The US Army wants to regain ‘dominance’ in the Arctic, and it’s looking all over the world for help

Army Alaska helicopter
A US soldier on the ramp of a Chinook helicopter over Denali National Park and Reserve in Alaska, April 22, 2021. US Army Alaska/Benjamin Wilson
  • The Arctic strategy released by the Army in March reflects the US military’s increasing focus on the region.
  • While the Army has long operated in Alaska, it’s looking abroad to learn more about handling harsh conditions and tough terrain.
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In March, the Army became the latest military branch to release an Arctic strategy, titled “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” outlining how it will pursue the Defense Department’s goal of defending US interests in that increasingly accessible region.

The Army is still determining what materials, training, and infrastructure it will need, and officials say it will also need to draw on the knowledge and experience of allies that operate in extreme cold weather, on mountainous terrain, and at high altitudes.

This year’s Arctic Warrior exercise, led by US Army Alaska, reflected the new focus on operating in the region during “the coldest parts of the year,” Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commander of US Army Alaska, told Insider in a March interview.

Canadian army Chinook helicopter Alaska Arctic
US and Canadian personnel during a simulated aerial assault as part of Arctic Warrior 21, February 17, 2021. US Army/Eve A. Baker

That exercise included a Canadian aviation unit, and Canadian troops will participate in the upcoming Arctic Edge exercise in Alaska, a reflection of the two countries’ longstanding defense ties.

“What we’re trying to do as we move forward with this is expand our relationships with other allies and partners that have to operate in a similar environment,” Andrysiak added, naming Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

As the Army focused on the Middle East over the past two decades, its relationships with European Arctic countries got less attention, but that will change, Andrysiak said at a press briefing in March.

“We’ve been given the green light to … start working with other allies and partners, and that includes Norway and the other allies and partners up in that area,” Andrysiak said at the briefing. “We know that there’s a lot that we have to learn, because obviously Norway has a great history of being able to operate in and through that particular environment.”

As a NATO member, Norway has for decades worked with the US military, storing gear and hosting troops for training.

US Army Special Forces Sweden
US Army Special Forces soldiers in Sweden for winter-warfare training, April 2021. David Carr/Swedish Armed Forces

Sweden and Finland are not in NATO but have worked more closely with the alliance amid recent tensions with Russia.

Already in 2021, US soldiers participated in a Finnish winter-combat course, and Army Green Berets took part in a Swedish winter-warfare exercise.

The Army also sought feedback from foreign forces as it put together the Arctic strategy document.

“Within the Pentagon, we have a number of exchange officers and liaison officers, and we’ve been in contact with all of those, who’ve been offering some of the best practices … and taking a look at drafts,” Col. J.P. Clark, chief of the strategy division within the Army general staff, said at a separate March press conference.

“We have been able to incorporate some of our allies and partners in this in terms of the formulation, and we think that we’ll build forces that can definitely train, operate, and fight alongside” those militaries, Clark added.

‘The million-dollar question’

Army Canada Arctic Baffin Island
US Army National Guard soldiers work with Canadian troops at Baffin Island, north of the Arctic Circle, during Exercise Guerrier Nordique in March 2014. US Army National Guard/Staff Sgt. Sean Keefe

Many of the Army forces permanently stationed in the Arctic or sub-Arctic are based in Alaska, but conditions differ between Arctic regions. Norway, for example, spans the same latitudes as northern Canada and Siberia but is more hospitable because of the Gulf Stream.

“A unit accustomed and optimized for Alaska operations might have some difficulties if suddenly deployed to the European Arctic,” the Army’s strategy says.

How to ensure Army units can operate across those regions is “the million-dollar question,” Andrysiak told Insider. “We’ve got to also better understand the environment and how the Arctic is different in those locations.”

The strategy says Arctic-capable units outside of the Arctic will be involved in planning in order “to identify appropriate mitigation measures” for those differences. Work with allies and partners in the Pacific “that have some degree of proficiency in this capability” will also continue, Andrysiak said.

US Army Pacific, of which US Army Alaska is part, has directed Andrysiak’s command to pursue more training with India, and US Army Alaska will soon assume responsibility for the bilateral exercise Yudh Abhyas.

While Yudh Abhyas has been desert-focused, it will shift to “more of a mountainous scenario,” Andrysiak told Insider.

US India Army soldiers Alaska Yudh Abhyas
US soldiers guide Indian Army soldiers through small-arms training at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska during exercise Yudh Abhyas, November 2, 2010. US Army/Spc. Ashley M. Armstrong

“This fall, they’re going to come out to Alaska, and we’re going to train with them, and then a year from that timeframe, we’re going to go out to India and train in the Himalayas,” Andrysiak said. “That’s the mountainous aspect of the problem that we’re trying to build capabilities in.”

For the most recent Yudh Abhyas, US soldiers from Washington state traveled to northwest India for training that concluded in February. Indian soldiers have traveled to Alaska for previous iterations of Yudh Abhyas.

India is working on its own Arctic strategy, and after a deadly standoff with China along their disputed border in the Himalayas last year – the first in decades – India is also focusing more on mountain operations, adding a mountain strike corps to bolster its defenses in an area where altitude and terrain make any operation a challenge.

The US military supported India during that standoff, providing intelligence and cold-weather equipment. In so doing, the Army “gained understanding of the requirements to operate in places like the Himalayas,” the strategy says.

“As we work to build or strengthen our alliances and partnerships with nations across the globe – to the Indo-Pacific and in the European Theater – we want to be able to share and learn lessons so that we can operate effectively in those environments but also they can operate effectively in those environments,” Elizabeth Felling, a strategic planner in the Army general staff, said at the March press conference.