Glacial Gambit: Advancing The Army’s Arctic Strategy
The United States faces significant questions regarding the Arctic Circle and its commitments to northern security. Just as the Arctic has experienced rapidly rising temperatures, regional competition will intensify because of the region’s strategic importance. The buildup of Russian military assets along the country’s Northern coast, China’s polar trade investments, and the alliance between these nations threaten America’s Arctic interests. The security of the Arctic is inextricably linked to the safety of the United States and its allies.
Historically, the nations with claims to the Arctic have utilized collaboration and cooperation to solve competing interests in the region. However, Russia’s recent military actions have changed the dynamic of international dialogue and have forced American leaders to reevaluate their future strategy. The United States Army has taken specific steps in identifying the foundations of its Arctic Strategy and continues to revise its lines of effort. However, the organization must continue adapting its strategic approach to ensure the safety of the nation and its allies.
First, the United States Army should develop an Arctic-specific doctrine to increase survivability and lethality for its land forces. The U.S. Army has primarily focused on counterinsurgency operations and training for the past twenty years in our efforts to establish security in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army’s doctrine and training should reflect our recent shift from the Middle East region toward great power competition. Modifying existing training doctrine for future competition will increase overall unit readiness. This Army should seek input from the Army’s 11th Airborne Division, Mountain Warfare School, Marine Rotational Forces-Europe, and the Air Force’s Arctic Survival School. These organizations and institutions have operational experience in cold-weather environments and can provide lessons learned for doctrinal publications. Utilizing the experiences of other branches offers Army leaders an operational and strategic view of how their units can integrate with broader defense systems and capabilities. United States Army Training Command, commonly called TRADOC, should first analyze which doctrinal publication requires inputs for cold-weather adaptability or modification. Next, TRADOC should gather key personnel from the identified resources to develop policies and procedures to make Army units more capable in cold-weather environments.
Second, the Army should prioritize the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center-Alaska (JPMRC-AK) as a military training center. Currently, rotational training events are conducted at Fort Polk or Fort Irwin, both of which offer hot and humid training conditions not representative of the Arctic environment. The Army should consider exchanging one of these sites for the JPMRC-AK. The Department of Defense (DoD) should work with and develop rotations with U.S. Army and Air Force National Guard units to avoid additional strain and overstretch on active duty units. The Army National Guard already utilizes the eXportable Combat Training Capability (XCTC) program, allowing teams to replicate combat training center environments in alternative locations. Partnering with JPMRC-AK and U.S. Army Alaska would create opportunities for National Guard. This would also incentivize Guard members to pursue additional training opportunities like Mountain Warfare School as cold-weather training becomes more frequent. Using XCTC’s capabilities in conjunction with the terrain offered in the U.S. Army Alaksa’s training areas will provide a more robust training experience for Soldiers and Airmen in the National Guard, giving the DoD greater force projection.
With this expansion of JPMRC-AK, the Army and other military branches should work on hosting joint training operations with its NATO partners. In 2022, the U.S. Army took part in NATO’s Exercise Cold Response with 27 countries hosted in Norway. Next March, U.S. Forces will take part in the largest joint-cold weather training exercise called Nordic Response 2024. American soldiers from across all grades and ranks share the desire to work with NATO allies. However, the Army and broader DoD can provide more training opportunities in the United States. Creating more multi-national combined arms training programs hosted in the Alaskan winters would benefit NATO military members. Potential Russian-Chinese expansion into the Arctic affects all NATO members due to the region’s economic and military importance. The Army should take more of a prominent role in hosting cold-weather training events for its allies while also sending military units abroad to represent our nation in similar training events.
Finally, the Army should continue evolving its Search and Rescue (SAR) in coordination with the Personnel Recovery (PR) capabilities of other branches. According to the U.S. Army’s Arctic Strategy, Russia has invested an estimated $1 Billion to refurbish airfields, enhance search and rescue capabilities, and upgrade radar technology. NATO members have recognized the importance of SAR/PR capabilities and have hosted training exercises like Exercise Dynamic Mercy to promote collaboration in these sectors. However, the Army should consider implementing innovative technologies and mission-specific training to reinforce its capabilities for these operations. Using the RQ-11Raven drone to aid in SAR/PR operations and providing cold-weather SAR training for Army Special Operation units would increase unit readiness and streamline these intense missions.
Over the past decade, the DoD has increased its focus on the Arctic as adversarial nations have challenged Western interests. The Arctic will continue evolving as a complicated and intricately interwoven region with many competing goals. Army decision-makers recognize the complexities of this region and have begun developing solutions for the area. However, the Army should expand its focus by developing Arctic-specific doctrine, prioritizing cold-weather training, increasing the number of multi-nation training exercises, and refining its Search and Rescue capabilities. Providing an all-encompassing direction to the Army’s Arctic strategy now will increase the likelihood of success for future Arctic operations. Working with NATO allies and its sister branches, the Army can champion strategic concepts and objectives in the Arctic region.
Ian Whitfield is a graduate student at Georgetown University, in the Security Studies Program focusing on Energy Security and climate-related security risks. Ian is also an active duty officer in the U.S. Army.
This article represents the views of the author and not that of the Department of Defense or Georgetown University.