Posted: Mar. 14, 2003 When the wind blows Sandstorms complicate war preparations
BY JULIAN E. BARNES Julian E. Barnes, a U.S. News senior editor, is reporting from Camp Arifjan, the Army's logistical hub, where thousands of reservists and active-duty soldiers provide support for combat troops in the field.
CAMP ARIFJAN, KUWAITThe sandstorm that whipped through Kuwait on Wednesday night rattled the tents here to their stakes, bit into the faces of soldiers, hampered communications, and stalled trucks in their tracks. The military has been carefully assessing the difficulties the heat poses for the American Army, from underperforming aircraft to overheated soldiers. But the dust storms that careen through Kuwait and Iraq are proving to be an equal challenge.
At Camp Arifjan, home to 15,500 soldiers and the military's logistic hub, sandstorms have knocked out the base's communications several timesonce blacking out communications for 24 hours. Here and at other bases in Kuwait, the military is completely dependent on satellites to maintain communications. And the sandstorms make it very difficult for the base's satellite dishes to pick up a signal. "If you have dust in the air, it is like shooting through a mountain," says Lt. Col. David O'Neal of the Army Central Command. "Dust is a big problem." According to soldiers who have been at Arifjan since Thanksgiving, the sandstorm that hit Wednesday and Thursday morning was the worst yet. O'Neal says the base's communications were degraded but not knocked out, in part because the Army has installed three other satellite links to beat the dust.
Still, a dust storm that is ferocious enough could cut off the base from the front and the rest of the world, O'Neal says. "We have four satellites. If they are all knocked out, we have nothing," he says. The sand does not just stop satellites. A dust storm in February contributed to the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter that killed four soldiers in the desert north of Kuwait. And Thursday morning's storms ground to a halt several transportation convoys shuttling between Arifjan and the Iraqi border. "Cars had to stop," says Warrant Officer Trevor Cameron of the 773rd Transportation Company, an Army reservist from East Meadow, N.Y. "People couldn't see out their vehicles." Vicious sandstorms have been known to cover roadways and reduce visibility to nothing. "It's like a snowstorm without the water," says Sgt. 1st Class Larry Klass, who also serves with the 773rd TransportationCompany. After a storm the sand is everywhere, filling shoes and pockets, clogging electronic gear, and grinding into scalps. The sand is also almost as much of a hassle to soldiers as the heat is. "You can't see, and a lot of stuff gets up your nose," says Spc. Enekia Bryant of the 53rd Movement Control Battalion. "You don't want to go outside. The sand is everywhere. You get it your face and in your hair."
The sandstorm also obstructed combat jets patrolling the southern Iraq no-fly zoneOperation Southern Watchfrom the three U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. When winds unexpectedly kicked up to 30 knots and visibility sank to zero on Wednesday, the USS Constellation canceled flight operations midsession and diverted seven in-flight planes to a nearby Bahrain airport.
Smart bombs guided by the Global Positioning Systemwhich the Navy says will facilitate Saddam Hussein's ouster without flattening Iraq's civilian infrastructurecan find their way through dicey weather, but obstructed visibility could affect human spotters who provide pilots with target coordinates. "Clearly, we won't be firing if we can't see what we're doing," says Rear Adm.Barry Costello, citing a desire to avoid friendly-fire incidents and excessive civilian casualties, "unless we're shooting at a fixed target." Tests of the Tomahawk missile, the weapon of first choice for a first strike on Iraq, continued, as sailors simulated a launch.