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Conquering the Arctic

Cold weather warfighting preparation by the U.S. Marines in Norway strengthens U.S. and NATO response.
A U.S. Marine with Marine Rotational Force-Europe 20.2, Marine Forces Europe and Africa, and Norwegian soldiers pause for surveillance during Exercise Thunder Reindeer in Setermoen, Norway, in May 2020.  USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Chase W. Drayer

A U.S. Marine with Marine Rotational Force-Europe 20.2, Marine Forces Europe and Africa, and Norwegian soldiers pause for surveillance during Exercise Thunder Reindeer in Setermoen, Norway, in May 2020. USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Chase W. Drayer

Given adversarial threats in the Indo-Pacific region and Europe, especially from Russia and China, the Arctic region’s strategic importance is increasing. As such, over the last several years, the U.S. military has focused on growing its cold weather operation capabilities. Beginning in 2016, the U.S. Marine Corps in particular, through host and NATO ally Norway, has maintained a presence in the Kingdom of Norway to train and develop the skills necessary to operate in extreme conditions.

The National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the 2019 Defense Department Arctic Strategy further set the stage for Arctic operations in the high north, supporting a “secure and stable region where U.S. national interests are safeguarded, the homeland is protected, and nations address shared challenges cooperatively,” according to the Defense Department. The Arctic’s geostrategic location close to Russia will help strengthen the NATO alliance and deter Russian aggression.

In late October, the Marine Corps sent another group of Marine Rotational Force-Europe (MRF-E) to Norway to continue this cold weather work. MRF-E 21.1 consists of 400 Marines and sailors from the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, led by commander of the battalion, Lt. Col. Ryan Gordinier, USMC. Lima company from the so-called Teufelhunden Battalion will spend two months training with the Norwegian Army in the Arctic—above the 60th parallel north.

“Norway offers challenging terrain and unique training opportunities to improve our cold-weather and mountain-warfare skills, enabling our force to fight and win in arctic conditions,” Col. Gordinier says. “The ‘Teufelhunden Battalion’ looks forward to continuing our historic relationship and strengthening our alliance with the Norwegian military.”

The MRF-E rotation has been crucial enough to continue, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The battalion will quarantine at the high north Norwegian Army facilities for 14 days before engaging in activities. The previous rotation, the MRF-E 20.1, still deployed in May to participate in the Thunder Reindeer exercise in June.

The Marine Corps’ related activity in Norway began with a year-round presence, through six-month deployments, in preparation for the massive 2018 NATO exercise, Trident Juncture. Based on an August 2020 policy, the Marines will now send shorter MRF-E deployments over the next year for several months at a time, beginning with the Teufelhunden Battalion.

“Lima company is the company that’s going with me this fall, and once we go back next year, it’ll be the whole battalion,” the commander explains. Now synchronized with the Norwegian Armed Forces’ arctic training, the Marines work with the Norwegian Army will allow for increased operational flexibility, he states. Norwegian Army instructors will lead their cold weather warfare and survival training, and the company will participate in several field training events in the country’s rugged high north conditions alongside the allies.

In addition to strategic warfighting, the goal is to address power, water supply, communications and cold weather gear issues to not only survive but also thrive in the extreme conditions, Col. Gordinier indicates.

“When you are dealing with 10 to 15 feet of snow for multiple months, and that is where you are existing, you have to learn to not just make it through, but make it through in a way to where any of your adversaries would have to try to come to that environment to try and get to you,” the commander says. “And that becomes your primary weapon.”

For preparation, the battalion attended mountain warfare training and an exercise in Bridgeport, California, in January and February that focused on individual and collective movement techniques, survival, command and control approaches and other warfighting capabilities at altitude. Near Bridgeport, California’s Mount Patterson sits at 11,673 feet along a range that divides the California-Nevada border.

At Bridgeport, the Marines quickly found command and control challenges. Usually, they depend on very high frequency, or VHF, communications, which was not effective in that environment.

“At altitude, in that range, when dealing with cross compartments and what we call danger areas, basically the large canyons and valleys, the VHF range does not work,” he notes. “And because of the geography, it is hard to install retransmission sites in order for VHF to be the primary means of communication. So, we are forced to use HF [high frequency].”

In Norway, the battalion will test several different means of communications to be effective. “You have to prepare multiple different pathways and then troubleshoot them to find which pathway is working at the time and place that you need it,” the colonel shares. “That is what is dynamic in a mountainous environment. And with the terrain in Northern Norway, because of the paths of the satellites, it is even more difficult in the Arctic because of where the satellites pass. So, what that means is an increase in other methods, including the use of HF.”

