Indo-Pacific partners share cold facts about high-altitude operations
hen the doors finally opened after a 2½-hour airplane ride, 128 paratroopers braced for the ride of their lives.
They were jumping from an altitude of about 400 meters into an Arctic no man’s land — a place called Deadhorse, Alaska — wearing more than 90 kilograms of kit that included snowshoes, weapons and supplies.
“As the paratroopers exit, it’s 104 degrees [Fahrenheit] below zero for 2½ seconds until their chute opens,” said Maj. Gen. Bryan Owens, former commanding general of U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK). “Once their chute opens, it’s minus 63 to the ground, and in four hours of operations on the ground, it’s minus 63. It was incredible.”
The Soldiers from the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division who braved the deadly cold in February 2017 were participating in Spartan Pegasus, an annual cold-weather training exercise in frozen tundra just a few kilometers from the Arctic Ocean.
Training lessons learned during the exercise, which in 2017 was designed to retrieve a downed satellite, and at courses in the Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids, Alaska, can mean the difference between successful missions and tragedy.
In subzero temperatures, the smallest mistakes can be lethal — something like touching a weapon or brushing up against skiing equipment with bare skin.
“Something as simple as skin-to-metal contact is deadly,” Owens told FORUM during the Association of the U.S. Army Institute of Land Warfare’s Land Forces of the Pacific Symposium and Exhibition (LANPAC) in May 2017 in Honolulu, Hawaii. “That will give you instant frostbite. You’ve got to be careful not to have any of the metal parts touch your skin.”
From North America’s tallest peak, Denali, to the majestic Himalayas of Asia to the Andes in South America, many of these military mountaineering and cold-weather lessons are universal. USARAK teams up with Indo-Pacific countries to expose Soldiers to new techniques and challenging environments. USARAK’s main mountaineering training partners in the region include India, Japan, Mongolia, Nepal and Chile — all countries with mountainous terrains.
“We look for similarities with our partners in geography and similar challenges that they have,” Owens said. “That allows us to share best practices. It allows us to build on each other’s strengths. That’s been very beneficial for us.”
The exchange also has benefited Nepal, which is home to Mount Everest and some of the world’s most unforgiving terrain, said Nepal’s chief of Army, Gen. Rajendra Chhetri.
In a country where 80 percent of the landscape is mountainous, thriving in high-altitude environments — everything from conducting military operations to rescuing climbers from Everest — is part of everyday life for Nepalese Soldiers, Chhetri said. “There are many challenges we have to face while operating in altitude,” Chhetri said. “There are health hazards if you don’t properly dress up. With the low oxygen level, you can feel altitude sickness. If you don’t have proper gear, frostbite will affect you.”
The Nepalese Army shares these lessons with its many partners. It has been operating the Nepal Army’s High Altitude and Mountain Warfare Training Academy for more than four decades, Chhetri said. Neighboring Indo-Pacific countries, including Bangladesh, China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, send their Soldiers to train there, as do the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other European countries. “We opened up our altitude warfare school to international students, including U.S. students,” Chhetri said. “The U.S. is a regular participant in that course.”
While Nepal’s Soldiers are extremely experienced at operating in high altitudes, a Mongolian military leader says his country shares insights in these military-to-military exchanges that are derived from centuries of conducting operations in austere environments.
Lt. Col. Shinebayar Dorjnyam, deputy commander of the Mongolian special forces, said through a translator during LANPAC that he attended entry-level high-altitude training in Alaska in 2015 and was impressed with the new technology supplied by the U.S. Army.
While the U.S. provided top technology, the deputy commander said, his Soldiers possess their own secrets of the trade. “We are unique because we still maintain our nomadic lifestyles,” he said. “We preserve the skills that we have with that. We know how to make fire, adapt and adjust — free of technology.”
