Survivability, Sustainability, and Maneuverability: The Need for Joint Unity of Effort in Implementing the DOD Arctic Strategy at the Tactical and Operational Levels

By Fry, Capt Nathan | Military Review, November/December 2014 | Go to article overview

Survivability, Sustainability, and Maneuverability: The Need for Joint Unity of Effort in Implementing the DOD Arctic Strategy at the Tactical and Operational Levels


Fry, Capt Nathan, Military Review


As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union developed in the years following World War II, United States military planners and strategists focused substantial effort and resources on the challenge of Arctic and cold weather warfare, in large part because of potential territorial disputes in areas where Russia bordered Alaska as well as the northern frontier of U.S. ally Canada. Challenged by operational and tactical difficulties in Korea's cold and mountainous environments as well as the threat of the Soviets' assumed superiority in cold weather operations, the U.S. Army conducted a series of exercises throughout the 1950s with names such as Ice Cap, Lode Star, Nanook, and Deep Freeze. It produced reports detailing experience and requirements relative to Arctic and sub-Arctic operations well into the late 1970s.1

However, by the 1980s, competing military and political demands forced Arctic operations strategy and planning into a dormant state that continued into the first decade of the new millennium. This decline in strategic interest reflected predictions that the Arctic would not become truly important again to strategic planners until "valuable deposits of critical war minerals should be discovered" and made critical by "worldwide scarcity" in more accessible regions.2

The Need for a Viable Arctic Strategy

Today, as war in Iraq and Afghanistan assumes a lower priority in NATO members' national defense strategies, and as the majority of forces are withdrawn from those countries, strategic planners are beginning to anticipate other plausible future conflicts of significant interest. Given that the previous decade has seen the opening of the Northwest Passage, resulting in an increase in commercial and recreational maritime traffic and a significant influx of business interests in the region, one can convincingly argue that an area of emerging strategic concern to the United States should be the Arctic.3

Of the world's current and aspiring Arctic powers, four of the five countries whose physical borders or territories cross the Arctic Circle seem to be recognizing the need to adjust defense capabilities and to be taking steps to create or augment specialized ground-combat units to meet emerging Arctic demands.4 Notably, Canada, Norway, and Russia have realigned entire units to focus on Arctic readiness and operations. However, the United States has no specialized Arctic warfare capability, despite Alaska holding a substantial portion of valuable territory bordering Russia-which recently has shown few qualms in seizing land with ambiguous territorial boundaries elsewhere.5

Though the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) published Arctic Strategy in 2013, the document is, at best, a generalized approach to operations. Its content illustrates the U.S. military's lack of deep understanding regarding the Arctic problem set and is rife with general tasks that, without significant attention, are currently impossible to implement at the tactical and operational levels.6

In subsequent and supporting publications to the DOD's Arctic Strategy, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Coast Guard have shown a focused and serious approach to preparing for Arctic operations. In contrast, the U.S. Army has thus far shown very little interest in the Arctic at the strategic level. This translates into a lack of readiness to respond to any contingencies that might arise for Arctic warfare.

Since there is no formal requirement for U.S. Army, Army Reserve, or Army National Guard units to prepare for Arctic warfare, current force generation structure and personnel management policies continue to undermine building specialty skills in active duty units needed to adequately defend U.S. interests in the Arctic. Also, on-hand Arctic equipment is outdated and inadequate for extended Arctic use. The United States has, as Siemon Wezeman points out in his multicountry study on Arctic military capabilities, fallen into the historical trap of confusing forces stationed in cold climates with Arctic-capable forces. …

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