Senior Army officers and civilians delivered a candid assessment of the freezing challenges the US Army faced in operating in the Arctic during a panel discussion at the Association of the U.S. Army’s (AUSA) main annual convention in Washington, D.C.
In order for the U.S. Army to be able to operate effectively in the increasingly vital Arctic region, it must overcome a number of obstacles in addition to merely surviving there. Traditional strategies, approaches, and processes, as well as many common weapons and other items, literally do not work in this region of the world. This is leading to calls for novel and creative solutions to a variety of issues, many of which may be easily resolved in more temperate climates.
During a panel discussion at the Association of the U.S. Army’s (AUSA) main annual convention in Washington, D.C., last week, senior Army officers and civilians delivered a candid assessment of the challenges the service faced in operating in the Arctic. They emphasized how the High North troops face particular equipment-related and logistical issues with everything from satellite communications to merely keeping batteries charged. This is due to the very freezing temperatures and basic topography. Many operational duties are also far more difficult than they would be at lower latitudes, such as setting up artillery positions, performing basic first aid, and simply getting from point A to point B.
A New Arctic Army
The U.S. military has been giving the Arctic newfound strategic attention for years. Polar ice caps are melting as a result of global climate change, providing greater access to resources and trade routes. As a result, there is now fresh geopolitical competition, which raises the possibility of confrontation, particularly with China and Russia.
Even though the Army has a long history of operating in extremely cold climates at high altitudes and latitudes, particularly in Alaska, its emphasis on combat in these environments gradually decreased during the Cold War. With the adoption of a new Arctic policy in 2021 and the reactivation of the 11th Airborne Division at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska as an Arctic-focused unit last year, the service has more recently attempted to rectify its trajectory.
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To say that this has come along with new challenges is an understatement.
“Quite honestly, the Army likes to give everybody the same communications gear [and other equipment]. Like everybody gets the same of this, everybody gets the same of that. That doesn’t work in the Arctic,” Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, head of the 11th Airborne, said during last week’s panel talk. “A lot of the equipment [does] not function well.”
Communicating In The Arctic
Due to the location of the great majority of constellations in space around the Earth, satellite connection is a well-known problem at higher latitudes. This affects the 11th Airborne’s and other High North-based troops’ capacity to communicate, share information, navigate, and utilize other space-based capabilities that other Army units take for granted.
“If you’re trying to get satellite TV up in the Arctic Circle, your satellite dish would be pointing right down along the ground, because that’s where it’s going to get the satellite, maybe, if it’s not obstructed,” Maj. Gen. Eifler explained. “We’re doing some more innovative techniques [to help ensure connectivity], but that I won’t talk about here.”
He did mention that the Army and SpaceX have been discussing how to use Starlink, which is widely scattered in nature and thus offers more potential links. He also mentioned Iridium Satellite Communications, a company that has several satellites in specifically designated polar orbits. Satellites will be severely targeted in any future global battle, and potential foes like China are currently looking into ways to attack scattered constellations.
The commander of the 11th Airborne observed that line-of-sight communications suites are highly vital to his forces as a result, even if they are more constrained in their capabilities, due to the problems limiting satellite coverage in the Arctic.
“What we found in the Arctic, as some of our Arctic neighbors know, is the older the equipment is, the better it works. The more technology you have, the more challenges you have,” Maj. Gen. Eifler said. “So sometimes the technology is our enemy.”
Dmitry Kornev, the creator of the MilitaryRussia.ru portal, said that the Russian nuclear cruise missile called ‘Burevestnik’, which translates to “Stormbringer,” can bankrupt the US war machine.
Line-of-sight links can nevertheless benefit from more recent advancements even though they can be seen as an older (and hence less capable) technology, at least for some applications. This includes the utilization of networked drones as relay nodes and highly adjustable software-defined radios.
Frozen Weapons And Equipment
Weapons and other devices made to operate in more temperate climates simply cannot withstand the high cold temperatures frequently encountered in and around the Arctic.
“You think of hydraulics and things that freeze … metals, you know, sort of changes that at like 15, below zero, right? That’s why they don’t operate chairlifts [at ski resorts] at 15 below zero, by the way,” Maj. Gen. Eifler explained. “You talk about triple sevens [the 155mm M777 towed howitzer], the artillery piece, a lot of hydraulics to that. It starts having some challenges at freezing temperatures.”
The Army pulled a fleet of 8×8 Stryker wheeled vehicles from Alaska last year, in part due to ongoing issues keeping them operational in frigid weather. Those trucks had been deployed to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, 11th Airborne Division.
For operations in and around the Arctic, the Army is currently in the midst of obtaining and fielding new, specialized Cold Weather All-Terrain Vehicles (CATV), about which you can learn more here. Currently, the service possesses four CATVs, which are employed for a variety of preliminary testing and evaluation activities in Alaska and at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. It is anticipated that the fleet will eventually reach a total of 163 cars.
One effect of the cold on equipment is that it might seize up to the point of being useless. Arctic regions can experience extremely low temperatures that can seriously harm several systems physically.
