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Fighting in sand land: operating in the harsh climate of desert regions poses many challenges for military forces. Extreme desert climates and terrain can test both man and machine to the limit. (Ground Warfare).

Severe extremes of heat, dust, sun and sand are the major challenges facing armies operating in desert regions, requiring specialist tactics, equipment and procedures. There are also unique navigational, camouflage, concealment, surveillance and health requirements for desert warfare.

Desert Warfare 2003

Deserts by their very nature are mostly desolate, uncultivated, barren and uninhabited regions. Huge sections of the Middle East, Central Asia, North and Southern Africa, the Americas and Australia are termed desert. They share many common characteristics, such as lack of or minimal vegetation and water sources, but specific climates and terrain features can vary greatly from one region to another.

The need for armies to move across deserts as a self-contained force throws up many unique equipment requirements. Every vehicle sent into the desert must have the same level of mobility, for an army is only as mobile as its slowest vehicle. A key element of desert mobility is ensuring that all the logistic equipment and resources can be moved across country by vehicle, most importantly because enemy flanking moves could threaten logistic supply lines.

The campaigns in North Africa between 1941 and 1943 were the first time large mechanised forces clashed in desert terrain and the lessons of this conflict heavily influenced post-war desert warfare tactics. As a result, new methods of maintaining mobility across sandy desert terrain, vehicle maintenance and logistic support protocols in regions with no road or rail infrastructure were developed.

The Arab-Israeli war and other conflicts in the Middle East since the 1940s have provided new lessons and experiences as new weapons and technologies have entered service. American, British, French and other allied forces have learned a great deal from their participation in the 1991 war against Iraq. These lessons have been put to use over the past decade in a series of major exercises and operations in the Middle East, as well as during operations in southwest Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2001.

These campaigns certainly brought to light the problems encountered when operating `smart' weapons based on computer technology in hot and dusty climates, but also underscored the potential of satellite navigation systems. Locating targets in dessert terrain as well as concealing troops and equipment from high technology sensors have also emerged as major issues.

Some of the problems of operating a modern high technology army in extreme desert conditions were highlighted during the British Saif Sareea II exercise in Oman in 2001. This saw some 22,500 personnel, 6500 vehicles, 49 fixed-wing aircraft and 44 helicopters deploying to the country to test Britain's rapid reaction capability and strengthen links with the Omani military. The British National Audit Office (NAO) reported that Vickers Defence Systems Challenger 2 tanks without desert warfare modifications suffered from 30 per cent unavailability rates. British helicopters were badly affected by the climate with an average availability rate of 55 per cent during the exercise. The BAE Systems AS-90 self-propelled gun, also badly affected by the heat, could only be moved at night, according to the NAO. Tents, communication systems, cargo handling equipment and logistic vehicles were all found to have reacted poorly to the desert conditions.

An enduring feature of desert warfare tactics is the emphasis on strategic, operation and tactical mobility to ensure battlefield success. Desert battlefields cover-huge areas, making it almost impossible for fixed defences or terrain features to block enemy movement. While the desert can be a challenging environment, an army that retains the ability to manoeuvre has the potential to strike at will at an opponent's open flank or concentrate on an enemy's weak spot.


The featureless nature of most deserts and problems associated with shifting sand have always plagued armed forces operating in desert regions. Magnetic and sun compasses were the staple of desert navigation until the final decade of the 20th century, but they had severe limitations and required a high level of skill and experience. In addition, these traditional methods of navigation are not accurate enough to allow the use of modern precision guided munitions, as the latter need precise location information to allow targeting data to be injected into them.

The advent of cheap and light satellite navigation technology, based on the US Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system, has transformed desert warfare. During Operation Desert Storm, tens of thousands of hand-held GPS navigation devices were made available to coalition soldiers. Many were made by Magellan and were soon popularly known as `sluggers'.

