The Army is ready to upgrade Alaskan forces in preparation for combat in the Arctic

The Army is ready to upgrade Alaskan forces in preparation for combat in the Arctic

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. Army is poised to overhaul its Alaskan forces to better prepare for future cold-weather conflicts and is expected to deploy the larger, heavily equipped Stryker Brigade in the state with a more mobile infantry unit better suited to cold combat, Army leaders say.

Minister of the Army Christine Wormuth said she expects to make a final decision about the Alaska troop transfer soon and said she will likely convert the Stryker unit, which uses heavy, eight-wheeled vehicles, into an infantry brigade.

“I think right now the purpose of the Alaskan forces is much more to create a formation that’s capable of extreme cold weather” that could be deployed in Europe or the Indo-Pacific, Wormuth told The Associated Press in a recent Travel to Alaska to meet up with high-ranking commanders and troops. “We’re trying to get to a place where we have arctic forces – forces that can survive and operate in that environment.”

The US has long viewed the Arctic as a growing area of ​​competition with Russia and China, especially as climate change brings warmer temperatures and opens the sea routes for longer periods. But officials have acknowledged that the US is lagging behind those nations. Russia has taken steps to increase its military presence there, and China considers the region economically valuable for shipping and natural resources.

The changes in the army were considered well before the rise in US tensions with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

Under the new Army plan, the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, now based in Alaska, would be converted into a light infantry brigade. Along with the division’s 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the two units become the 11th Airborne Division, based in Alaska. And the somewhat aging large Stryker vehicles would be replaced with other vehicles better suited to the icy and snowy terrain, Wormuth said.

The increased focus on cold-weather warfare involves conducting major training exercises for Alaska-based troops in their home state in the weather conditions they would face in an arctic combat. The troops were due to go to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in March, but Army leaders decided to keep them in Alaska so they could train under the freezing temperatures and frozen terrain they would encounter in any cold weather. weather battle.

“I think it really makes sense to have forces trained in the arctic environments they’re deployed to,” Wormuth said after spending two days at the still-snowy base. “If we’re going to have ground forces in Alaska, they have to be able to do that. You can’t have that experience if you go to the Mojave Desert or Fort Polk.”

Last year, in a first test event, Pacific forces stayed in Hawaii for their scheduled drills at the National Training Center in California’s Mohave Desert. Commanders said they learned from those first two steps as they attempted to restore conditions and move personnel and equipment from well-established training centers to more remote locations.

During her visit to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Wormuth met commanders who described the training shift as a success. Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commander of the US Army Alaska, said the benefits outweighed any shortcomings created by the need to build infrastructure for the training exercise in the remote north.

“You get the best of both worlds without losing too much,” said Eifler. “We got a lot more out of it than we thought.”

Eifler said that while they didn’t have as many training observers or civilian role players as at one of the training centers, the trainers who came were able to learn more about arctic weather operations.

Additionally, Eifler said the change avoids the costly and time-consuming process of shipping vehicles, weapons and other equipment to and from Louisiana. The lengthy packaging and shipping process before and after a training exercise in Louisiana or California often forces troops to be without their weapon systems and other equipment for weeks.

During briefings at the Alaska base, commanders said the training involved large-scale combat operations in extreme weather conditions in “the most challenging environment on earth.” They said 10,000 troops – including the Canadian Army and Air Force – were involved in the exercise.

But they said the exercise also underscores the need for better cold-weather vehicles, including ones that can transport Arctic infantry troops.

Gen. Joseph Martin, the deputy army chief who was in Alaska this year, said the service was researching what the best type of vehicle for the troops would be. “Is the Stryker the right vehicle for an arctic warrior? In winter you need vehicles that can move over snow,” he said.

In addition, he said, the vehicle must be able to operate during spring or summer thaws when the ground turns to mud.

As Wormuth concluded her visit, she suggested that the decision on the Stryker Brigade be taken forward soon. Any final decision would need to be approved by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

“If you’re doing big equipment moves and things like that, summer is a pretty important time window because it’s a lot easier to move vehicles than it is to do it in the dead of winter,” she said.

And in talks with members of Congress, including during a hearing this week, she made it clear that the change would not reduce the number of soldiers in Alaska. Instead, she said that while the infantry brigade would be smaller, the Army would make up for this loss by increasing headquarters’ size and capabilities.

More broadly, she spoke to commanders in Alaska about the potential need for further changes as the US military’s Arctic strategy evolves.

The US, Wormuth said, has opposed efforts to militarize the Arctic even as Russia has increased its military presence and base there. But, she said, “given what the Russians are doing in Ukraine, will that mindset persist? Or will that be made up for? Will that create a window to think about things differently?”

Commanders said there were questions about whether any of the Pentagon’s combat commands — such as European Command or Colorado-based Northern Command — should assume full responsibility for the Arctic and the U.S. military role there. Wormuth said the issue needed to be discussed further and any decision could be years away.

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