“You pull out a tablet – if we want to use a tablet, or something like that, to do fires [artillery or other long-range strikes] or planning or anything like that – if it’s exposed in that temperature, it’s gone,” the head of the 11th Airborne continued. “Certain temperatures, just the ambient air hitting it will crack everything on it.”
Even if tablets and other electronic gadgets are not physically harmed, they might not function. Battery life has been a persistent problem for military activities in and near the Arctic. Typical electrochemical batteries lose their charge much more quickly than usual in extremely cold temperatures.
“Just to put it in context, if you have your cell phone with you and you take it out for two minutes, it’ll go from 100% to zero in the temperatures we’re talking about,” according to Maj. Gen. Eifler.
A shorter battery life also makes it more difficult to utilize normal Army vehicles and other heavy equipment, even though communications systems and other electronics are the first things that come to mind when considering how they affect operations.
According to the 11th Airborne commander, Elon Musk and a team from the IT industry have met with the Army to discuss the usage of vehicle batteries in extremely cold climates. Tesla, whose CEO is Elon Musk, specializes in the development and manufacturing of cutting-edge batteries in partnership with businesses like Panasonic and LG Energy Solution.
One relatively recent piece of equipment that has been created to keep batteries warm was emphasized by Douglas Tamilio, the Director of the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center and another participant in last week’s Arctic panel discussion at AUSA. The Natick Soldier Systems Center, located in Natick, Massachusetts, houses the Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center. This facility, also known as Natick Labs or simply Natick, is a key location for the creation of new specialized clothing and other personal gear, combat rations like Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) and other ‘feeding systems,’ as well as other products aimed at enhancing the efficiency and standard of living of personnel across the U.S. military.
“So we took some technology we [developed] for Afghanistan and Iraq, which is to keep [blood] plasma cold in a bag,” Tamilio explained. “We re-engineered it, we modified it, and we now have a bag that can go down to minus 40 degrees… and keep, I think it’s nine BB-2590s and 18 conformable batteries, warm enough to be used for 72 hours.”
The problem with this, of course, is that it creates a cyclical logistical necessity if the battery warmer itself needs external power. It will be difficult to find alternative energy sources that will function well in the Arctic to address this problem. Maj. Gen. Eifler brought out the fact that higher latitude regions, where there is little to no sunlight for large periods of the year, have limited utility for solar power, for example.
From Just Surviving to Operate
Overall, ensuring that units can live in these harsh conditions is only a portion of the Army’s current Arctic operations issue. Before the service can actually work on increasing its actual operational capacity in the High North, that obstacle needs to be overcome.
“About a year and a half ago, I went up and visited General Eifler, at his request. … He said a couple of things to me that really, I took to heart,” Natick’s Douglas Tamilio recounted last week. “He said, ‘our soldiers have got to first be able to survive in these temperatures, and then operate.’ And at that time, he said, ‘we’re just learning how to survive, we got to get better to operate.'”
Maj. Gen. Eifler of the 11th Airborne did admit that the same difficulties would confront any prospective foes the United States would encounter in the Arctic. The commander and Sgt. Maj. Daley also pointed out that there are numerous other military services throughout the world that routinely carry out high altitude and high latitude operations.
Potential foes are included in this, particularly Russia, which maintains a sizable permanent military force above the Arctic Circle. In order to assist their operations in the High North, Russian ground troops have acquired a variety of specialized weaponry, vehicles, and other equipment over the years.
Allies and partners of the United States are also among the countries with extensive expertise in carrying out missions in harsh climates and mountainous terrain, including the Arctic. In order to benefit from their experience, the 11th Airborne has been actively interacting with a number of them.
“We stay very busy. We stay aligned a lot with our Scandinavian partners in Finland, Norway, and Sweden. We stay partnered with our Canadian allies,” Maj. Gen. Eifler said. “So this year, we’re doing 18 separate exercises. I don’t think any division is doing more than that. But [we] try to focus on the extreme cold environments across INDOPACOM [the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility], i.e. Mongolia, [the] Himalayas with India – we just did an operation with them – Korea, Japan, northern Japan, but then balance that with our Arctic requirements with some of those other nations.”
“Ask the Indian Army. They’re doing it on the daily, all right?” Sgt. Maj. Daley added. “So there is a viability” when it comes to conducting routine high altitude, high latitude operations.
It is important to note that the 11th Airborne Division’s morale and discipline have been negatively impacted by a number of factors, including this exercise schedule and dealing with extremely cold weather on a daily basis, according to a detailed report published by Military.com last month.
“It is a tough environment. It’s the harshest on the planet, and it takes a different type of person to be able to survive, let alone thrive in that environment,” Maj. Gen. Eifler said last week. “And that’s what we’ve been working on for the last couple of years.:
Up in the High North, “whoever can stay the warmest wins in a fight. At that moment, I don’t think you’re fighting the enemy; I think you’re just trying to survive,” he continued.
The High North is only going to become more strategically important, and the Army needs to have a stronger presence there now more than ever, said Maj. Gen. Eifler and Sgt. Maj. Daley. The service will need to develop novel and creative solutions to deal with the particular difficulties that its units encounter in this region of the world, even when doing the most elementary tasks if it is to be able to operate effectively in and around the Arctic.