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Humvee crews prepare for deadly game of chicken

CAMP NEW YORK, Kuwait—The soldiers of Delta Company are preparing for a deadly game of chicken against Iraq.

With missiles mounted on their Humvees, this unit of the Army's 101st Airborne Division must find and destroy enemy armor in a few seconds. If they miss, they will become the targets.

"In my mind I see tanks, a lot of tanks," said Pfc. Marco Silva, 24, of Miami. "Back home it's easy to go to the range and shoot at a moving target. Now we're in the real thing, and they're going to shoot back—it's a different game."

The ITAS-TOW (Improved Target Acquisition System—Tube-launched, Optically-sighted, Wire-guided) shoots one missile at a time from a long tube.

Delta Company Sgt. 1st Class Sylvester Wilcox, a Memphis, Tenn., native with more than a decade of experience in the infantry, sat down recently to describe how it works.

A gunner on top of a Humvee identifies an enemy tank and centers a scope that is linked to an anti-armor missile. He activates a laser, which bounces off the tank and comes back with a range measurement. The tank is, say, 6,000 meters away. The TOW has a maximum range of 3,750 meters.

"Any hesitation at this point will get you killed," said Pfc. Glenn Bradburn, a 24-year-old gunner from Detroit. "I just think about hitting my target, because if I don't all it's going to do is piss someone off."

Once given clearance to fire by the vehicle commander, the gunner picks a spot in the sand (with luck there's a ridge or some sort of land formation to aim for) that is about 3,700 meters away, and he waits for the tank to cross that line. At that distance, a tank is the size of the tip of a man's pinky finger in the scope. If the Humvee driver has done his job, the vehicle will be positioned to the side of the tank instead of facing its frontal armor.

After the prey crosses the threshold, the gunner fires. The missile shoots out of its canister in a blast of smoke and heat, kicking up a sand cloud that both temporarily blinds the gunner and gives away the Humvee's position to the enemy.

Now begins the longest, white-knuckle moments in a young gunner's life.

At that range, it will take 15 seconds for the missile to hit the tank.

One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand ...

During that time, the gunner MUST keep his sight on the tank because there's one laser beam that's guided by the sight and another that is transmitted back by the missile. The TOW system crunches the coordinates of the two in order to hit the target.

As those seconds crawl by, the tank may get off a shot at the vulnerable, unprotected Humvee.

"It's an awfully unnerving thing to see a tank turn and fire on you," said Wilcox. He mimicked a gunner's shaking hands. "You pray he holds, that's the human factor."

... Eight one-thousand, nine one-thousand, ten one-thousand ...

The tank's main gun probably has a range of about 2,000 meters. At 3,700 meters, the Humvee is too far away, and the tank's round will just explode into the ground. Hopefully, the gunner remembers that and stays cool.

"That's what always scares me—if he gets off a round before I do," Silva said.

If he jerks the scope because of the tank round coming his way, the missile will fly off in the wrong direction.

... Fourteen one-thousand, fifteen one-thousand.

The missile hits its target, boring a small hole into the side of the tank where it ignites fuel and ammunition, killing the crew.

"You try to treat the tank as a thing," Wilcox said. "You're killing a thing and not people."

Jasawa Drumheller, a 20-year-old Humvee driver from Richmond, Va., is concerned—at least outwardly—about the practicalities of winning the game of chicken.

He fills hours every day poring over study cards that have pictures of three angles of tanks he may run into in the Iraqi desert. He needs to memorize each of them in case his gunner is killed and he has to jump behind the trigger.

"A lot of friendly tanks look like enemy tanks," he said. "The only thing I'm going to be able to do is shoot whatever's moving if I don't know the tanks."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.