'Incredibly Hard': US Forces Prep for Winter Combat
As the Arctic gains importance and great-power competition expands the battlefield, more soldiers and Marines are learning to fight in the cold.
The difficulties of winter combat in Ukraine are not lost on the U.S. military, which has been increasing its own cold-weather preparations as the Arctic rises in strategic importance and great power competition enlarges the potential battlefield.
The Pentagon puts hundreds of troops through weeks of training each year to learn how to operate in cold weather’s complex and dangerous conditions.
Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, recently traveled to Alaska, California, and Norway to learn how to spot avalanche-prone slopes, how to check for frostbite, and how to hump their packs safely across snowy terrain.
“I think it’s extremely important. As you know we're a force in readiness, so we have to stand ready to deploy and fight in any clime and place, at any time,” said Col. Steven Sutey, the commander of 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune.
A veteran of cold-weather exercises, Suety was with his Marines last month at the service’s Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California, as part of a month-long mountain- and cold-weather training exercise.
The Army has also embraced the importance of operating in the Arctic. Last year, it turned its Alaska command into a full-fledged division, both to better execute its new Arctic strategy and to build up the service’s cold-weather expertise.
“We are stationed in it, we live it. So it's not a ‘just come and visit and train’, it is like 365, and you got to train in this environment all year,” said Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, who leads this “Arctic Angels” division.
Eifler said the Army’s Northern Warfare Training Center in eastern Alaska is training twice as many troops since the new division stood up.
Even elite units find the conditions difficult.
“Most of the time, I hate to say it, but we got to bail them out. We've had to bail out a number of Special Operations units because they don't really understand the environment we're in,” said the division’s Command Sgt. Maj. Vern Daley.
Winter conditions can shape operations. During the Afghanistan war, some U.S. troops trained in cold-weather survival ahead of their deployment because of the country’s treacherous mountains, where snow could make routes impassable for months.
In Ukraine, soldiers on both sides of the conflict have tried to take advantage of the frozen earth to move their tracked vehicles. Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are expected to launch an offensive before spring rains turn the ground muddy.
Sutey said his Marines’ recent exercise grounds saw two major storms dump six feet of snow on their base camp and 11 feet higher up in the training area.
“So these operations, the mountain and cold-weather operations, are inherently difficult. [Marines] shouldn't encounter them for the first time in combat,” he said. “So it's important for them to get exposure to it, to learn how to operate in the mountains and the snow. But it's also important for them to build a confidence in their ability to operate in any environment, in the harshest, most extreme environments out there, [that] they can still do their job.”
Marines moved on skis from one training location to the next, bearing their packs and equipment. 1st Lt. Liam Burke, a company executive officer with 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, attended a “train the trainer” course in December in Norway above the Arctic Circle where they ski-marched more than 18 miles over four days.
Working in the cold “was incredibly hard,” Burke said. “For example, we thought a five-kilometer movement would take us three hours because, you know, being Marines, we’re like ‘we could do it’. But on skis with your gear, and this is our first day, it took us almost double that time.”
Another Marine, with 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, learned to orient himself amid snow-covered terrain during late-November training at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska.
“Being able to look at a map and understand that, hey, what I'm looking at on the ground might look different in a warm-weather environment, or might be harder to identify this valley, or this finger, or this ridge, or snowbanks and snow drifts come into play,” said the Marine, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons related to his job. “So being able to understand and orient yourself in that kind of environment is a new ballgame. And that just takes time being and operating in those kinds of conditions.”
Every task, from mundane maintenance to warfare, is harder to do in cold weather, the Alaska soldiers said.
“If you're just going to go out and set up your artillery and fire anywhere in the lower 48, great. Here, it's 10 times different, it's 10 times more difficult, it's 10 times more challenging. It's 10 times more innovative that the soldiers have to be to get the equipment prepared, ready, and to execute in this environment,” he said. “So everything we do is increased in regards to preparation, in regards to checks and things that we have to figure out, because a lot of equipment is not designed for the Arctic.”
Maintaining helicopters, for example, requires more hangers because aircraft must thaw out for three days before they can be worked on, Eifler said.
Burke and the Recon Marine said they needed to rethink even the most basic functions of their jobs, such as using radio buttons or firing a weapon.
“You can't fire without having something on your hand like a glove, because it's so cold that what if your finger gets stuck to the weapon or something like that,” Burke said. “You need to have all these extra—I don't want to say precautions—but all these other thought processes have to go into it.”
The Recon Marine said he was consistently focused on learning how his weapon and equipment was affected by the weather and what he needed to do to keep it functioning.
Training in the cold is “definitely a learning curve,” he said. “But again, the main focus, which takes a lot of time, is just understanding how to be able to sustain in those kinds of environments.”
Just keeping troops healthy in cold weather takes more effort. The signature injury is frostbite, which affects exposed skin and limbs that are not insulated properly.
In their recent training, the Marines were taught about proper clothing and layering, and how to identify frostbite and other cold-weather injuries. They checked regularly on each other and were encouraged to speak up about their own health needs, lest they find themselves a casualty to their team.
The Norwegians “stress that if you were starting to feel like you were getting injured, or you are in an unsafe position, tell someone and take proper procedures,” Burke said.
The Marine from 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion said he was taught to avoid overexertion and getting wet, including from sweating.
“It's just essentially looking at it as if it's a marathon and not a sprint. So you're not burning yourself out too early or sweating to a point where now all of a sudden, your clothes are wet, and it makes things extremely difficult to dry out there,” he said.
It’s a lesson that has not been lost on U.S. leaders, who absorbed reports that Russian troops began suffering from frostbite soon after their February 2022 invasion—and as recently as December were reportedly still being given poor clothing and equipment to handle the cold weather.
The United States’ Sept. 16 aid package pledged thousands of pieces of “cold weather gear” to Ukraine, including 50,000 parkas, 4,700 trousers, 39,000 fleece hats, 23,000 boots, 18,000 gloves, and 6,000 tents.