ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON JOINT BASE, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. military stands poised to renew its troops in Alaska to better prepare for future cold-weather conflicts, and is expected to deploy the larger, heavily-equipped Stryker Brigade in the United States. state replaced by a more mobile infantry unit better suited to the frigid battle, according to army chiefs.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said she expects to make a final decision on the Alaska troop change soon, and says she will likely convert the Stryker unit, which uses heavy eight-wheeled vehicles, into an infantry brigade.
“I think the goal of army troops in Alaska right now is much more to create a formation suitable for extremely cold weather” that could be used in Europe or the Indo-Pacific, Wormuth told The Associated Press on a recent trip to Alaska to meet with senior commanders and troops. “We’re trying to get to a place where we have Arctic forces — forces that can survive and operate in that environment.”
The US has long viewed the Arctic as a growing area of competition with Russia and China, especially as climate change brings higher temperatures and opens shipping lanes for longer periods of time. But officials have acknowledged that the US is lagging behind those countries. Russia has taken steps to increase its military presence there, and China views the region as economically valuable for shipping and natural resources.
The changes in the military were contemplated long before US tensions with Russia rose after the invasion of Ukraine.
Under the new army plan, the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, now based in Alaska, would be converted into a light infantry brigade. Combined with the division’s 4th Infantry Brigade Combat team, the two units will become the 11th Airborne Division, based in Alaska. And the large Stryker vehicles, which are somewhat old, would be replaced by other vehicles more suited to the icy and snowy terrain, Wormuth said.
The increased emphasis on cold weather warfare includes a move to conduct major training exercises for the Alaska-based troops in their home states, under the weather conditions they would face in an Arctic battle. The troops were scheduled to go to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana, in March, but the army chiefs decided to keep them in Alaska so they could train in the frigid temperatures and frozen terrain they would encounter with any cold. – battle again.
“I think it really makes sense to have troops train in the Arctic environments they would be used for,” said Wormuth after spending two days at the still snowy base. “If we want ground troops in Alaska, that’s what we need to be able to do. They can’t get that experience if they go to the Mojave Desert or Fort Polk.”
Last year, in an initial pilot event, Pacific-based troops stayed in Hawaii for their scheduled exercises at the National Training Center in California’s Mohave Desert. Commanders said they have learned from these first two moves as they try to restore conditions and move personnel and equipment from established training centers to more remote locations.
While visiting Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Wormuth met commanders who called the training crew a success. maj. Gene. US Army Alaska commander Brian Eifler said the benefits outweighed any shortcomings caused by the need to build infrastructure for the training exercise in the remote north.
“You get the best of both worlds, without losing too much,” Eifler said. “We got a lot more out of it than we thought.”
Eifler said that while they didn’t have as many training observers or civilian role-players as at one of the training centers, the trainers who did come could learn more about Arctic weather operations.
In addition, Eifler said, the change prevented the costly and time-consuming shipment of vehicles, weapons and other equipment to Louisiana and back. The lengthy packaging and shipping process before and after a training exercise in Louisiana or California often forces troops to miss their weapon systems and other equipment for weeks.
During briefings at the Alaska base, commanders said the training involved large-scale combat operations under extreme weather conditions in what they called the “most challenging environment on Earth.” They said 10,000 troops — including Canadian Army and Air Forces — were involved in the exercise.
But they said the exercise also highlighted the need for better cold-weather vehicles, including vehicles that can carry Arctic infantry troops.
Gene. Joseph Martin, the deputy chief of the army who was in Alaska this year, said the agency has been studying what would be the best type of vehicle for the troops. “Is the Stryker the right vehicle for an Arctic warrior? In winter you need vehicles that can drive through the snow,” he said.
In addition, he said, the vehicle must also be able to operate in the spring or summer thaw, when the ground turns to mud.
As Wormuth concluded her visit, she suggested that the decision on the Stryker Brigade be made soon. Any final decision would have to be approved by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
“If you’re going to be doing big moves of equipment and things like that, summer is a pretty important window because it’s a lot easier to move vehicles than in the dead of winter,” she said.
And in talks with MPs, including at a hearing this week, she made it clear that the change would not reduce the number of soldiers in Alaska. Instead, she said that although the infantry brigade will be smaller, the army would make up for that loss by increasing the size and capabilities of the headquarters.
More broadly, she spoke with commanders in Alaska about the potential need for more changes as the US military’s Arctic strategy evolves.
The US, Wormuth said, has resisted attempts to militarize the Arctic, even as Russia has expanded and established its military presence there. But, she said, “will that mentality continue given what the Russians are doing in Ukraine? Or will that be reconsidered? Will that create a window to think about things differently?”
Commanders said there are questions about whether any of the Pentagon’s combatant commands — such as the European Command or Northern Command, based in Colorado — should be given full ownership of the Arctic and US military role there. Wormuth said the matter needs further discussion and any decision could take years.