WASHINGTON — The Army released a new strategy on how to operate in the Arctic, one that would set up headquarters and units capable of working across all domains and establish a stronger foothold in the region.
The goal is for the strategy to serve as a way to preserve national interests, project power globally and defend the homeland.
The strategy was posted to the Army’s website March 16 directly after the Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville wrapped up his keynote speech at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Global Force Next virtual conference.
McConville had teased the strategy in January at an AUSA engagement.
The service developed the strategy because of the growing relevance of the Arctic and the increased threat in the region as U.S. adversaries such as Russia and China continue to lay ever-increasing claims on northern territory and waterways due to economic interests.
“Many of our competitors are focused on the Arctic and also many of our allies and partners have been concerned about that competition,” McConville said.
The strategy’s goal is for the service to be “able to rapidly generate and project Multi-Domain forces globally that are specifically trained, equipped, and sustained to fight, win and survive in extreme cold weather and rugged mountainous conditions over extended periods.”
The Army plans to use its forces in the region “to project power from, within, and into the Arctic to conduct and sustain extended operations in competition, crisis, and conflict from a position of advantage,” according to the strategy.
The force posture will “defend the homeland and pose dilemmas for great power competitors” and will strengthen relationships with allies and partners “to maintain regional stability,” the strategy read.
Multidomain Task Force in Alaska
More specifically, the Army wants to establish a Multidomain Task Force (MDTF) unit in Alaska, including a division headquarters with “specially trained and equipped combat brigades to recapture our cold-weather dominance,” the document stated.
”The Army’s decision to place an MDTF in Alaska is the first step in setting the conditions for success,” the strategy stated. There the unit would have access to world-class training facilities and the presence of the Air Force and Navy.
“Multidomain formations, particularly those with extended ranges such as the Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF), have clear potential in the Arctic -- an area of operations characterized by vast distances and where air and naval avenues of approach are critical,” the strategy noted.
And units have “significant potential to create anti-access/area denial challenges for competitors,” according to the document.
The unit would also help the military to experiment and advance Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control that would support multidomain operations.
The MDTF stationed in Alaska would “experiment in delivery of tactical to strategic effects in the region,” the strategy read, and provide opportunities to test the Army’s modernization priority capabilities performance in extreme environments while examining operational concepts specific to the Arctic.
The unit would be able to review the ability of space capabilities to support operations within a unique and challenging electromagnetic spectrum, the strategy said.
However, reaching the service’s full potential in the Arctic is easier said than done. The region has three combatant command claiming areas of responsibility; network integration is difficult in the extreme cold, there is high latitude and limited commercial infrastructure; and major logistical challenges exist because of the Arctic’s inhospitable nature, the strategy noted.
For an MDTF unit to work it will require the formations to “converge their effects with the rest of the joint force and allies and partners,” the document stated.
Getting the Arctic advantage right
To make the strategy work, the Army must examine its force structure for maneuver, sustainment, fires, intelligence, protection and command-and-control capability.
In addition, a fresh look at command and unit relationships in the Arctic region will be needed. “The current unit distribution and alignment for Arctic operations may require reconfiguration,” according to the strategy. “The Army will evaluate, and adjust as necessary, tactical and operational headquarters and unit relationships in the Arctic to best support Joint Force operations.”
The service also wants to be able to build cold-weather operations capability across the force that would enable it to move cold-weather trained forces into the Arctic region stationed elsewhere. That could mean establishing Army prepositioned stock such as ground-based air defense capability.
The strategy also commits the Army to improving materiel readiness of Arctic-capable units that would conduct extended operations in extremely cold temperatures.
“Through leveraging testing facilities we will assess protection requirements in the snow, extreme cold, and sub-arctic environments to inform our development and procurement of future generations of cold weather clothing systems and essential medical capabilities,” the strategy details.
The service plans to examine ways to improve mobility in an Arctic environment. That could mean improving the current Cold-weather All-Terrain Vehicle, according to the document. The Army also wants to replace its existing fleet of Small Unit Support Vehicles “to mitigate maneuver challenges of the current wheeled fleet,” the strategy notes.
And the Army will look into what more it needs to do to change vehicles to provide “four-season mobility” in the Arctic, which can actually be more challenging outside of the winter months when forces might face more dangerous conditions as terrain softens.
The strategy also calls for a look at new power generation systems. “Power generation in the Arctic is a significant challenge due to vast distances, extreme temperatures, and inadequate sustainment infrastructure,” the document stated.
The region will need enhanced space-based communications and data coverage, according to the strategy, and the service will need to build terrestrial-based retransmission sites there in order to improve the limited infrastructure.
“In the interim and as a reinforcing effort, the Army will consider building widely dispersed hard shelter communications and retransmission sites or multi-spectral communication relay towers,” the document read.
The Army also needs to improve its ability to set up and run mobile command posts in the Arctic.
“Airborne forces stationed in Alaska require en route mission command/early entry mission command capabilities to effectively support world‐wide airborne forcible entry operations,” the strategy stated. “Improvements in equipment would enhance ability to execute mission command functions, maintain situational awareness, and optimally conduct operations.”
There are also opportunities to further develop unmanned technologies for Arctic units where manned aviation operations are limited.
Cyber capabilities may also need to be tweaked to operate in the Arctic’s challenging spectrum. “Improving commanders’ information capabilities may require adaptation to current fielding of Cyberspace Electromagnetic Activities cells and potential posture adaptations to ensure the Army has adequate Arctic-capable cyber and information operations forces,” the document read.
Across the board, the Army plans to increase developmental testing for system performance in extreme cold and plans to use soldier touchpoints of new equipment integrated into winter training to ensure equipment that would go to Arctic units are suitable as the service modernizes.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.