Most people think of military science in terms of defeating the forces of the other side. But it also involves keeping our troops sheltered, clothed and fed, as well as protected from adversaries like exhaustion, infection, heat and noise. A noted investigative journalist explains the less well known side of military research.
Mary Roach, author: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
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Reed Pence: When our soldiers go to war, they’re trained to know all about the enemy–the opponent who seeks to have them in his crosshairs. The pentagon spends billions on armament development to seek out and destroy those forces. But for much of our deployed military, the biggest adversaries are often more everyday challenges–things like exhaustion, infection, heat, and noise. The pentagon spends a lot on research to combat those, too: methods not to destroy the other side, but to keep ours alive. Mary Roach goes into the labs to see how it’s done for her new book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.
Mary Roach: Alive and relatively comfortable and also some of it is about putting them back together, should something happen. But yeah, it’s not bullets and bombs. I’m leaving that to the Discovery Channel and thewire.com people and all the tech-y types because that’s not where my interest lies. I’m kind of a human body sort of person.
Pence: Roach finds the unusual and illuminating in every subject she examines. We’ve interviewed her previously about her books Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. She admits she stumbled onto the subject of military research while she was doing a story at the Indian Defense Ministry.
Roach: I was reporting on a story some years ago in NATA (Natural Areas Training Academy) land about the hottest pepper in the world and there was a pepper eating contest there, etc, and someone told me that the Indian Defense Ministry had weaponized this very hot chili in a non lethal weapon, cause you know, it’s kind of a tear gas kind of thing, a little chili pepper bomb which in fact they never deployed because it didn’t work as well as they might have thought. But I went over to this lab, Science Branch of the Indian Defense Ministry, and it was just this really interesting day. There was a guy there who works on mosquito repellent who was also working on a leech repellent that they were testing out in the river, rolling up their trousers and putting this stuff on and letting the leeches come over and I thought, well maybe military science, it’s kind of surprising the areas that it gets into. You tend to just think about bullets, bombs and the effects of bullets and bombs.
Pence: But when Roach came back to the United States and started looking into the labs, she found that military science is incredibly wide ranging.
Roach: Some of it was with bioengineers who are folks that I first met when I was working on Stiff. They were trying to come up with a very specific crash test dummy for underbody blasts, for personnel carriers. So there were bioengineers. I spent time with military entomologists, that is a discipline I had no idea existed. Military entomology. They were folks who were working on new transplantation techniques. Sleep deprivation is another area. Submarine escape, it’s all over the map.
Pence: Some of the ways military gear is tested are decidedly low tech. For example, a piece of artillery with a 60-foot barrel called the chicken gun.
Roach: The chicken gun is kind of what it sounds like. It’s a gun that fires chickens, specifically supermarket chickens that had been frozen and thawed. And it’s firing them at the canopy of a jet usually or a part of a jet and it’s to simulate bird strike which costs the Air Force and the aviation industry a good amount of money every year and also sometimes causes a plane to go down and lives to be lost, not that often, but it does happen. So the chicken gun is a way to test canopies. You fire the carcass at the canopy. The chicken is an odd choice because the chicken doesn’t fly, it’s also denser than birds that fly or float around wetlands near an airport. So it’s kind of a worse case scenario.
Pence: In this case, chickens represent mostly turkey vultures. Roach says turkey vultures make up only 1% of air force bird strikes, but do 40% of the damage. But much smaller birds can be dangerous, too.
Roach: Something like a starling, because it’s small, can actually rather than sort of collapsing, it could just sort of pierce it like a bullet. It’s the feathered bullet phenomenon and they like hit you in the head as the pilot and that would be a bad situation. So, the more you look into something, the weirder and more interesting it gets, I find.
Pence: The military does a huge amount of research on its land vehicles as well. But engineers are well aware that the enemy pays attention to our improvements. Roach says an installation of heavier armor on the sides of our vehicles prompted the enemy to move from roadside bombs to roadway devices, prompting us to improve the shape of the vehicle chassis.
Roach: The flat chassis, like your typical truck bed, if you drive over a bomb and it goes off underneath, all of that energy slams straight up into the cowl and then if you’re sitting in a seat that’s bolted to that chassis and your feet are right on there, you get slammed in the feet. You get these horrific injuries. So one of the things that’s been done in recent years is to change to shape of the cowl so it’s a V shape or a double V and that deflects the energy off to either side. So that helps. Also unbolted the feet so they’re kind of floating in a way, they’re almost like on shock absorbers, so provided you keep your feet off the floor, which of course on a long drive, not everybody’s gonna do that, but those are two of the improvements that they’ve made.
Pence: It’s a deadly cat-and-mouse game, and we’re past easy answers. You can attach only so much armor to a vehicle before it becomes so heavy it’s immoveable. So scientists think of every other little thing. Even Kevlar underwear, though it would have to be about 35 ply to be bulletproof.
Roach: There is Kevlar underwear, but what it would stand is, if there is an explosion, an IED, where there’s a lot of dirt that gets blasted at tremendous speed and that dirt is carrying bacteria. And so the wounds that you get from that can get infected and that can be really tough to conquer that infection. So Kevlar underwear, they’re not bombproof, that word gets tossed around, of course they’re not bombproof if the insurgents can make a bomb that will throw a vehicle in the air. They are certainly going to be able to blow up your underwear. But it would protect you against that blasted debris and dirt and sand that would cause infection.
