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Sandstorms and Heat Among the Challenges US Forces Face in Iraq - 2003-03-18

Rising temperatures and frequent sandstorms in the Gulf region are a concern for U.S. troops trying to maintain peak readiness for a war against Iraq.

A night-time training mission for Chinook helicopter pilots was canceled Sunday, after weather forecasters predicted a vicious sandstorm was heading toward northern Kuwait from Saudi Arabia.

No one was surprised. In the past two weeks, bad weather has forced Bravo Company 159 of the U.S. Army's 12th Aviation Brigade to cancel more than 75 percent of its scheduled training missions.

A series of regional sandstorms, some packing more than 80 kilometers per hour winds, have knocked down tents, clogged vehicles and weaponry, and have generally made life miserable for the more than 250,000 U.S. and British troops in Kuwait.

But Chief Warrant Officer Eric Hughes, a Chinook helicopter pilot, said sandstorms are much more than a nuisance to Army aviators. "Sandstorms are very critical here," he said. "It is very dangerous for us, obviously. You saw the Black Hawk that crashed due to a sandstorm."

Earlier this month, four crew members of a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter on a training mission in Kuwait were killed after they encountered a sudden storm that severely reduced their visibility.

And the weather could get even worse. April is known as the sandstorm month in the Gulf.

The bad weather has U.S. Army aviators and crew members desperately hoping for a final resolution to the diplomatic wrangling at the United Nations that for weeks has delayed Washington's decision on whether to go to war.

The men and women here are welcoming small signs that the impasse may be coming to an end. Last Wednesday, all U.S. soldiers and Marines in Kuwait were ordered to start carrying what they call the "full battle rattle", including weapons, flak jackets, kevlar helmets, and biochemical gear. They were also issued live ammunition. Everyone received seven magazines of 30 rounds each.

U.S. soldiers and Marines have also set their watches to what they call Zulu time, which corresponds to Universal Time, or the former Greenwich Mean Time. The U.S. military imposes the clock adjustment before major military operations to keep everyone synchronized.

Time could make a critical difference, especially for U.S. Army aviators.

In addition to sandstorms, temperatures in the Persian Gulf region are already creeping daily toward the 30 degrees Celsius mark.

That is nothing compared to the scorching 45 degrees Celsius that will bake the region in another six weeks. But even 30 degrees can take a toll on helicopters, which have less lift in the hotter, thinner air and can carry less weight.

Since Chinooks serve as the prime mover for the U.S. Army, ferrying troops, artillery, ammunitions, fuel, water, and other supplies to the battlefield, pilots worry Chinooks' inability to carry a full load each time they fly could lead to problems if hostilities begin.

A Chinook pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Ken Gunter, said while he does not believe sandstorms and high temperatures will keep his unit from performing their duties in a war, the storms could definitely affect how well they perform. "I think we can fly in them, but it is going to be a lot slower going," he said.

The sandstorm that that was forecast for Sunday never hit, but another storm is in the forecast for Tuesday.