JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. Army is set to revamp its forces in Alaska to better prepare for future cold-weather conflicts, and it is expected to replace the largest and heavily equipped Stryker Brigade in the state with a more mobile infantry unit better suited to frigid combat, according to army leaders.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said she expects to make a final decision on the troop change in Alaska soon, saying she will likely convert the Stryker unit, which uses eight-heavy vehicles. wheels, into a brigade of infantry.
“I think right now the goal of Army forces in Alaska is much more to create a formation that can do extreme cold” that could be used in Europe or the Indo-Pacific, Wormuth said. to 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-capable forces – forces that can survive and operate in that environment.”
The United States has long viewed the Arctic as an area of increasing competition with Russia and China, especially as climate change brings warmer temperatures and opens up sea lanes for longer periods of time. But officials have acknowledged that the United States lags behind those nations. Russia has taken steps to increase its military presence there, and China views the region as economically valuable for shipping and natural resources.
Changes to the military were under consideration long before US tensions with Russia skyrocketed after its invasion of Ukraine.
Under the Army’s new plan, the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, now based in Alaska, would be converted to a light infantry brigade. Combined with the division’s 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the two units would become the 11th Airborne Division, based in Alaska. And the big Stryker vehicles, which are a bit old, would be replaced by other vehicles more suited to icy and snowy terrain, Wormuth said.
The increased focus on cold weather warfare includes a decision to conduct major training exercises for Alaska-based troops in their home state in the weather conditions they would face in combat in the cold weather. ‘Arctic. The troops were scheduled to head to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in March, but army leaders decided to keep them in Alaska so they could train in the freezing temperatures and frozen terrain. they would encounter in any cold. weather battle.
“I think it really makes sense to have forces trained in the arctic environments they would be used for,” Wormuth said after spending two days at the still snowy base. “If we’re going to have ground forces in Alaska, that’s what we need them to be able to do. They cannot gain this experience by going to the Mojave Desert or Fort Polk.
Last year, in an initial trial event, Pacific-based forces remained in Hawaii for their scheduled exercises at the National Training Center in California’s Mohave Desert. Commanders said they learned from those first two moves, as they tried to recreate conditions and move personnel and equipment from well-established training centers to more distant locations.
During his visit to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Wormuth met with commanders who called the formation change a success. Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commander of U.S. Army Alaska, said the benefits outweighed the shortcomings created by the need to build the 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 actors as they would have at one of the training centers, the trainers who came were able to learn more about the operations. Arctic weather.
Additionally, Eifler said, the change avoided costly and time-consuming shipping of vehicles, weapons and other equipment to Louisiana and back. The lengthy process of packing and shipping before and after a training exercise in Louisiana or California often leaves troops without their weapon systems and other equipment for weeks.
During briefings at the base in Alaska, commanders said the training included large-scale combat operations in extreme weather conditions in what they called “the most challenging environment on earth”. They said 10,000 soldiers – including the Canadian army and air force – took part in the exercise.
But they said the exercise also highlighted the need for better cold weather vehicles, including those capable of carrying arctic infantry forces.
Gen. Joseph Martin, the Army’s vice chief who was in Alaska this year, said the service was studying what type of vehicle would be best for the troops. “Is the Stryker the right vehicle for an arctic warrior? In winter, you need vehicles that can travel on snow,” he said.
Additionally, he said, the vehicle must also be able to operate during spring or summer thaw, when the ground turns to mud.
As Wormuth finished her visit, she suggested that the decision regarding the Stryker Brigade was moving forward soon. Any final decision would require the approval of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
“If you’re going to be doing big equipment moves and things like that, summer is a pretty big window because it’s a lot easier to move vehicles than it is in the dead of winter,” she said. .
And in conversations with congressional lawmakers, including at a hearing this week, she made it clear that the change would not reduce the number of troops in Alaska. Instead, she said that although the infantry brigade would be smaller, the army would compensate for this loss by increasing the size and capabilities of the headquarters.
More generally, she spoke with commanders in Alaska about the potential need for additional changes as the U.S. military’s Arctic strategy evolves.
The United States, Wormuth said, has resisted moves to militarize the Arctic, even as Russia has expanded its military presence and bases there. But, she said, “is this mindset going to last given what the Russians are doing in Ukraine? Or will it be revisited? Will it create a window to think about things differently? »
The commanders said there were questions about whether any of the Pentagon’s combat commands — like European Command or Colorado-based Northern Command — should take full ownership of the Arctic and the role American military there. Wormuth said the matter needed further discussion and any decision could take years.