Military Tries To Cut Through The Noise Of War The military wants to reduce the deafening, chaotic roar of firefight noise so that front-line commanders can communicate with their troops.
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Military Tries To Cut Through The Noise Of War

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Military Tries To Cut Through The Noise Of War

Military Tries To Cut Through The Noise Of War

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The United States Marines are trying to control the sound of war. A battlefield can be a terrifyingly noisy place, which can make it hard for troops in combat to hear what they need to hear. So just as the military uses night vision goggles to see better, the military is trying to enhance some sounds and dampen others. Jay Price, of our member station WUNC, heard how it works at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: I'm standing on a humid practice range, just behind a group of young Marine scouts getting ready for target practice.

DAKOTA FOX: You may begin firing from the standing or the kneeling on your own.


PRICE: In combat, small units of a dozen troops might be spread 300 feet apart - the length of a football field. But even from just 10 feet away, it's hard for commanders to make themselves heard.

FOX: The command and control piece - I'm going to be controlling my team and my squad from this far away. So the simplest communication is extremely difficult.

PRICE: Leaders, like Sergeant Dakota Fox, need to be able to cut through the chaos and get orders to their troops clearly and quickly. That's why a few of Sergeant Fox's Marines are carrying weapons that are a little different.


PRICE: What were we just hearing?

FOX: The M4AI suppressed on semi-automatic and then fully automatic.

PRICE: The key word he uses there is suppressed. Small canisters attached to the end of their carbine barrels are sound suppressors. Let's listen again as one of his Marines takes more target practice - here the carbine without a suppressor.


PRICE: And with a suppressor.


PRICE: Small, elite special operations units have used suppressors for years, but the Marines want to bring them into the mainstream infantry. They've equipped 2,000 troops with them as part of an experiment. Suppressors are probably familiar to anyone who's seen a spy movie. In popular culture, they're called silencers. That name's not really accurate though. Chief Warrant Officer 5 Christian Wade is top weapons officer for the entire 2nd Marine Division.

CHRISTIAN WADE: So our weapons are still quite loud. I'd say we're taking the M4 from about 160 decibels, at the shooter's right ear if he's right-handed, down to about 130. So it's still loud.

PRICE: But they reduce and soften the sound of a shot, making it more of a thump than a sharp, loud crack. Up close, they turn a deafening noise into simply a loud one.


PRICE: And that's what front-line Marines like Sergeant Fox need.

FOX: It's a black-and-white difference. The biggest thing about this suppressor is the command and control that it allows on the battle space. I can have a conversation, just like we are right now. The fog of war is a very real thing - a very big thing.

PRICE: So that's the big thing suppressors can do for the Marines - allow commanders to cut through that deafening noise. But, Steve, it's a balancing act. It's not just quieting down the weapons. You want to change the nature of how you hear on the battlefield. You want to dampen down some sounds, let others pass through unchanged and even enhance some of them.

INSKEEP: Well, wait a minute, Jay Price. What are some of the sounds that the Marines would like to be louder, in effect, or that they can make them so they can hear them more clearly?

PRICE: Well, obviously, orders, and let's say you're in an ambush. You've set an ambush. You want to hear the enemy rustling through the brush a hundred meters away. And you want to hear them as soon as you possibly can. Or in the city, you might want to hear footsteps around a corner. Or if some of the troops you're leading have suppressed rifles and they're behind a small hill, you might not hear them if they start firing at the enemy that they've spotted even if they're just a hundred feet away.

INSKEEP: OK, so if your ears are working well enough, they're almost like radar. What can the Marines do in order to hear better?

PRICE: Well, bionic ears...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

PRICE: ...And the companies that make these things don't like to call them that because they're - that kind of suggests that they're much more special than they are, in some ways. But they're trying these special electronic headphones - sort of like the noise-canceling headphones you might use on an airplane - only they do a little more.

They cut the force of dangerously loud sounds, like explosions, but they let through things you need to hear, like commands. And then you can even turn up the amplification to hear things you might not normally hear. Human ears are designed for something else. They're not designed for explosions and gunfire and picking up furtive sounds. So these headphones kind of retool your hearing, so it works better for soldiering.

INSKEEP: How well do all these things work?

PRICE: Well, I got a loaner set from 3M, which is one of the main suppliers to the military of these things. And they really do cut the loud stuff. I mean, even clapping hands, it just - boom - dampens it down. And you can hear fainter sounds than you might hear with your own ears. I took them in the backyard late at night, listened to frogs and bugs and things and people moving around in the next yard.

But it's harder to pick out where those sounds are coming from. You know, it kind of changes the directionality and limits that. The human ears are well designed for that, and these things aren't quite there yet. But if you're aware of the limitations and when it makes sense to wear them and when it doesn't, they seem like they can be a pretty important tool.

INSKEEP: These headphones work very well for listening to the radio?

PRICE: (Laughter) They probably are not the best thing for listening to the radio.

INSKEEP: OK, all right, we'll use them at other times then. Jay, thanks very much.

PRICE: Oh, thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Jay Price is a reporter for WUNC in Durham, N.C.

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