Attrition: A Solution Worse Than The Disease


December 3, 2011: Sometimes one great idea is quickly overtaken by a better one. An example of this is how the Micro-Climate Cooling System was replaced by robotics. Six years ago, after more than five years of effort, vehicle crews in Iraq received their long anticipated "air conditioned suit." Well, actually it's a vest that will cool the wearer. The U.S. Army's "Micro-Climate Cooling System" is a vest full of tiny tubes that carry cooled water (with some non-toxic antifreeze added). Worn under the flak jacket, it keeps the trunk of the wearer cool, thus greatly reducing the "heat load" and potential for heat stroke or heat fatigue among troops who have to operate in very hot climates. The vest makes it possible for such troops to stay alert for nearly six hours, versus less than two hours without the vests. The system was first developed for pilots in smaller (un-air-conditioned) helicopters or door gunners of larger choppers. But the army sent 500 of the vests for use by troops operating in hummers, which are often not air conditioned. Troops who stand and man the turret machine-gun many hummers are equipped with, are particularly in need of the vest. This was true until the remotely controlled turrets began to arrive in quantity, greatly reducing the need for turret gunners. No overheated turret gunners meant no more need for the Micro-Climate Cooling System.

The vest did not completely disappear. Helicopter crews, especially the crew chiefs who man a machine-gun mounted on an open door, have always had a problem with the hot weather. Few military helicopters have air conditioning, even for the pilots, and the crew chief on the UH-60 Blackhawk has to stay on his feet, and alert, for up to three hours at a time. In tropical areas, be they Vietnam four decades ago, or Iraq and Afghanistan more recently, that can be a real chore. The crew chief wears a fire-resistant jumpsuit, flak jacket and helmet. Flying low to the ground, the heat is often over 100 degrees. Often there's not much breeze, for the chopper frequently hovers or moves slowly (under fifty kilometers an hour.) So the crew chief has to fight the heat while staying alert to any potential threats below. When the helicopter lands, the crew chief has to help with loading or unloading personnel or cargo, and maybe run around the chopper to check for any damage.

But there were some unique problems with the vest. The cooling vest could only be used in vehicles, because the entire unit consists of the vest, a 5.9 kg (13 pound) cooling unit and an umbilical cord that attached to the vest. The cooling unit is plugged into the vehicles electrical system. The vests cost about $7,000 each and the army sought to equip the crews of over 9,000 helicopters with the vests by 2010. Not that many were eventually distributed because the demand was not as great as expected. Even in hot weather, crew chiefs in UH-60 and CH-47 transports found they had to move around too much during missions to make staying attached to the umbilical cord practical. 

The army had originally planned to issue the vest to troops in 2004, but problems making the system reliable enough for troop use delayed things. The vest was tested in Iraq eight years ago, and that's where the reliability problems were discovered. The army also had a similar cooling system, for foot troops, in development. This 7.7 kg (17 pound) system is carried on the back, and an internal combustion engine supplied the power for the vest. About six ounces of fuel kept the vest going for about five hours. The infantry declined this item with as much dignity as they could muster. It was noisy, more weight and a solution that was worse than the disease.



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