Pence: The rest of the uniform gets no less thought.
Roach: I spent time in the flame resistance lab and then went over to the chemical repellency lab. If you have a kind of textile that will shed not just water or things that have a high surface tension that roll off, you can create fabrics that will shed anything, which is a good thing to have in a case of chemical attack. So that and they’ve also got insect repellency built in, anti-microbial stink proofing built in, they have to be breathable and comfortable and not too hot. They’ve got to come in under budget, it’s got to be something you can print easily, camouflage print onto all of these different technologies have to work together which complicates everything. So it’s this surprisingly complex undertaking that begins to explain why costs get so high.
Pence: The uniform any personnel wear is tailored for their specific job. If a soldier is most at risk of fire, then flame resistance takes precedence. If someone’s a sniper, he may wear the newly designed top that roach saw in its designer’s studio.
Roach: It had kind of a sleek, very plain front, which looked kind of fashion-forward and then she explained that wasn’t fashion, it was function. It had a side closure because a zipper down the front or even buttons would be very uncomfortable if you spend your days or significant portion of your days lying on your belly waiting for something to happen. So you want to move the closure to the side. And I said, well why can’t you use Velcro, and she said well Velcro is loud. But that’s not something that somebody whose job involves stealth doesn’t want to open their jacket and have it go ‘rrrriiiiip!’
Pence: And while scientists are trying to endow everything that soldiers wear, eat, sleep in and carry with all kinds of qualities, they also need to make them cool and lightweight. Soldiers on a two-day ruck march in Afghanistan typically carry packs weighing 95 pounds… And where it’s extremely hot, they may lose up to 22 pounds of sweat in an active day.
Roach: The combination of really high heat, very hot, heavy body armor and physical exertion of carrying a heavy pack or a machine gun or whatever it is you’re carrying can have catastrophic consequences because it sets up this competition for bodily fluids, because sweat comes from blood plasma, the clear portion of blood. And when you start to get hot, your body wants to shunt a lot of the blood to the capillaries of the skin. That’s why you flush and offload the heat to the sweat glands. It vaporizes; it goes into the air away from your body. But if you’re exercising and you’re exerting yourself, your muscles want the blood. So there’s this competition. Something has to give, and sometimes the body will shut down the gut or not enough blood makes it to the brain and you pass out. And if it’s serious enough, and you’re dehydrated, or if you’ve been taking weight lifting supplements which happens a lot on bases in the Middle East, that can complicate things even further. You can have a sometimes-fatal case of heat stroke.
Pence: Of course, sweating isn’t the only potentially deadly way military personnel can lose water. Roach says in 2003 and 2004, more than three-quarters of all combatants in Iraq came down with diarrhea. It’s even worse among special operations forces who work outside of military bases with no access to safe food and water. That’s why she says, depending on the mission, diarrhea can be a threat to national security. So scientists are looking for a quick one-dose cure.
Roach: If you’re a special operations team and say you’re going to Osama Bin Laden’s compound and you’ve been eating on the economy as they say in a small rural village area that might not have the best refrigeration or treated water, these folks get diarrhea, pretty serious food poisoning diarrhea, twice as often as more standard deployed service members. So we have a situation where, you know, if you’re going in and you’re on a mission, your team is very small, you can’t just go ‘Oh you know what, I don’t feel so good. I’ll be right over here by over here behind this rock’. You just go ahead and do it. You’re right in the middle of a mission; well you’re not going to stop. It’s not going to be a kill stopper as they say.
Pence: When our military personnel finish their deployments and head home, they carry with them the scars of their service. Some may be physical. Often they’re psychological. But the number one expenditure of the veterans affairs department–a billion dollars per year– is for disability payments for hearing loss and tinnitus. So the military takes it seriously. But doing something about the noise of war isn’t as simple as earplugs.
Roach: Earplugs and ear cuffs work well to dampen loud noise but what they also do is make it really hard to communicate and to hear important information and to help you stay aware of your environment. So if 50-to-60% of your situational awareness, they say is from your hearing. And that’s true in combat; it’s true if you’re riding a bike down the street. So you put big bubble hearing protection, which sometimes they wear for certain heavy artillery, now you can’t hear what people around you are saying. And I spoke to people in special operations who said, yeah, you’d expect to, when you leave, you’d expect to take with you some hearing loss, it’s just a given. The choices you either risk damaging your hearing or you risk losing your life. So, you know, most people, the last thing they’re worried about when a firefight breaks out and things go kinetic as they, the last thing they’re worried about is their hearing. They’re just trying to stay alive. So they’re not gonna put on ear plugs.
Pence: What scientists have developed instead answers all of the needs of those on the ground. The biggest problem is that they’re new so not everyone has them yet.
Roach: The special operations guys are wearing, it’s a pretty cool system, it’s a communication and protection system, practical communication and protection system key cap. So it’s a cuff that quiets a loud noise and amplifies a quiet noise and there’s a mouthpiece that you can speak wirelessly with the other people in your unit. So that is a pretty coveted item.
Pence: What we’ve talked about here merely scratches the surface of the work going on to keep our military safe and more or less comfortable. Sometimes what scientists come up with finds its way into our own lives far from the battlefield.
You can find out more about Mary Roach and her book, Grunt, on her website… MaryRoach.net or through a link on our website, radiohealthjournal.net. You can also find archives of our programs there, and on iTunes and Stitcher.
I’m Reed Pence.