International Experts on Arctic Warfare Gather For First Time At Remote Alaska Training Site

Soldiers from 12 countries and units all over the United States convened to discuss tactics, programs, and pedagogy on training military forces for operating in extreme cold environments. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA).
Soldiers from 12 countries and units all over the United States convened to discuss tactics, programs, and pedagogy on training military forces for operating in extreme cold environments. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA).

 

Just as the Defense Department is putting the country’s military focus on the Arctic and Pacific, the U.S. Army in Alaska held its first ever international summit on cold weather combat. Elite specialists in mountaineering, skiing, and Arctic survival came to the Northern Warfare Training Center near Fairbanks to learn new techniques for fighting in terrain that can itself be a weapon against troops.

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It was -10 to -20 degrees at the Black Rapid Training Site–depending on who you asked–as Chief Warrant Officer Rommel Hurtado struck a magnesium bar against his knife, casting sparks at a pile twigs and tinder.

“It’s a very tedious process,” Hurtado said, but, “nature provides.”

Hurtado was at Black Rapids for an Army course in Arctic survival. The site is an hour south of Delta Junction, and usually used for training troops stationed in Alaska on how to operate in cold terrain. But for one week in February specialists from 12 countries and a handful of domestic units paid their way from as far away as Nepal for a summit on Arctic and mountain warfare.

For for to five months of the year, specialists with the Northern Warfare Training Center teach soldiers techniques for cold weather survival and combat, sometimes spending days at a time in sub-zero temperatures during training exercises. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
For for to five months of the year, specialists with the Northern Warfare Training Center teach soldiers techniques for cold weather survival and combat, sometimes spending days at a time in sub-zero temperatures during training exercises. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

As international attention drifts further North, the Defense Department is leaning more on its military assets in Alaska.

“We recognize that cold regions are pretty significant right now, and becoming more significant,” explained Lieutenant Colonel Alan Brown, a USARAK spokesman. “The Arctic is only going to become more relevant, so military forces across the world are going to have to be able to adapt and react to these colder regions.”

Snow-shoeing up a hill in a thin white tunic, Lieutenant Colonel Francois Dufault of Canada’s Advanced Warfare Center watched soldiers and specialists ski by on the site’s groomed trails.

“I think the most important thing that we’re looking when we go outside like this is how you get dressed, because in the Arctic you know the big point is the layer system, and either you will freeze or you’re overheating,” Dufault explained. Part of his work at the summit was seeing how colleagues from other parts of the world do many of the same things, but differently, whether it be keeping rifles at an even temperature to prevent jamming, or slipping a plastic bag between layers of socks to trap moisture.

Not everything was so hands-on, though. Delegates spent a lot of time explaining to on another the finer points about their country’s cold weather military capabilities. Denmark became interested in its Arctic areas just three years ago, and is trying to integrate the unique abilities of its Home Guard in Greenland, some of whom spend months patrolling the remote coasts by dog-team. The Germans boast a mountain facility where specialists can take courses in high altitude sniper-shooting.

Lieutenant Colonel Dorjnyam Shinebayor is head of the Mongolian army’s Special Task Battalion, which is drawing on nomadic traditions for carrying artillery and supplies.

“We [use] the horse, and yaks,” Shinebeyor said. “And camel,” he added.

Sustained Unit Support Vehicles are small, durable pieces of equipment for quickly moving troops over snowy terrain. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
Sustained Unit Support Vehicles are small, durable pieces of equipment for quickly moving troops over snowy terrain. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

Some of the specialists came from countries without an obvious connection to the cold. Lieutenant Colonel Matt Rogerson oversees Australia’s rescue operations for Antarctica, as well as the rarely mentioned “Australian Alps” in the island’s interior, which get more snow annually than Switzerland.  Rogerson believes Arctic readiness is essential for the kinds of international conflicts drawing warm weather troops to cooler climates.

“The Australian Army continues to have a global mission promoting peace. And so, in particular with our U.S. partners that’s taken us to some pretty cold places, be that Korea or more recently Afghanistan,” Rogerson said. “So who knows where that next location might be, but we want to be well prepared.”

Going forward, military leaders want a better sense of who knows the most when it comes to cold weather. Sergeant Adam McQuiston has been stationed in Alaska for around a year-and-a-half, and spent part of January training with the Finnish Army’s elite Jaeger Brigade, who practically wrote the book on Arctic warfare. McQuiston is helping bring what he learned there back to the U.S. Army’s own training, lessons like how to build a fire on top of a hill after submerging in ice water–part of his coursework. As well as some training that is really only available in Finland.

“They did a reindeer slaughter,” McQuiston recalled. “One of the gentlemen brought live reindeer in, and we ended up field-dressing them, and…cooking them that night.”

But the Defense Department is sending mixed signals. The national troop draw-down could hit Alaska’s two Army bases hard, with as many as 11,100 positions potentially cut. Officials are visiting Forts Richardson and Wainwright for themselves on February 23rd and 24th (respectively), and will hear from community members during listening sessions.

Staff Sargent Manuel Bezo with USARAK at the Black Rapids Training Site, part of the Northern Warfare Training Center outside Fairbanks. (Photo: Zachariah
Staff Sargent Manuel Bezo with USARAK at the Black Rapids Training Site. Many of the soldiers who come to the site are new to Alaska and have never seen snow. Trainers show them practical survival techniques like digging re-inforced shelters into snow mounds, as well as the effects of extreme cold on equipment and cognitive faculties. (Photo: Zachariah

Yet during the week’s meeting, General Ray Odierno, head of the entire U.S. Army, flew in aboard a Blackhawk helicopter for a quick lunch with troops before giving a brief address.

“As I look at the new environment that we’re operating in around the world, in order to solve these many problems that are popping up it’s going to require a joint, inter-agency, multinational solution,” Odierno told the worldly room of specialists, elaborating on where collaborative efforts like this one fit within the Army’s overall strategy.

One auspicious absence at the event was Russia, who the U.S. military is barred from working with because of sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine. However, specialists say their interest in preparing for cold weather combat has less to do with any one particular geopolitical hot-spot than building a long-term ability to operate effectively in an area garnering more and more attention from travelers, companies, and countries.