These devices allowed large formations of coalition troops to move across country in bad weather and at night, giving users accurate positioning data to within a few metres. Previously, troops would have had to halt in such conditions until a method of navigation became possible. GPS also allowed coalition artillery and air power to be used in close proximity to friendly forces with greater confidence.

The 1991 Gulf war also saw the combat debut of embedded GPS in vehicles and weapon systems, such as the Lockheed Martin/Loral Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS). Over the past eleven years these systems have become commonplace in a wide span of vehicles, such as main battle tanks and even light utility vehicles.

Selective availability of GPS data was phased out as a result of the 1996 executive order by President Bill Clinton, so non-US military users and civilians can now achieve 10 to 15-metre accuracy, compared to the previously available 100 metres. The size of handheld devices has been considerably reduced over the past decade, with mobile phone sized GPS devices now available. Most can also be easily integrated into laptop computers and other communication devices.

GPS receiver technology is now widely available to military and civil markets. In July 2001, the French-owned Thales Group acquired US GPS market leader Magellan and merged it with Thales Navigation. The four leading brands represented in this new GPS company include MLR, DSNP, Magellan and Ashtech. Thales Navigation streamlined the brands represented to maximize marketing and communications efforts. Magellan became the company's consumer GPS brand worldwide and Ashtech became the company's professional mark. Other GPS manufacturers include CMC Electronics, Trimble, Garmin, CSI, Novatel, Rojone, GPSoft, Fugawi and Micropulse.

There are many companies around the world that package GPS into vehicle navigation systems, including KVH and Smiths Aerospace in America and Litef in Germany.


High levels of cross-country mobility are essential for all vehicles involved in desert warfare. Four-by-four (4 x 4) capability is a minimum and larger vehicles should, if possible, be powered on all axles.

Winches and tow cables or bars need to be issued on a wide scale so vehicles bogged in soft sand or stuck in wadis (depressions) can be quickly recovered. Matting is also essential to place under wheels of vehicles being pulled out of soft sand to facilitate rescue.

There are numerous manufacturers of highly capable cross-country military vehicles including Switzerland's Bucher-Guyer, the manufacturer and supplier of the Duro family of 4 x 4 and 6 x 6 transports for on- and off-road military applications. In Germany Daimler Chrysler produces the Mercedes-Benz Military Vehicles brand. Italy's Iveco makes tactical trucks and military utility vehicles. In Finland Sisu makes a wide range of high mobility tactical vehicles, as does Tatra in the Czech Republic and Acmat in France.

In America, AM General's High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (Humvee or Hummer) has become the standard utility vehicle of the US Army for use in desert regions.

In production since 1982, the Oshkosh Track Corporation's Hemett (Heavy Mobility Expanded Tactical Truck) is the backbone of US Army logistics. Hemetts saw extensive action during Desert Shield/Storm and received rave reviews. Over 15,000 have been built for US and foreign armed forces. Today, Oshkosh is in the process of re-manufacturing older vehicles as well as producing new builds. This refurbishment updates the trucks with the latest technology at less than 60 percent of the cost of a new vehicle.

The eight-wheel-drive M1070 Het (Heavy Equipment Transporter) built by Oshkosh for the US Army brings increased payload and mobility to the military's heavy equipment transport mission. Its primary use is the rapid transport of the 70-plus-ton M1A1 tank to the battlefront. It also transports other tanks, fighting and recovery vehicles, self-propelled howitzers and construction equipment. Oshkosh Truck has built nearly 2000 for the US Army and other customers since August 1992.

Stewart & Stevenson has been the exclusive supplier of the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) to the US Army since 1991, this includes trucks and companion trailers for on-and off-road use.

Cooling Vehicles and Shelters

The requirement for effective air conditioning in desert conditions is obvious, with temperatures regularly reaching 45 to 50 degrees Celsius in some deserts at the height of summer.

