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In Alaska, Army goes to extremes to test gear

Center tries out weapons, clothing in brutal winters

DELTA JUNCTION, Alaska -- Strange and terrifying things happen when the temperature drops to Alaska extremes. Metal can break, rubber can crack, motor oil can become as hard as a rock, humans can freeze to death.

On a battlefield, the extreme temperatures could mean disaster. That is why the Army tests equipment, weapons, and clothing at one of the coldest, harshest places on earth, about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks in Alaska's interior.

The Army's Cold Regions Test Center near Fort Greely includes man-made ice fields, snow rinks, and sharp slopes for trying out gear in temperatures that can plummet to more than 60 degrees below zero and winds that can whip snow into a blinding fog.

''We get to play with all the cool toys before the Army does. Watch this," said Jeff Lipscomb, the center's technical director, as he sent his sport utility vehicle sliding across a skid pad at the testing grounds, which sprawl over 670,000 acres.

The Army established the test center in 1949 after thousands of troops during World War II suffered frostbite and other cold-weather injuries in Europe. The Army also has desert and tropical test grounds.

The winters in Alaska are consistently brutal because mountains to the north and south allow dense arctic air to settle over the landlocked terrain.

Among the projects in Alaska are the superbright headlights that are being developed for the Army by Truck-Lite Co., a Falconer, N.Y.-based company. On a recent black night, the new headlights, mounted on a Humvee, shone incredibly bright, casting daylight clarity on a line of spruce trees. The incandescent lights on another Humvee glowed like mere candles in comparison.

The headlights use LED, or light-emitting diode, technology, just like digital watches, dashboards, and kitchen appliances. LED headlights use less juice in the cold than conventional ones. Plus, they are whiter and reach farther.

''They tend to penetrate blowing snow, so you can see better instead of looking at a huge fog," said John Viggato, a civilian tester.

LED lights are also much easier on the eyes, despite their brightness, and should last through the 20- to 30-year life of military vehicles, said Marty Snyder, an engineer with the Army's Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command based in Warren, Mich.

The lights' high beams failed in hot weather at test sites in Panama and near Carson City, Nev., but the problem was easily corrected, and the prototypes are performing well in Alaska, Snyder said.

Commercial clients, including automakers and suppliers, also put their products through punishing exercises in Alaska. Among them are TRW Automotive, which in October tested brakes it is developing for DaimlerChrysler.

The goal was to gauge the product's performance on the slickest roads and most challenging backcountry trails.

But the military remains the main focus at the center.

''We've done everything from hats to helicopters, boots to tanks, gloves to missiles," Lipscomb said. ''If someone has a need to test something, we can get it done here."

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