Soldiers, gear put to icy extremes at Alaska test center

Rachel D'Oro Associated Press Feb. 12, 2006 12:00 AM

DELTA JUNCTION, Alaska - The Humvee's headlights shone incredibly bright, casting daylight clarity on a line of spruce trees, every needle standing out in stark contrast to the dark night of Alaska's interior. Next to the vehicle, the incandescent lights on another Humvee glowed like mere candles.

It was time to study an emerging technology in one of the harshest places on Earth, the U.S. Army's sprawling Cold Regions Test Center near Fort Greely. The center includes man-made ice fields, snow rinks and sharp slopes for rating equipment, weapons and clothing in temperatures that can pitch past 60 degrees below zero and winds so fierce they 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 SUV sliding across a skid pad on the center's 2,500-acre Mobility Test Complex.

Strange things happen when thermometers nose-dive to Alaska extremes. Metal can break, rubber can crack, motor oil can turn hard as a rock, human beings can freeze to death.

That's why the Army established the test center in 1949, to develop gear that can hold up in the coldest regions of the world. It was a response to World War II, when thousands of U.S. troops sustained cold-weather injuries, such as frostbite, in Europe.

It's the frigid version of several testing sites operating under the Army Test and Evaluation Command in extreme natural settings, including desert and tropic environments, that significantly can affect the performance of soldiers and equipment.

Winters here are consistently brutal because mountains to the north and south allow dense arctic air to settle over the landlocked region.

The center, about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks, is the military's only test site on U.S. soil that can replicate conditions of a battlefield in subzero conditions. Test crews also have access to another 670,000 acres of surrounding ranges, off-road courses and controlled airspace.

Among the current projects are those luminous headlights, being developed for the Army by Falconer, N.Y.-based Truck-Lite Co.

Equipping vehicles with light-emitting diode, or LED, headlamps bright enough for nighttime use was no more than a concept three years ago. Generally known as the tiny lights that illuminate watches, dashboards and electronics, energy-saving LED headlights are a promising technology being tried out in severe environments.

LED lights are much easier on the eyes, despite their brightness, and they should last through the 20- to 30-year life of military vehicles, predicted Marty Snyder, a project engineer with the Army's Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command based in Warren, Mich. Ultimately, such headlights will wind up on commercial vehicles as well.

Commercial clients, including automakers and suppliers, put their products through punishing exercises here, too.

Among them are TRW Automotive. In October, the company tested brakes it is developing for DaimlerChrysler's auto line for 2007. The goal was to gauge the product's performance on the slickest roads and most challenging backcountry trails, said Tom Oginsky, chief development engineer for electronic braking systems with TRW, based in Livonia, Mich., just outside Detroit.

"The thing that struck me the most about the Alaska setting is the potential," Oginsky said. "There are new facilities, everything is very well-maintained, there's a very capable crew. . . . and we're taking advantage of it."

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