Air conditioning, however, is not just a `nice-to-have-item'. It has become mission-critical to cool vital computers and electronic equipment. Where these are mounted in vehicles or metal/composite portable shelters, air conditioning units can be installed easily and run off an integral power supply or be connected to generators. Thermal shielding also needs to be incorporated into the shelter's structure to reduce the power required to cool it effectively. Tents and simple shelters, however, and for obvious reasons, require their own portable air conditioning units.

Satellite dishes and other antennas that need to be placed in the open require the services of portable air conditioning units to pipe cold air around their vital components. Sheets of thermal shielding can be used to wrap around vulnerable areas.

Nevertheless, and this is often forgotten, effective heating is also a must in vehicles and shelters used in desert conditions because the dramatic temperature drops that can occur at night in the desert can be equally as problematic as high daytime temperatures.

The need to operate air conditioning and heating systems at an intensive rate can result in significant increases in fuel consumption by vehicles and generators, requiring extra resources to be made available for the transport and delivery of this fuel.

Most shelters and tents customised for desert warfare are packaged together by specialist companies, such as ACD Air Shelter and ACMH Sameto in France, Fokker Special Products in the Netherlands, Dornier in Germany, Gichner Shelter Systems and the Mesa Corporation in the United States. The British company Insys, formerly Hunting, is in partnership with Giat under the Euro-Shelter banner to design and manufacture mobile shelters, medical and logistic systems.

US Bunkers of Miami, Florida, manufactures efficient shelters that resemble space vehicles and can be airlifted or sling loaded to any location and easily positioned to begin work immediately. The shelters come with any combination of options, including an emergency escape hatch and ladder, exterior video cameras, radar, communication and surveillance system equipment and M-2 guns above and below. The shelter doors can be plain, bullet-or heat-proof, and manually, electrically, hydraulically or mechanically operated, and the shelter can include air conditioning, heating, an internal water supply tank, a fuel tank or even solar panels with a battery pack.

The specialist air conditioning equipment needed for desert warfare is available from companies like Behr of Germany, who specialises in exchange systems, cooling and air conditioning equipment for engines, transmissions, crew compartments and electronics. For the Leopard 2, Behr supplied radiators, charge-air coolers, transmission oil coolers, fuel coolers and oil coolers for the turret hydraulics, water-to-water heat exchangers, engine oil heat exchangers and heaters. Further vehicles equipped with Behr cooling systems include the Pandur, Piranha, Ariete, Pizarro, Fuchs, Wiesel, Leclerc, Rokit, Centauro, Ulan, BMR, GTK, K1 Howitzer Korea, Flying Tiger and the PzH 2000.

Dantherm of Denmark has developed portable warm air heaters and transportable air conditioning units for use in the most extreme conditions. Hunter Manufacturing designs tent, shelter, cargo and vehicle heating systems that can include NBC filters and positive pressure systems.


Sand and dust in desert regions can wreak havoc with the smooth operation of weapon systems, engines and other machinery. There are several ways to minimise and overcome this problem. A major issue is the ingestion of dust into engines, causing damage and ultimately causing power failure. Tracked vehicles in particular are prone to dust problems because their tracks throw up huge clouds of dust. Given enough dust, engine air intake filters can clog up to the extent of totally starving the engine, which will eventually stall.

Side skirts that force dust down can help minimise the problem but the air intake filter is the item that needs to be concentrated on. Desert filters need to be significantly more effective than those designed for temperate climates. The air filtration systems needed for desert warfare are usually designed and manufactured by the original equipment manufacturer of the armoured vehicles concerned. Vickers Defence Systems, for example developed a `desertisation' kit for the Challengers 2s it sold to Oman and had offered elements of this package to the British.

Because they suck up such enormous volumes of air compared with diesels, and thereby a similarly increased proportion of impurities, the Textron Lycoming gas turbines of the General Dynamics M1A1 Abrams tanks used by the US, Egyptian and Saudi armies are standard fitted with sand filtration kits equipped with special self-cleaning devices because of their need to operate almost exclusively in desert conditions in the Middle East or on desert training areas in the continental United States.

