Beyond the windshield of a green Army Humvee, a long line of military vehicles--troop transports, trucks and tanks--stretches along the opposite side of a muddy road, curving away as far as the eye can see. Inside the Humvee sit a half-dozen MIT faculty and staff dressed in combat fatigues, helmets and camouflage face paint.
Professor Edwin "Ned" Thomas, director of the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, plus eight other ISN faculty and three staff members spent four days on the Ft. Polk army base in rural Louisiana in late January to observe training exercises at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC). Their objective was to see firsthand the struggles and stresses of infantry soldiers, knowledge that is key to the ISN research mission: using innovative nanotechnologies to enhance survivability.
Army units from around the country visit the JRTC on a rotating basis for intensive three-week exercises against the First Battalion, 509th Infantry. The activities are designed to simulate real battle as closely as possible. Everything is real except the bullets, shells and injuries. The soldiers must engage in large-scale maneuvers while enduring long hikes with heavy loads, exposure to cold and rain, insufficient food and water, sleep deprivation and evacuation when "injured" to a field hospital.
Although the MIT group was participating as neutral observers, members did get a taste of combat when their vehicles were ambushed by soldiers from the 509th trained to operate like typical non-U.S. guerrilla forces. They led the MIT group into the woods and "executed" four in front of the others. While many admitted having feelings of confusion, fear and anger at the time, all later agreed it was a high point of the trip.
"It was a little nerve-wracking to realize how fragile we are and how things can change in an instant," said Professor Alan Hatton of chemical engineering. "It really brought home to me what the soldier must feel out in the field, under any circumstances, anticipating ambush."
During the four-day trip, the ISN faculty asked the troops how they thought technology might make their work easier. The most frequently mentioned problem was excessive load--the average infantry soldier carries a rucksack and equipment belt that weigh 75-140 pounds. The MIT group met one squad of soldiers in the woods who said each of them had been carrying 75 pounds for six days.
Joanne Maxwell, executive administrative assistant for the ISN, tried on a rucksack and equipment belt that weighs 106 pounds. "I could barely walk, let alone run," said Maxwell, who is 5'3" and weighs 135 pounds. "I can't imagine how anyone maneuvers on a battlefield with that kind of load."
Another part of the visit took the MIT group to the Shughart-Gordon MOUT (Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) site, where soldiers train for combat in urban settings that include civilians, buildings and street vehicles. Later, the visitors used night vision goggles to walk through darkened woods. The goggles amplify small amounts of existing light in the near-infrared range to provide enhanced night vision, but they are cumbersome and disorienting.
"It's amazing how well you can see in the dark--with the help of technology," said Professor Greg Rutledge of chemical engineering. "You realize what an advantage our soldiers have over enemies who don't have this technology. It's changed the nature of combat--now we fight at night." Members of the MIT group later discussed whether night vision goggles could be reduced to the size of eyeglasses or even contact lenses.
The MIT group also visited a combat support hospital, set up in a maze of tents on a muddy field surrounded by barbed wire. Simulated casualties come to the hospital via ambulance or helicopter for treatment ranging from X-rays to surgery. The roped-off emergency room was destroyed in a mock attack the previous night and part of the hospital's generator power went out during the visit.
Mud and rain were a constant part of the trip, highlighting another key problem for the soldier: staying warm and dry on the battlefield. Professor Karen Gleason of chemical engineering suggested that a process recently invented in her laboratory (see MIT Tech Talk, Feb. 5) could be used to waterproof the exterior and interior of the lightweight quilted blanket that soldiers use in the field. "It's exciting to think we might be able to make some improvements in soldiers' gear in the near term," she said.
At the end of the trip, the visitors came away with a greater respect for the troops and a better understanding for areas of research to help them in combat.
"My strongest feeling after returning from Ft. Polk was an enormous admiration of the men and officers we met," said Professor John Joannopoulos of physics. "I'm convinced there are many things we at the ISN can do to make their lives safer and more tolerable."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 12, 2003.