U.S. military units have long used technology like night vision goggles to enhance their sense of sight.
Now they're trying to get a battlefield edge with their ears, too.
The Marine Corps is experimenting with quieted-down weapons and electronic hearing enhancements that could reshape the soundscape of warfare. They want to minimize some sounds and amplify others to get more control over what they and their enemies hear.
About 2,000 Marines have been testing carbines fitted with sound suppressors. The devices have long been used by special operations units, and the Marines want to expand their use into the mainstream infantry.
The primary goal is to reduce the deafening, chaotic roar of firefight noise so that front-line commanders can communicate with their troops.
"The simplest communication is extremely difficult," said Sgt. Dakota Fox, as he supervised a quartet of young Marines on a Camp Lejeune,
It's even more of a challenge to communicate in an actual firefight, Fox said, when a dozen Marines or more might be spread across 150 yards, shooting rifles and machine guns at once.
Equipping the weapons with suppressors — cylindrical canisters on the end of the barrel — changes the volume and texture of the sound.
"It's a black-and-white difference," Fox said. "The biggest thing about the suppressor is the command and control it allows on the battle space. I can have a conversation [at a normal level] without having to raise my voice or tone or anything like that."
"The fog of war is a very real thing," Fox said. "The suppressor helps mitigate part of that."
Weapons are quieter, but still loud
Suppressors are probably familiar to anyone who's seen a James Bond movie. In firearms law and popular culture they're called "silencers."
That name's not really accurate, though. Up close, they turn a painful, deafening noise into simply a loud one, making it more of a "thump" than a sharp crack.
"We're taking the M4 carbine from about 160 decibels at the shooter's right ear, if he's right-handed, down to about 130," said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Christian Wade. "130 decibels is still quite loud."
Wade is the gunner-- the top weapons officer — for the Camp Lejeune-based 2nd Marine Division. He's overseeing the experiment for the division, which has about 1,000 suppressors.
So far, Wade says the Marine Corps' experience with the devices has been mostly positive. Besides helping troops communicate, suppressors lower the risk of hearing damage and help troops hide from the enemy, because they conceal the flash of a shot and make it harder to pinpoint a Marine's location by sound.
The experiment has shown that suppressors even improve marksmanship. That's partly because Marines are less distracted by the sound of their own weapon and those around them.
"They're actually firing using the fundamentals of marksmanship, and they're not worried about what the heck is going on to their left or the right," Wade said. "They're using far less ammunition and gaining far more hits with suppressors."
A "loud problem" and a "quiet problem"
There are some downsides, though. Wade said suppressors add weight to weapons and can get searingly hot. They also can cause firearms to need more cleaning and maintenance.
And quieter weapons aren't always good thing.
Wade said that point was driven home when he was observing Marines training with suppressor-equipped weapons in California. He heard bullets smacking into a nearby target, but he couldn't hear the shots themselves. They were being fired by a Marine behind a small hill just 25 yards away.
That's when he realized commanders might not immediately know that their troops had seen an enemy and started shooting. It's also true, Wade said, that enemy forces are increasingly likely to have suppressed weapons of their own.
So Wade decided to borrow something else from Marine special operations to expand the experiment: a helmet system with electronic headphones that digitally process sounds. They reduce the volume of loud noises such as explosions, but raise up other sounds that would normally be too quiet to hear.
Audiologist Eric Fallon said the military has both a "loud problem" and a "quiet problem."
If you use conventional ear plugs to block loud sounds, you may miss the soft ones that you need to hear to survive on the battlefield, he said. On the other hand, if you don't use hearing protection, you might be temporarily deafened at a moment when it's crucial to be able to hear.
"If you just look at the loud noises and you don't understand the quiet, then you're probably not going to offer a solution that is going to be readily adopted on the battlefield," said Fallon, a retired Army officer. "You do need your hearing for that auditory situational awareness."
Like the suppressors, the headsets are proven technology. In addition to special operations units, they're also used in industry and by civilian sport shooters. But Wade said the idea is to see if they help mainstream infantry troops who are typically younger, less experienced, and have different roles from the stealthy special operations outfits.
While the headset experiment is just starting, Wade said the suppressors may only need a few tweaks before they're ready for widespread use.
He said that has the potential to not only make the battlefield quieter, but also to change how Marines think about combat success. In the experiments, Marines are paying more attention to what they're accomplishing with their shooting, rather than putting too much emphasis on how loud their weapons are.
"No longer is this illusion of everybody's firing, we're making a bunch of noise, therefore, we must be kicking the enemy's butt," Wade said. "Marines are shooting and they're looking at the effect of their fire."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
PRICE: And with a suppressor.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
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...
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.