US Army says it needs to ‘regain dominance’ in the Arctic, but it’s still figuring out what it needs to do it

Army Alaska Arctic paratroopers C-130J
US Army paratroopers exit a C-130J during exercise Arctic Warrior 21 in Alaska, February 8, 2021

As military activity increases in the Arctic, the US Army is putting renewed emphasis on the region, particularly Alaska, seeking to rebuild its ability to operate in the toughest conditions.

"We have a long history of training and operating out here. It really hit its peak in the '80s," Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commander of US Army Alaska, told Insider in a March interview.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the Army shifted its focus to the Middle East, adapting its formations and capabilities to better deploy and operate there. "As a result, those [Arctic] skill sets atrophied," Andrysiak said.

But the Army is refocusing on the high latitudes, underscored by the release in mid-March of its Arctic strategy, titled "Regaining Arctic Dominance."

Canadian army Chinook helicopter Alaska Arctic
US and Canadian personnel during a simulated aerial assault as part of Arctic Warrior 21, February 17, 2021.

With adversaries, namely Russia and China, increasing their activity in the Arctic, the Army "must have the proper training to endure the harsh Arctic environment during extended operations, equipment that can function in challenging terrain and extreme temperatures, and the infrastructure to sustain the force over vast distances," the document says.

Among the strategy's objectives are the creation of an operational headquarters, led by a major general, with specially trained and equipped combat brigades, an increase in the materiel readiness of Arctic-capable units, and an improvement in the training of US forces to operate in the region.

The goal is have soldiers capable of high-end operations not only in Alaska but throughout the Arctic and in mountains elsewhere, but the Army is still assessing what it needs to do that.

'In and through' the Arctic

Army Alaska Arctic paratroopers
US Army paratroopers clear snow before installing a cold-weather tent in Alaska during Arctic Warrior 21, February 7, 2021.

US Army Alaska conducted its Arctic Warrior exercise in February, reflecting a decision made last year to "start focusing on the coldest parts of the year," Andrysiak said in March.

"Now what we've been asked to do is start training in October and largely finish up by March and then build the higher-end skills to operate in and through" the Arctic, Andrysiak told Insider.

Extreme cold, snow, and mountainous terrain all present specific challenges in the winter months, and during the exercise, the Army's Combined Arms Center led a review to find where equipment fell short.

"They're in the process now of doing this very detailed gap analysis that the Army will then take in turn and figure out what they've got to do to adapt existing capabilities or, where necessary, acquire new capabilities," Andrysiak said.

Col. J.P. Clark, chief of the strategy division within the Army general staff, said at a March press conference that "shortfalls in equipment" found during the analysis "will be handled pretty quickly," with requests to address "near-term deficiencies" likely coming in the 2023 defense budget.

"We have a year to kind of dig into those questions and see where we want to have the money go," Clark said.

Army Alaska Arctic AH-64 Apache helicopter
Logistics personnel from Army Aviation and Missile Command support Arctic testing on an AH-64 Apache, February 12, 2021.

The strategy calls for equipment that can be used in temperatures as low as -65 degrees for extended periods, but much of the service's gear - such as tents, batteries, and vehicles - can't function well or at all in that extreme cold.

Freezing temperatures make it hard to keep water on hand, hindering cooking and other essential operations. Extreme cold also affects electronics, which are also hampered by the region's long distances and sparse satellite coverage.

"We've got to go back and figure out where do we need to alter the key performance parameters [for equipment] and then what modifications that we need to make to existing capabilities," Andrysiak told Insider.

The cold affects hydraulics, brakes, even weapons on vehicles, but snow poses a different challenge. "That 16 or 18 inches of snow, if you're not plowing it, they can't operate in it," Andrysiak said. Ground movement can also be hard in warmer months, when lakes, rivers, and swamps thaw.

In the 1980s, US Army Alaska had 700 small unit support vehicles, a tracked vehicle that can move through snow. Now it has "less than 50," and while the Army is working on a replacement, whether it will be what's needed "is yet to be determined," Andrysiak said.

As analysis of mobility challenges unfolds, "we can inform our modernization efforts of those potential future requirements," Elizabeth Felling, a strategic planner in the Army general staff, said at the press conference.

Infrastructure needs are also an issue. While there are many bases across the state, parts of Alaska lack transportation infrastructure, like paved roads or ports, inhibiting movement.

Army Alaska Arctic paratroopers small unit support vehicle
A Small Unit Support Vehicle (SUSV) moves paratroopers over deep snowy terrain during Arctic Warrior 21, February 9, 2021.

"If we want to be able to project power to remote locations, either we've got to change the equipment that we operate with so that it relies less on infrastructure or we've got to build the infrastructure, which takes a lot of time," Andrysiak said.

The Army is "looking at how well our bases ... support our forces and their ability to train," Felling said, adding that as training requirements become clear, so will infrastructure needs.

The Army's embrace of multi-domain operations - working with other service branches in the air, on land, at sea, and in space and cyberspace - brings with it new infrastructure requirements and new challenges for logistics and sustainment, both exacerbated by the harsh Arctic conditions.

The Army is reviewing requirements for different approaches to multi-domain operations, Clark said. "Once we kind of figure out what we want to do, then we can figure out what the logistical tail that is required."

The Army has 11,600 soldiers in Alaska, and it's "premature" to say how many more may be stationed there, but, Felling said, "options are being worked with Army senior leaders, and we expect that there will be announcements for that probably later on this year or maybe even next."

The Army has already started an Alaska-focused recruiting campaign. Other efforts are underway to improve quality of life there to boost retention.

"There's no doubt that with 'people first' being a priority for the chief of staff of the Army and [for] us ... we've got to make an investment that's commensurate - that speaks to 'people first,'" Andrysiak said.

'They're committed'

Army Alaska Arctic paratroopers
US Army paratroopers conduct a simulated attack as part of Arctic Warrior 21, February 11, 2021.

The strategy outlines how the Army will support the Defense Department's Arctic strategy, published in 2019, and officials said last month that the service's goals will take years to reach.

"We have a long time period for the implementation," Clark said. "It will be quite a bit in order to get our full multi-domain force as has been laid out. We've used 2028 and 2035 as our waypoint and our aim point."

But things are moving quickly, according to Andrysiak, who said the strategy itself came together in about six months.

"The sense of urgency and investment ... has been unprecedented, in my opinion," Andrysiak told Insider.

Andrysiak said he was "confident" that some equipment could be adapted "relatively quickly" and that there was "the right level of engagement and support" to address other shortfalls.

"There's a lot that we have to learn in the human dimension, and our ability to operate in the human dimension is largely impacted by material solutions," Andrysiak added.

"What we've got to do here has got to be measured in years, because this is just a very unique environment," Andrysiak said. "My view is with this strategy the Army knows that. It's a multi-year approach, and they're committed to that."

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