Small arms, machine guns, tank main armament and artillery can also be severely affected by dust. Special lubricants can be used to prevent dust clogging but ultimately the only way to solve this problem is by regular and effective maintenance.

Helicopters are particularly vulnerable to dust during desert operations. Flying through dust clouds at low level can cause engine failure if filters do not properly protect them. Companies such as Pall produce solutions to this problem, which employ particle separation technology to filter sand and grit without reducing the airflow in a helicopter's engine and thus not affecting its power output. Rotor blades can also be severely damaged by dust erosion on their leading edges, which in effect is similar to the application of high pressure sand blasting. Many modern blades have reinforced leading edges but older blades often do not. One way to protect these blades is by the application of adhesive strips of Teflon-based material. This has a limited effect because the tape only has a short life until it flakes off. Landing aids, such as radar altimeters can also be quite useful when pilots can become disorientated in dust clouds generated by their helicopter. The phenomenon is known as `brown out'.

Optically-guided weapons on aircraft and helicopters flying at low level over desert regions are also worthy of attention. The standard glass or Perspex coverings of the optical sensors or seeker heads on missiles or bomb guidance units can be badly scratched and scared by high speed dust impacts, which can severely effect the accuracy of these weapons. QinetiQ in Britain has developed a diamond dome to cover precision-guided weapons in cooperation with De Beers Industrial Diamonds.

The domes are made using a CVD (Chemical Vapour Deposition) technique, which is a meta-stable process, where diamond is formed from excited carbon atoms in a gaseous state, at temperatures and pressures that graphite is thermodynamically more stable. Under the correct conditions, diamond crystals thousandths of a millimetre in diameter, form on a substrate and evolve into a continuous sheet of polycrystalline diamond. After growth the domes have to be configured into optical components, accurately processing the inner and outer faces to be parallel with highly polished surfaces. The finished components exhibit low loss, negligible scatter at infrared wavelengths and are suitable for a wide range of imaging applications.

Water Supply

To survive and fight in hot desert conditions, soldiers require significant quantities of water over and above normal requirements in temperate zones. For personnel working in headquarters, rear areas or driving soft skinned vehicles, normal bottled water is usually sufficient. Frontline infantry soldiers and armoured fighting vehicles crews, however, need specialised water-carrying equipment that enables them to drink without interrupting their combat activity.

CamelBak has developed an extensive range of water carrying products that are easily and comfortably attached to web equipment or rucksacks and allow the wearer to drink through a mouthpiece without needing to stop and pull out a water bottle from a holder. Similar products are also available for vehicle crews.

Following suit, Blackhawk Industries offers the Hydrastorm line of hydration systems. A Hydrastorm system contains a Nytaneon nylon reservoir for extra strength, as well as secure on-off and a triangle shaped delta bite valve. IVS back panels and compression moulded closed cell foam with channels provide performance and stability.


High temperatures and dusty conditions obviously bring with them specialised uniform requirements. Cotton and other natural fibres provide the best material for desert uniforms, reducing sweating and discomfort.

Thick leather boots can be extremely uncomfortable in hot climates and plastic soles have also been known to melt in high temperatures. Lightweight leather or canvas boots with good ventilation are essential to reduce sweating, which can be very uncomfortable and lead to foot injuries and blisters.

Nuclear, chemical and biological (NBC) protective suits in desert conditions, not surprisingly, can cause severe problems for the wearer. Wearing a traditional activated carbon-loaded filter layered NBC suit over a normal uniform can result in the wearer sweating profusely and ultimately lead to dehydration if water consumption is not increased significantly.

In an attempt to reduce the dehydration effects of wearing NBC protective clothing in hot climates the German firm Blucher has produced the Saratoga multi-role uniform that provides NBC protection. These use material with adsorptive filter layers and have been purchased in large quantities by the US military and 18 other nations around the world, including several Middle Eastern countries.


Hiding an army in the desert is not an easy task because of the lack of buildings, forests and hills that are usually used to aid concealment in temperate or tropical zones.

