US sees boon in Afghan winter
Military plans to keep fighting, saying high-tech tools will give US troops edge in harsh climate.
WASHINGTON — The US intends to fight through Afghanistan's harsh winter and turn the bitter cold into a tactical weapon for American and opposition forces as they battle the Taliban and hunt for terrorists.
US military commanders admit that Afghanistan's brutal climate poses major challenges, with freezing rain already to blame for one US helicopter crash there.
"In any combat operation or any conflict, weather's probably your No. 1 concern," Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week. "It's no different in Afghanistan."
But the Pentagon is confident that its overall military superiority - along with key high-tech advantages in winter fighting - will allow the US-backed opposition to maintain an edge over the Taliban.
"Your US forces operate extremely well in cold-weather environments," Gen. Peter Pace, Joint Chiefs vice chairman, said in a Pentagon briefing on Monday, noting that winter cold can be "advantageous to the kinds of sensors that we use."
Indeed, US thermal imaging, using infrared sensors, works especially well in winter - making warmer objects such as tanks, troops, and buildings stand out sharply against the surrounding cold. Such sensors, mounted on US helicopters, tanks, and even individual rifle sights, produce pictures as detailed as those on television screens for targeting in day or night.
"Our ability to use infrared for close-combat operations is our ace in the hole," says an official at the US Army's night-vision directorate. The sensors, first used extensively during the 1991 Gulf War, could also help locate terrorists believed to be hiding among Afghanistan's vast web of caves and tunnels. But to identify terrorists and the Taliban "you have to get close," the night-vision official says.
US military commanders would be the first to agree that winter poses daunting obstacles to the campaign in rugged Afghanistan, where for millenniums frequent blizzards and other natural hazards have proved as tough an enemy to foreign intruders as the Afghan fighters.
From the snowy barriers of the Hindu Kush Mountains, which rise above 20,000 feet in the north, to desert sandstorms of the south, Afghanistan presents one of the world's most inhospitable winter terrains.
Such conditions have long devastated foreign invaders - from Alexander the Great in 329 BC to would-be British conquerors in the 19th century and Soviet occupiers of the 1980s - when troops suffered frostbite, snow blindness, and deadly ambushes in narrow mountain passes.
Still, US commanders contend that both sides face the same, harsh conditions, and American and opposition forces will be much better prepared for winter than will the Taliban, especially as US airstrikes impede the Taliban's ability to reequip and resupply.
US troops in Afghanistan are now working to supply anti-Taliban forces with blankets, winter clothing, and food, as well as weapons. Winter could also offer the United States an opportunity to set up fixed training camps for opposition forces, military experts say. "If the Taliban tried to move against the training camps, US air could pummel them during their movement," says retired Col. Hy Rothstein, a veteran special operations commander.
"There's lots of concern with our ability to deal with the weather over there, but because of our equipment, our clothing, and our training, US Army Special Forces definitely have the advantage," says Maj. Robert Gowan, a spokesman for the US Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, at Fort Bragg, N.C.
From thermal imaging devices on aircraft down to the "vapor barrier" boots on soldiers' feet, the US military has a range of tools designed for winter warfare - tools that the Taliban lack, military officials say.
The US Army has several divisions, including the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., and the 1,300-strong 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Carson, Colo., that train rigorously for winter campaigns.
For overland transport, US Army forces train on specially designed snowmobiles, called MOSTs ("mobile over the snow transport") as well as on snowshoes and skis.
The army also uses helicopters such as the Blackhawk that are equipped with automatic de-icing mechanisms for the rotor blades, which help keep the craft aloft despite freezing rain, snow, and other icy conditions, according to an official at the US Army's aviation and missile command. Still, severe winter weather can ground helicopters, and snow flurries can temporarily blind and disorient pilots during takeoff, he says.
In terms of winter uniforms, the Army has a new, lightweight, layered "cold weather clothing system" that officials say worked well on US troops deployed in Kosovo and Bosnia.
Using no cotton or wool, but only synthetic fabrics similar to Polartec and Gore-Tex, "the materials wick moisture away from the skin," says Neal Smedstad, a project officer in charge of cold-weather clothing at the US Army Soldier Center in Natick, Mass.
The clothing is designed to keep soldiers dry and warm to temperatures of 60 degrees F. below. "They can survive in that, and there is not a lot of fighting going on at that temperature," says Mr. Smedstad.
The winter clothing includes heat-retaining long johns, a balaclava face mask that fits under the helmet, and trigger-finger mittens. An outer pair of mittens are linked by a sleeve cord - much like children's mittens - so they can be pulled off to hang loose during combat without being lost.