorties, and tank, truck and helicopter engines clogged repeatedly. Now, many of the most important bombs and missiles in the U.S. arsenal are guided by satellites, and better oils and filters do a better job of keeping engines running.

Forecasting is better, too, said Air Force Capt. Mark Coggins, who works in the weather branch of U.S. Central Command in Qatar.

Coggins, whose wife Kim and two children await his return in Brandon, said CentCom gathers weather information from around the world and from satellites in space in making its forecasts.

"Our ability to predict impact on operations is way ahead of where we were in the Gulf War," Coggins said. "We have better machines and better techniques."

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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