Colin Powell recently announced that we expect to have completed our mission and be out of Afghanistan before the winter. This may be a veiled threat to the Taliban that they should not try to wait us out, because if there is American military activity on the ground in Afghanistan in the winter, troops will run into the problem that has always plagued foreign armies there: the incredibly harsh winter weather. Even Afghanistan?s own civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance usually shuts down between November and April.
However, it is also true that there are specialized US forces that are the best trained and equipped to operate in adverse weather conditions that the world has ever known. US forces are far more winter-capable than the Taliban, the mujahideen or even the Soviet forces that they defeated.
Snow arrives in blizzards over the center and north of the country. In the mountains, temperatures can fall to ?40F. Snow drifts up to 10 feet deep form and the wind chill means that a 15 mph wind can take the temperature down to -85F, in which exposed flesh freezes in less than 30 seconds.
The cold regions research laboratory of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that it takes 80% longer to repair a damaged runway on a snowy, windy day, than it would in summer. They say that, ?The effects on soldiers include increased time to perform tasks, reduced dexterity and accuracy, reduced grip strength, and failure to achieve adequate concentration on the task at hand.?
Modern armies use clothing based on the principle of insulation, layering, and ventilation. Inner layers are made of fabrics which retain heat but draw perspiration away from the skin, and an outer layer which lets perspiration evaporate, while repelling water on the outside. But even the best cold-weather clothing is cumbersome, greatly increasing the energy needed to do anything.
When the Russians were fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, soldiers found their cotton sleeping bags didn?t work. They tried to capture light, waterproof Western-made bags from mujahideen fighters.
The U.S. Army?s Research Institute of Environmental Medicine says soldiers need to eat 4,500 calories a day, while the diet is 2,000 to 2,500. And they need to drink more water, since water in the bloodstream improves circulation, sending more blood to the hands and feet. The caffeine in coffee dehydrates the body, so it?s better to drink something warm, sweet and non-caffeinated, like hot cocoa. ?Soldiers must drink even when they are not thirsty,? the institute warns. Below 10 degrees Fahrenheit their standard-issue canteens and five-gallon metal water containers can freeze. Snow can be thawed to provide water, but cold also drastically reduces the effectiveness of chlorine or iodine water purification.
The human body keeps warm by shivering and vasoconstriction. But shivering burns energy, which is one reason why soldiers need to consume more calories than normal. Vasoconstriction is the tightening of blood vessels in the skin. This reduces blood flow and conserves heat, but can lead to numbness, loss of dexterity in hands and fingers and eventually frostbite.
People do not naturally acclimatize to cold as well as they do to heat, so troops must be trained, mentally and emotionally, to adjust to cold conditions. The armies of Indian and Pakistan are trained to fight at high altitudes and in very cold weather as a result of their conflict in Kashmir, yet they still have many casualties as a result of the cold.
Soldiers also have to take greater care of their equipment. The action of a weapon can jam. The British Army?s Standard combat rifle, the SA80, is being modified because its complexity means it?s prone to jamming in extreme climates, either hot or cold. American troops use the M16 ArmaLite which is more reliable and is being adopted by the British SAS special forces in Afghanistan.
Snow-covered or wet ground presents difficulties for heavy military vehicles. And in extreme cold, fuel and hydraulic fluids can freeze. Icing is always a problem for aircraft. Frost, snow and freezing rain can affect aerodynamic surfaces, engine inlets and windscreens, meaning that it can take up to four hours to prepare a single aircraft for flight.
The composite materials on newer aircraft can be damaged by scraping and the use of heat to get rid of ice. The usual deicing method is to use glycol-based solutions. But glycol can be damaging to some airplane parts as well environmentally unfriendly and expensive.
Problems don?t go away when a plane is airborne. The melted ice can refreeze and block control lines. Helicopters and turboprops, which fly at relatively low altitudes and speeds, are most at risk. Research is being carried out on new detection systems that can figure out where icing will occur.
Pilots can become disorientated when flying in such a high degree of whiteness. During the Falklands War, two English helicopters sent to recover SAS troops crashed in a ?whiteout.?
David Jordan of the Center for Defense Studies at King?s College in London says snow can also cause ground mapping radar to malfunction. It shows what is called ?high clutter,? scattering reflected radar signals. GPS satellite positioning systems are not affected by this, but the targeting radar of ?smart? weapons could be, and infra-red targeting suffers major problems in winter. Jordan says that ?some of the likely targets, such as training camps? could affect radar this way, ?so the Americans might use conventional, ?dumb? or iron bombs.? Long-range bombers flying from bases such as Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean could deliver as many as eighty-four 500 pound bombs.
?The problem then really is only getting to the target area and shoveling large amounts of unguided ordnance onto it,? says Jordan. ?Whether that?s what they would do is another matter. They might prefer to use special operations forces on the ground.? So far, it looks like we?re doing both, but who knows what we?ll be doing in a month or so?
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