British troops getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan are being issued with electronic sound-cancelling earplugs designed to let them hear what they need to - orders, conversations, enemy footfalls - but prevent hearing damage caused by explosions, gunfire and so on.
News of the new digi-plugs comes courtesy of the Times, reporting from the ranks of 19 Light Brigade* as it prepares to head out to Helmand Province later this year.
As the Times notes, the heavy-duty fighting in Afghanistan - with intense firefights, with much use of heavy weapons, airstrikes, artillery and so forth being routine - has taken its toll on British troops' hearing, with many having to be taken off combat status as a result. Normal earplugs or ear defenders have long been issued, but tend not to be worn as they prevent soldiers hearing orders, radio calls or other necessary sounds.
Hence the new earplugs from Racal Acoustics. They operate on a different principle to the sound-cancelling buds/headsets now popular in the consumer market. Each plug has an external mike and a normal internal speaker, and connects to the existing Personal Role Radio - the short-range radio worn by individual soldiers to talk to their teammates.
According to an MoD statement:
The TTS will compress any loud external noises and feed them back to the wearer's ears at a safe level thereby providing hearing protection and situational awareness. Speech is passed to the radio via the TTS ensuring the soldier remains in communication with his team.
The system is called Personalised Interfaced Hearing Protection (PIHP), and apparently the plugs are "individually moulded" for better ear protection. The MoD says it has bought 10,000 sets and intends that units headed into combat in Afghanistan - starting with 19 Light this year - will be routinely equipped with them.
The Telegraph's headline writers believe that the PIHP plugs are similar to those "used by pop stars from Madonna to Take That to protect their hearing", which seems reasonable.
The earplugs and the process of making individually-moulded seals for each soldier are said to cost £500 a set, but the MoD anticipates a saving overall as fewer soldiers will be rendered unfit for combat and/or require compensation for hearing loss.
So far there's no word on the competing concept of volume-knob pills. ®
19 Light Brigade is the British Army's new light-infantry formation, organised and equipped in the same way as the elite Air Assault and Commando brigades - though without their special training and badges. (The rest of the combat army are still configured primarily for armoured/mechanised warfare.)
As the MoD note, the unit is officially known as "the Black Panthers". Other names have occasionally been employed by those who feared that the new brigade would be lumbered with all the rubbish jobs: but this doesn't seem to have come true. Afghanistan is the place to be, these days.