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The US Army is breeding a new kind of Arctic warrior by 'testing the mettle of the human' in freezing Alaska, commander says

Chris Panella   

The US Army is breeding a new kind of Arctic warrior by 'testing the mettle of the human' in freezing Alaska, commander says
  • The Army has been engaged in Arctic training in Alaska, preparing troops to fight in subzero weather.
  • The challenging environment forces soldiers to innovate and adjust in real time while war-gaming.

In the early morning, just as the sun slowly rises up from behind the mountains, gusts of icy wind sweep across the US Army camp, whipping up snow from the ground and the trees in the surrounding forests. It's a bone-chilling cold, one felt even through any protective layers or garments.

Soldiers come and go in and out of tents, some surprisingly wearing just T-shirts, seemingly unbothered by the conditions. One sits outside eating breakfast. The temperature of 6 degrees Fahrenheit is practically spring weather, they say. Just a week before, it was minus 40 degrees, a temperature many have never had to endure.

Out on the snow-covered Alaskan tundra, US Army Pacific is pushing its soldiers to prepare to fight in subzero temperatures and hostile, unpredictable environments. It's a challenge unlike anything else in the Army, top generals told Business Insider, and a relatively new training experience that tests "the mettle of the human," one brigade-combat-team commander said.

Earlier this month, USARPAC held its annual Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center training exercise near Fairbanks, Alaska, which BI was able to observe firsthand.

Throughout the training, soldiers with the US Army's 11th Airborne Division and troops from over a dozen international allies and partners ran war-games in the Arctic, with one side posing as enemy forces. Troops adapt to freezing temperatures and unpredictable conditions, adjusting gear, kits, and equipment in real time.

Some days, the temperature is well below zero, and snow piles feet-deep in fields and forests. Other days, the weather is considerably "warmer" than usual — in the 10s or 20s. Snow isn't as prevalent, but the ground remains frozen solid. Any warmer, and there's mud caking to boots and vehicles.

"It's a harsh environment," Maj. Gen. Brian S. Eifler told BI in an in-person interview at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks. "If something happens in those conditions, you got to have a force that's ready."

On the ground, soldiers echoed similar sentiments. Some told BI the Arctic was the most difficult environment to fight in, while others said it took a specific type of mindset to survive there, let alone excel.

"There are not a lot of forces in our Army, or really in our military, that can operate here," Col. Sean Lucas told BI, calling the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center training an opportunity "to experiment with how much soldiers can endure" and "test the mettle of the human."

It's the Army's newest combat-training center, only a few years old. It conducts rotations in Alaska and Hawaii every year, giving soldiers the chance to train for combat in both the wet, humid jungle and the icy, harsh Arctic.

Both environments are at the ends of the pendulum of what the Indo-Pacific region has to offer in terms of battlefield conditions and, said Gen. Charles A. Flynn, USARPAC's commanding general, they're the "environments and conditions where our forces are most likely to operate."

The Pentagon has long identified China as the US's "pacing challenge" and made determined efforts to shift American military focus toward the Indo-Pacific region for a conflict there, but the area is also home to Russia and North Korea, presenting a host of threats.

US Indo-Pacific Command and its forces have increased their training, particularly with allies, to deter enemy forces and maintain the ability to fight across the Pacific should that fail. For many in the Army, it's a major shift in focus from over two decades of counterinsurgency fighting in the Middle East. With great-power competition and the possibility of conflict on the horizon, particularly in the Pacific, there are new investments, including the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center, to help ensure readiness.

Difficulties of the center's Alaska rotation are constant everywhere you look.

Equipment breaks; troops have to be ready to combat threats to their health, such as hypothermia; artillery pieces have to be maneuvered across ever-changing ground conditions; paratroopers land hard on icy, snowy ground. Conditions change on a day-to-day basis, making everything tougher to anticipate. Many things are experiments being worked on in real time.

One example is the new cold-weather-clothing gear, which includes several layers, or "levels." During the exercise, troops were giving feedback on the gear, how much of it was needed on a day-to-day basis, and whether it made sense to overdress or remain "comfortably cold" so as not to wind up sweating too much in the heat of battle.

"Our soldiers here are encouraged to innovate," Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph Gaskin told BI, adding that "we don't have all the answers for this environment."

When the 11th Airborne Division was reactivated in 2022, Army leadership tasked it with developing "innovative ways of operating in this environment," which Eifler has called the "most challenging" on the planet.

Without a clear guidebook on how best to fight in the Arctic, a region for which the Army released its new strategy only a few years ago, troops sometimes make it up as they go.

Soldiers develop tactics and techniques, exploring which gear is needed or how to fortify a position when there's little snow on the ground. The latter seems to be solvable by chopping down trees and using the wood. And that's not even the half of it.

The Arctic is tough and challenging, but Army leaders said the harsh environment and difficult training produced prepared and pioneering troops unlike those in any other unit. In a 2022 paper written with another Army officer called "Forging the Arctic Warrior," Eifler wrote: "It takes a special breed of Soldier to thrive in the Arctic."

Lucas said that if you could handle the Arctic, you could handle anything: "If you can lead, or you can be a soldier in the extreme cold, you can lead or be a soldier anywhere."

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