Arctic Conditions Provide Valuable Lessons in Alaska Exercise

March 20, 2018

Alaskan Command, a subordinate unified command under U.S. Northern Command, has proven that summer soldiers or sunshine patriots do not exist in the U.S. military.

More than 1,500 U.S. military personnel braved snowy and icy conditions and temperatures that dipped well below zero to participate in the multiservice exercise Arctic Edge last week, primarily in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex and Long-Range Radar System sites in Alaska. Navy and Coast Guard experts also discussed maritime scenarios during a tabletop exercise in Alaska’s capital of Juneau.

The exercise was the first of its kind in more than three decades, and it was the largest joint exercise scheduled in Alaska this year, said Army Lt. Col. Joshua Gaspard, Joint Training and Readiness chief at Alaskan Command. Arctic Edge 18 focused on defending the homeland in extreme cold weather conditions found in Arctic environments, he said, noting that previous Arctic Edge exercises focused on defense support to civil authorities following a natural disaster.

“Alaska provides a great opportunity to conduct this exercise over a great swath of land,” Gaspard said. “The Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex is a great venue for this exercise.”

Vast Exercise Area

The exercise covered 1.5 million acres on the ground and 65,000 square miles of inland air space. Also, 42,000 square nautical miles of sea in the Gulf of Alaska was taken into consideration for a maritime tabletop exercise in Juneau. Service members from multiple forces were spread throughout a 1,100-mile area, Gaspard said, which is the equivalent distance from New York City to Miami.

Some of those training included service members from U.S. Special Operations Command North. The command’s director of operations, who for security reasons cannot be identified by name, said it was a great opportunity to train in the extreme weather conditions and do so jointly with conventional forces.

“Alaska is really the only access to above the Arctic Circle and that kind of extreme-environment training,” he said. “It’s just an absolutely great opportunity for us to get up here and work our mission sets.”

A New Understanding

The operations director said his team walked away with a new understanding of what it takes to operate effectively and efficiently in the extreme cold, and how to integrate with other forces at a tactical level.

“We’re used to doing that around the globe, but it’s an interesting challenge to do it up here in an arctic environment, in March, in Alaska,” he said. “Obviously, the extreme weather, extreme temperature and visibility conditions make a lot of those operations a lot more difficult than they’d normally be, but we’re working out some additional processes that make sure that we’re doing these operations safely and effectively so we don’t have to worry about integrating in other parts of the world.”

The exercise comprised a series of isolated vignettes that included a joint Army and Marine Corps live-fire exercise on snow- and ice-covered ranges, and several elements that focused on defense capabilities, Gaspard said.

Army Lt. Col. Josh Davis, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, said Arctic Edge was the second time his battalion has worked in a joint mission with the Marine Corps since he became commander.

He added the live-fire exercise with the Marine infantry and a Marine air defense unit provided meaningful training.

“We’re always stronger together, and there’s no power like joint power,” Davis said. “If we practice jointly, we’re going to be that much more capable if we go do this for real anywhere in the world.”

Davis said environments are never completely predictable, and Alaska provides a unique environment with some of the toughest conditions on the planet. “If we perform here, then there’s virtually nowhere else we can’t perform,” he added.

Gaspard said the climate and rugged terrain also provided a unique and valuable area for testing new equipment. “This has also given us a chance to relook at our training progression to operate up here,” he said, “so that’s revolutionizing how we would prepare our forces to come and operate in an environment like this and what that progression would look like.”

Preparation for forces coming from the Lower 48 included extreme cold-weather training, he said.

“You’re not going to go from zero to Alaska in a week,” Gaspard said. “There’s going to be a training progression to validate what a good progression model looks like.”

Field training for Arctic Edge 18 ran March 12-16, and a tabletop exercise will continue through March 23. The exercise was conducted by Alaskan Command under Northcom’s authority, and participants included U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, from active duty, Reserve and National Guard units, as well as Defense Department civilian employees and contractors.

“The goal of Arctic Edge 18 is to train military forces to fight and win in the Arctic,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, Alaskan Command’s commander. “The exercise is a great opportunity to develop teams and relationships across services, which allows us to protect and defend the United States.”