Until the advent of ground surveillance radar and thermal imaging sensors, desert camouflage involved following relatively straightforward principles. There was first a need to blend into the colour of the desert, to this end vehicles would be painted in sand-yellow colours and camouflage nets used to disguise the shape of vehicles. Secondly, trenches and sand ramparts called berms would be dug to hide men and vehicles below ground to break up their shape and make it more difficult for them to be spotted at long ranges. Earth excavators, bulldozers and detachable dozer blades for tracked armoured vehicles allowed armies to quickly disappear below ground level in desert terrain. The use of explosives was sometimes necessary in rocky regions to blast open the ground for excavation.

Modern sensor technology, however, has forced the development of new camouflage technology to provide protection throughout the electro-magnetic spectrum, from visual through to near infrared, thermal and radar spectrums. Camouflage nets used in desert warfare now need to be backed by heat reflective material to `merge' the temperature of the vehicle being protected with the surrounding ambient temperature. To combat synthetic aperture radar used by ground surveillance aircraft, radar defeating material has to be incorporated in camouflage netting packages. This scatters incoming signals, reflecting them in many different angular directions and reducing the reflected image received by the enemy radar processor. The shape of the netting can also be tailored to maximise its `stealth' qualities.

SSZ in Switzerland, Fibrotex in America, Blaschke Wehrtechnik in Austria and J & S Franklin in Britain all produce camouflage netting products to meet desert warfare requirements. Although some of the above companies tackle the spectrum analysis issue, there is little doubt that the most popular firm in this respect is Saab Barracuda. This Swedish company has been tricking heat, electromagnetic waves and naked eye perceptions for years now and has been the suppliers of the multiple spectrum camouflage suite used by the United Arab Emirate's Leclerc tanks.


The advent of thermal imaging technology has transformed desert warfare and has become the de facto surveillance and targeting system used by land forces deployed to desert regions.

The ability to locate heat and differentiate it from the natural heat of the ground at long ranges has, to a significant degree, negated the protection previously provided by cover and camouflage. Superior thermal sights used by the coalition forces during the 1991 Gulf war proved decisive, allowing them to engage Iraqi troops at long ranges and often before Baghdad's forces had spotted the coalition troops.

Thermal sight technology has since advanced considerably to the extent that even infantry squads now have some thermal imaging capability. When combined with lightweight ground surveillance radars, thermal imaging systems make it almost impossible for an opponent to use the night or bad weather as a shield. In flat desert terrain these systems take on added significance and utility. Major players in the thermal imaging market include, Thales and BAE Systems in Europe, ITT, DRS and Raytheon in the United States.

Thales is also a leading supplier of portable ground surveillance radars. Its Squire system is a small radar for the detection of moving ground targets up to a range of 24 km. The system, consisting of two major elements each weighing less than 17 kilograms, is compact, lightweight and can be set up in minutes.

The fielding of millimetric wave radars, such as the Lockheed Martin Longbow installed on the Boeing AH-64D Apache, offers the prospect of further revolutionising desert warfare. With their ability to `see through' bad weather and night and produce 3-D images of targets, millimetre wave radars will give those who have them an unprecedented view of the desert battlefield, stripping away what little cover exists. Current generation camouflage netting will soon be made obsolete, requiring new solutions to defeat the disadvantage this technology provides. Vehicles, however, will continue to remain highly vulnerable unless protected with `active' defensive systems, such as jammers.

Desert Future

Fighting in the desert has always been a challenge. The age-old battle with the climate and terrain continues but the introduction of modern weapon systems has meant the desert warrior of the 21st Century has a far more difficult task. Modern surveillance technology makes it almost impossible to hide on the desert battlefield.

Technology offers some solutions to these problems, but without regular training and hands-on familiarisation soldiers operating in desert conditions will always be at a disadvantage. Time and again it has been proven that armies venturing into deserts without proper preparation and planning do so at their own risk.
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Author:Ripley, Tim
Publication:Armada International
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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