THRIVING IN SUBZERO
While survival is difficult in subzero temperatures, Soldiers can’t afford to set the bar that low. They train to conduct military operations in environments many people will never experience, Owens said. “A lot of people think you can take a very highly trained unit and put them into extremely cold weather, and they’ll sort it out. They’ll be able to function there,” he said. “That is not the case.”
Extensive training, the best equipment and savvy leadership are keys to success. “There’s a difference between surviving in a cold region and thriving,” he said.
At the Northern Warfare Training Center, Soldiers are taught basic military mountaineering as well as advanced cold-weather skills, which involve heat management — “the ability to dress properly, layer and shed properly so you don’t end up perspiring in a cold-weather environment.”
“You don’t want to perspire in a cold-weather environment,” Owens said. “That’s very dangerous.”
In subzero climates, profuse sweating can cause the body to lose heat quickly, inducing hypothermia.
The human body isn’t the only thing that can become sluggish in the Arctic. Equipment does, too. Weapons and helicopters, for example, don’t function the same in subzero temperatures as they do in warmer climes. Arctic warfighting equipment is tested at the U.S. Army Cold Regions Test Center in Fort Greely, Alaska, and then assessed by Soldiers in USARAK. “We give them feedback on functionality, pitfalls, some improvements they could make,” Owens said.
Soldiers assess weapons, skis, vapor-barrier boots, Canadian mukluks, which are high, soft boots traditionally worn in the American Arctic, as well as communications equipment. “In the high north, the look angles to the satellites are very challenging,” Owens said.
Keeping aircraft flying is no picnic. When gearing up an Apache helicopter at high altitudes, “it takes about six hours to spool up the electronics on it,” Owens said. “Batteries have very little life when you are talking about cold weather. The oils, the hydraulics, are very sluggish.”
Even when a Soldier is properly trained and equipped, using a weapon in the freezing cold can be a challenge. “Operating with Arctic mittens is very difficult,” Owens said. “It’s slow work.”
The Soldiers learn how to layer and shed clothes properly, so they don’t get frostbite — and to the other extreme — heat exhaustion. Those dangers require trained leaders to detect signs of trouble. “How do you identify when one of your Soldiers is suffering from the first signs of frostbite or heat exhaustion, believe it or not?” Owens said. “There are simple leadership tasks such as making your Soldiers drink water. At minus 40, nobody wants to drink water.”
A world away, the challenges of military mountaineering in the Himalayas requires different kinds of equipment. Sometimes the latest technology isn’t the best option. “There is limited, almost a nonexistence of roads, in the Nepalese mountains,” Chhetri said. “You can’t take your vehicle there.”
Military operations — whether rescuing climbers from Mount Everest or fighting a decadelong Maoist insurgency that ended in 2006 — must be conducted, regardless of the harshness of the conditions. To get the job done, the Nepalese Army often travels by foot and relies on yak, sheep and mountain donkeys to move equipment, Chhetri said.
Few landing strips exist for fixed-wing aircraft, and in cold seasons, “you can’t land there because of snow and ice,” he said.
With a Stryker brigade combat team and an airborne brigade combat team, USARAK has deployed forces all over the world, including Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Cold-weather mountain warriors are essential in this global mission because cold regions represent 31 percent of the Earth’s surface, and 27 percent of the world has mountainous terrain, Owens said.
Whether the mission is providing disaster relief, such as the devastating earthquake that plagued Nepal in 2015, killing nearly 9,000 people and injuring 22,000 — or combat missions in freezing temperatures, warriors who operate in high altitudes and cold weather must be some of the most physically fit on the planet.
In the case of USARAK, it helps that they live, work and even send their children to school in subzero temperatures, Owens said. It’s part of everyday life.
“Our Soldiers not only train in cold regions, but they live there. Even in everyday activities, they know how not only to survive there but to thrive. Living in Alaska, especially in the Fairbanks area where our Stryker brigade combat team is located, it got to minus 50 [Fahrenheit] in January. Those types of temperatures, you won’t get anywhere else.”