PARIS — Paratroopers based in Alaska deployed over the Arctic Circle into Norway as part of a joint forcible entry operation in the U.S.-led Swift Response exercise last month, marking the first time a unit has rapidly deployed from Alaska into the arctic terrain of Northern Europe in the annual exercise.
While weather prevented the paratroopers from an actual jump onto a frozen lake, the preparation and everything leading up to it restored a capability the U.S. Army had from the 1950s to the 1990s.
The U.S. used to put 20,000 soldiers in “the field in the dead of winter,” Gen. Peter Andrysiak, the deputy commander of U.S. Army Europe and Africa, said at Eurosatory, a defense exhibition in Paris, last week.
“You’re talking about ranges of minus 30 to minus 60, with no issues,” he said. “They were equipped, they were trained and there was an ethos that was built into the organization. It was very unique and it has its own pride and its own identity.”
Since 9/11 pivoted U.S. military attention on war in the Middle East.
The Army “can’t sustain ourselves anymore,” in the Arctic, Andrysiak, a former U.S. Army Alaska commander and deputy commander of U.S. Alaskan Command, told Defense News in an interview.
The deployment over the Arctic Circle and the jump, he said, were meant to teach the U.S. Army how to bring back the capability to sustain itself in such a harsh environment.
The Arctic has become increasingly important strategically for many global powers. Russia’s continued military investments in the region is one of the reasons the U.S. and NATO countries are focusing more on defense planning in the region.
Last year, following the release of the Army’s Arctic Strategy, the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth as well as all the other centers of expertise, conducted a gap study of everything that would be needed to operate in a sustained fashion in extremely cold environments.
Some of the issues the study shed light on included the inability for artillery to shoot in extreme cold and for wheeled vehicles limitations moving through up to 18 inches of snow.
“Our ability to get off the road and go drive through a piece of open terrain,” Andrysiak said, “we don’t have it.”
The Army has worked out a rough roadmap to improve, but tinkering and evaluation remains including taking pages from militaries accustomed to operating in the cold. For example, some have all-skiing units, some use snow-shoes and some have a mix. The U.S. Army will need to decide what is the right balance for the force.
The one major difference compared to other militaries that have units operating in the Arctic is that the U.S. Army plans to not only use the region for operations but as a place from which to project forces strategically, Andrysiak said, and that needs to be included in its calculus as it selects equipment and trains.
Just recently the Army has made some major changes to its Arctic force, announcing last month, its plan to reactivate the 11th Airborne Division in Alaska and remove Stryker combat vehicles from the force structure there.
Andrysiak noted this will require changes in equipment, structure, strategy and training.
Army replacement vehicle
The Army is honing in on a replacement for a critical vehicle needed for operations in Arctic regions. The service held a competitive evaluation last year for six months, assessing the Beowulf cold-weather, all-terrain vehicle from BAE System’s Land and Armaments and Hagglunds business units, and a vehicle from a team of American firm Oshkosh Defense and the land systems division of Singapore’s ST Engineering.
The service is expected to make a decision on which vehicle to build and field in the coming weeks. The vehicles are meant to replace the now-aging Small Unit Support Vehicle used in Alaska.
BAE Systems displayed the “big brother” of Beowulf, the BvS10 All-Terrain Vehicle at Eurosatory, which is an armored version of its entry in the U.S. CATV competition.
The BvS10 has five customers: Sweden, the U.K., the Netherlands, France and Austria.
European nations are coming together as well to procure a larger order of Bvs10s. BAE expects an announcement on the deal soon, according to Mark Signorelli, the company’s vice president of platforms and services.
Now that Strykers are coming out of Alaska, BAE sees an opportunity now to provide not only unarmored Beowulf vehicles to the U.S. Army if they are selected for the CATV program, but also armored BvS10s.
“At least conceptually, they’re talking about a mix of armored and unarmored vehicles,” Signorelli said.
Oshkosh Defense did not attend Eurosatory, but ST Engineering brought the Bronco tracked all-terrain vehicle, on which the team’s prototype evaluated for CATV was based, displaying it at its booth on the showroom floor.
Now as the Army looks at equipping these formations, “they’re going to come up with what is the type of vehicle needed. The technology exists,” Andrysiak said, adding the vehicle ultimately chosen will need to have an armored variant.
The vehicle offered by Oskosh and ST Engineering is armored.
Units are also spending all of their time now training in Alaska and other cold-weather environments rather than traveling to the National Training Center and other irrelevant and dissimilar locations to the environment, Andrysiak noted. This is an important shift, he said, at regaining an ethos for Arctic units.
Vendors at Eurosatory emphasized, increasingly this year, arctic operational capability from heating and shelter solutions to improved arctic camouflage to tracked vehicles designed for easy maneuver on snow or ice.
Denmark’s outdoor pavilion was entirely focused on the Arctic, seemingly out of place as exhibits baked in the late-spring Parisian sun. The display showed how Danish industry is coming together on a project to create a mobile command post that can operate in extreme weather conditions. The concept was tested in Eurosatory 2018 and has since evolved.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.