US soldiers conducts extreme cold tests in Alaska

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Photo Credit: David Vergun

During the winter of 1939 and 1940, winter-camouflaged Finnish ski troops for a time held off a much larger Soviet army that had neither skis nor winter camouflaging.

The effectiveness of the Finnish army in snow and freezing temperatures was a real eye-opener for the U.S. Army at the time, said Sgt. Sarah Valentine, an instructor at the Cold Weather Training Center here. “I think we as an Army have forgotten a lot of this stuff.”

With their 15-day Cold Weather Leaders Course, Valentine and other instructors here said they’re helping bring those kinds of skills to the U.S. Army, so U.S. Soldiers will be just as prepared to survive and win wars in an Arctic environment.

Before Soldiers can engage the enemy in such an environment, they must first learn how to move in Arctic conditions, Valentine said. That means learning to ski and snowshoe. Once Soldiers in the course master these skills, they are allowed to move out into the terrain and live-fire their weapons.

The culminating event of the course — attended by about 80 students from around Alaska — is the biathlon, a 10-kilometer ski course over hilly terrain followed by a live-fire using either an M-4 carbine or M16A4 rifle.

The biathlon adds realism to the training, Valentine said, because by the time the Soldiers live-fire their weapons, they will already be drained by the rapid pace of ski course, which they must undertake while also hauling their weapons and rucksacks.

After the ski course, Soldiers must concentrate hard on controlling their breathing while shooting, she said.

During most of the six days the Soldiers lived outdoors, temperatures hovered around minus 30 to minus 40 degrees. However, on the day of the biathlon, the temperature spiked to 39 degrees. That and a light rain turned the trails mushy, making them difficult to negotiate on skis. As a safety precaution, snowshoes were substituted.

Soldiers have to learn to deal with changes in the weather, Valentine said. “You have to adjust plans and be flexible.”

Photo Credit: David Vergun

Prior to the biathlon, Soldiers cleaned their weapons with Arctic lubricating oil, explained Staff Sgt. Cody Fite, an instructor. The normal lubricant used by Soldiers would freeze in these temperatures.

In these conditions, Fite explained, a weapon also can jam when condensation that formed when a Soldier brought the weapon inside freezes when the Soldier brings it outside. To prevent this, Soldiers keep their weapons outside of their heated tents on stands made of boughs.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Doane, an instructor, said that, in addition to applying special lubricants, Soldiers also employ a variety of shooting techniques unique to the environment such as using ski poles to create a stable bipod shooting position. According to Doane, the U.S. Army learned the technique from the Norwegian army.

Sgt. Jessica Bartolotta, a student, had never seen ski poles used for shooting and was impressed by how well the technique worked. She said the instructors teach shooting with ski poles in the standing, kneeling and prone positions.

During the biathlon, Soldiers are given a 30-round magazine and are allowed to select which position to shoot in. Bartolotta would have chosen the most challenging position, which is standing, but her ski poles were a bit too short to create the bipod. She shot in the kneeling position.

She suspected she performed well, but she wouldn’t know until later, once the instructors tallied the shots on the silhouette targets.

Staff Sgt. Jack Stacy, an instructor, said that once Soldiers learn that they can survive the cold, move over difficult terrain and engage targets, their confidence levels go way up. They realize they can not only survive but thrive in harsh Arctic conditions.

Photo Credit: David Vergun

Newcomers to the interior of Alaska are often taken aback by the extreme winter cold and its effects on the body and equipment, according to Steve Decker, a training specialist at the Northern Warfare Training Center here.

When it gets 50 or 60 degrees below zero, vehicles — even tracked ones designed for the cold — quit working, Decker said. Those temperatures are not uncommon here, with minus 30 and minus 40 fairly normal for winter. It can get so cold that even engine oil and transmission fluid will freeze, rendering vehicles inoperable.

Photo Credit: David Vergun

When vehicles aren’t in use, they’re kept plugged into outlets featured at every parking spot. The electricity powers heating pads and engine block heaters. Oil and transmission pans have silicone heating pads directly attached to them. Block heaters or freeze-plug heaters are heating elements that actually stick into the side of the engine.

Even with these precautions, everything seems to fail on the coldest days, and movement becomes possible only via skis and snowshoes. Getting around that way is taught to Soldiers attending the Cold Weather Leaders Course and other winter courses here, Decker said.

Photo Credit: David Vergun

Today’s Soldiers are dependent on vehicles and roads, Decker said. Out here and in many parts of the world, such dependence can limit options when vehicles don’t work and roads are few or nonexistent. At NWTC, Soldiers are taught to rely less on machines and more on themselves, he said.

But it’s not just vehicles that break down in the cold. Anything powered by batteries will also be prone to failure in deep-freeze conditions. That includes GPS devices, which Decker believes Soldiers are also too reliant on.

As part of the Cold Weather Leaders Course, students are tasked with finding specific points throughout the rugged 16-square-kilometer training site using just their maps, protractors and compasses.

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