The Marines also will experiment with a mesh network for its command and control. “The most important thing in establishing communications through those other pathways is that it requires a static command and control node,” Col. Gordinier states. “You have to be more deliberate and create multiple nodes that give you survivability as well as the ability to relocate one of those nodes and still maintain a method of communicating through a node that is still established. It becomes a bounding method between the multiple nodes.”

The commander will build off of success from Trident Juncture in which he successfully executed command and control through tactical radio communication networks and communications across 118-kilometers from the Norwegian ski town of Oppdal to the coastal fjord town of Trondheim. “The weather was anywhere between the high 20s to the low 40s and a mix of rain and snow and sleet,” he offers. “And we had no increased issues based off of the weather in our communications ability and that even included the HF. That was a fairly long shot and it worked.”

In addition to communication capabilities, the group will examine the necessary power and electricity capabilities under Arctic conditions, given continuous power requirements and generated power for batteries.

“We need to make sure that we can generate power using diesel,” he notes. “Our power distribution plan has to be effective based off the need. There has been very little experimentation with solar based on the lack of sunlight for a long part of the year in the Arctic, so that really drives us to have to use a lot of diesel for power rather than from green means.”

Representatives from the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and the deputy commandant from Combat Development and Integration will join the Marines in Norway to test out advanced solutions. “[They] are involved with all of our exercises to see if there are opportunities to experiment with any of the emerging technologies, whether they are in power or command and control systems,” Col. Gordinier adds.

The Marine Corps will issue the warfighters specialized gear for the high north, including Telemark skis, snowshoes and overboots that cover military boots to add an extra layer of warmth. For clothing, “we primarily avoid anything that is cotton, and the Norwegians don’t use cotton,” he shares. “It is wool or it’s synthetic. We’ve been out with the gear with enough time to prepare, to use it for Norway, to ensure that we are well-protected and capable to function.” In addition, the Program Manager for Infantry Advocate for Systems, part of the Marine Corps Systems Command, will distribute a type of mesh polyester long-underwear—similar to the Norwegians’ version—to test its feasibility and effectiveness in cold weather.

“It is like a dry version of neoprene that traps the air,” the colonel says. “The mesh traps the air between what would be your base layer so that your warmth layer is that air that you’ve trapped inside mesh.”

Moreover, the Marines will contend with water supplies in the arctic environment. “Creating potable water is always impactful to an infantry force,” he observes. “Water is important, energy is important and command and control is important, and then because of the environment as well, the tents and the sleeping systems … are important to us. And all of that we will experiment with.” 

The commander says that the Marines will rely on inherent toughness developed from their warfighting. “It is a beauty of a Marine, regardless of rank,” he says, that can survive in hardship. The leader conducted extensive physical fitness training to ensure that the warfighters with gear and additional winter clothing layers can progress over mountains in arctic conditions. “The other thing that we really focused on was our physical fitness,” he states. “Just being able to move with added loads, so that when we get to Norway, we can move up and down the mountains with it all on.”

All of the Marines’ efforts will first be tested in Norway during the NATO exercise Reindeer 21 with U.S., Norwegian and other allied troops. Their participation will culminate in the larger Joint Viking 21 exercise next spring.

“For the Marine Corps, multiple different units getting multiple different opportunities to interact with the Norwegians, interact with all of our other allies and participate throughout these exercises, and exercise in the actual geography, will compress the lessons learned,” Col. Gordinier states. “And then pulling that information back, sharing it with the local battalions that are in our regiment and then populating that information through our division, up the chain of command and then bilaterally across. And as we expand these exercise opportunities, we will continue to send other types of units, not just infantry units, to rotate through. And then for NATO, what it does is that it continues to expose our NATO allies to the capabilities and strengths that we bring to the NATO Alliance.” The primary goal of not only surviving but functioning and operating well in the Arctic is what will help strengthen the U.S. military and NATO response.

“What has been used in the past, what has been used by the Norwegians, especially against the Nazis, was the ability to survive and thrive in that environment,” the commander emphasizes. “Not many soldiers in this world focus on fighting in the Arctic. So, if you’re native to there, you already have a leg-up. The skills that are important to us are being able to execute everything that we do but being able to do it in that environment. And that’s the reason why we need to go there.

“And I think it’s a historic story,” Col. Gordinier adds. “Our regiment, the 6th Marine Regiment, spent time in Iceland in the World War II era. And so, there’s a long history of already interacting with the Scandinavian people, and more recently, specifically with the Norwegians, and we just want to continue to see that communicated to the world.”