Editor’s note: The Modern War Institute’s Project 6633 and the US Army’s 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) recently hosted an essay contest aimed at generating new ideas and expanding the community of interest for special operations in the polar regions. Participants were asked to address the following prompt: How can American special operations forces compete with near-peer adversaries in the polar regions? This essay, by Zachary Lavengood, was selected as one of two runner-up entries.
The Modern War Institute and Project 6633 thank Colonel Brian Rauen, commander of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), and the essay contest team of Major Jessica Caddell, Lieutenant Colonel George Johnson III, Dr. Max Margulies, Major Philip Swintek, and Major Zachary Griffiths for leading this effort.
In the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union the Arctic was largely a strategic and geopolitical afterthought. Too remote and environmentally hostile for anything but fishing, resource extraction, and indigenous economics, conventional military threats in the theater were improbable. In fact, Canadian General Walter Natynczyk told the Canadian Senate Committee on National Security and Defense in 2010 that, were the Canadian Arctic to be invaded, his “first challenge is search and rescue to help them out.”
In the decade since those comments, permafrost melted into swamps and the ice pack receded. Simultaneously, Russia refurbished and revitalized military infrastructure in the Arctic alongside combined economic investments with China. Unanswered, these Russian developments could shift the balance of power in the Arctic.
Unfortunately, US special operations forces lack the expertise to meet near-peer adversaries in the Arctic. While special operations forces continue investing in Arctic capability, current adaptations will not close the gap between US forces and their adversaries. With ice-free summers projected to begin by 2030 and Arctic shipping seasons projected to swell into the late spring and late autumn in the same decade, Arctic-trained and Arctic-ready special operations forces are no longer just nice, but necessary.
To close this gap, US special operations forces must establish a permanent detachment in Alaska. This detachment will facilitate rotational training deployments, while also forming the core of an Arctic special operations headquarters. Ft. Richardson’s littoral location, proximity to a diversity of Arctic environments, and existing support infrastructure make it an ideal location for such a detachment.
Beginning with rotational deployments to Ft. Richardson, special operations forces will synchronize with United States Army Alaska (USARAK) and Alaskan Command to close the gap by acclimatizing units. The psychological effects of midnight sun and polar night, environmental constraints on tactical deployments, and force-wide unfamiliarity with Arctic tactics including mobility, SERE, and logistics present significant challenges. Infrastructure already in use by USARAK, such as the Northern Warfare Training Center at Ft. Wainwright and the Black-Rapids Training Area will complement and enhance the depth of training of SOF. By acclimatizing, special operators will challenge adversaries who have not only significant expertise in Arctic warfare, but also emphasize this expertise as a facet of their military and national culture.
To facilitate rotational deployments and Arctic command and control, United States Special Operations Command must establish a headquarters and permanent detachment at Fort Richardson, Alaska. Situating the detachment at Fort Richardson will afford special operations forces shorter lines of communication, supply, and support when executing direct action, special reconnaissance, and information operations missions in the North American high north. This command will also modify existing complexes, such as the Northern Warfare Training Center at Ft. Wainwright and the Black Rapids Training Site, or develop new sites as necessary for special operations–specific requirements. Finally, establishing an Arctic special operations headquarters also sends a strong signal of resolve to both adversaries and allies that the United States is no longer the “reluctant Arctic power.”
Establishing a permanent US special operations presence in the American Arctic is a critical first step in meeting near-peer adversaries on equal footing in this important region. Such a headquarters will facilitate rotational deployments of special operations forces necessary to build Arctic competency, while also developing infrastructure crucial for training and operations in the high north. The decades of experience special operations forces have gained in other global theaters is not lost when applied in the context of the high north. However, this experience must be acclimated to Arctic realities in order to achieve its goals of protecting US assets and interests in the region.
Zachary Lavengood is an area studies PhD candidate at Charles University’s Department of North American Studies in Prague, Czechia, where he is completing his dissertation, Arctic Partnerships: Geopolitics of the Forming Power Blocs in the Far North. He graduated summa cum laude from Charles University’s area studies master’s program in 2019. Zachary’s main research interests include Arctic and outer space geopolitics, world-systems analysis, and international development.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Pena, US Army
This is a very good idea, but as the saying goes, "Easier said than done."
I don't think it would be as simple as stationing SOF commandos in Alaska because SOFs are currently geared with vehicles suited for hot desert environments–MRAPs and open FAVs with no armor and no windows.
SOCOM uses unique special vehicles, gear, communications, tactics, and equipment. It just can't piggyback off the USAF and US Army aircraft and vehicles and expect to be effective. This isn't "Task Force Ranger" in Somalia where a few SOFs paired with US Army soldiers and fought alongside because the SOF endurance factors and missions are different than Army soldiers.
So in order to do this requires more investments than just SOFs bunking at Ft. Richardson, and that requires the unique SOCOM helicopters, Combat Crafts, AC-130s, special barracks, Light Attack Planes, secure command centers, etc. The vast distances of the Arctic mean that SOFs operating on snowshoes and jetskis won't be "as special" as US Army soldiers operating in the same fashion besides training. Army soldiers don't probe or recon as well or as much as SOFs. And there needs to be a rescue force in case SOFs get into trouble, harassed, or kidnapped….the Army shouldn't be the rescue force per se.
To have a SOF force dressed in Arctic white uniforms and toting backpacks and HK416s is no different that US Army Arctic soldiers, so why bother when the DoD can just send more US Army soldiers to Alaska? SOCOM would need a much better presence to execute and defend "in depth" than just a number of SOF soldiers skiing around—and that means bringing the "SOF vehicles and gear along."
But would USSOCOM really want to do this so close to the Russian border that can allow for peer nation spying, electronic warfare, drone ISR, and communications eavesdropping? That is a debatable question…or should the answer be to base Arctic US Marines and MARSOC instead that are less classified and secret and use Arctic USMC CH-53Ks, F-35Bs, and CV-22s instead of the SOCOM MH-series of helicopters? A MARSOC CH-53K crashing in the snow isn't as classified as a SOF MH-47 crashing in the snow.
As you can see, the snowballing of funding, SOFs, vehicle, and gear can get crazy in order to implement an Arctic SOF force.
If Pres.Trump had listened to "advisors" like you wed have no Space Force and trust me plenty tried to deep six it.As you have demonstrated well there are always reasons and ways to discourage leading edge thinking and saying no is always the easiest.Also the laziest and instructive of the strength of a leader or advisor suggesting maintaing the status quo.Real leaders can spot those afraid of change of threatened by new ideas. Playing it safe isn't always the best play..One thing we will agree on is that it will Never happen under Biden.
Vermont mountain warfare Soldiers would be an excellent group for this mission to rotate in to train. The Vermont Mountain Warfare school was tue most professional military school I have ever been to with lessons I'll never forget.
The Chinese have been training in Canada for years with Trudeau's permission, so, better get a move on.
Other than a "presence", what purpose would it serve? The military has multiple cold weather locations for training (in addition to Vermont mentioned above). There is nothing much in the way of strategic assets to protect, other than oil wells. And none of these arctic assessments seem to be aware that the U.S. has dominated the Arctic Ocean via the only platform that can operate everywhere in that ocean, any time of year, covertly – a nuclear submarines.
I Spent ten years in Naval Special Operations and in that time I was with SEAL team two. We did a lot of arctic training from Alaska to six months in Norway training with our Norwegian partners, the Yeagers. and others. Extreme training in all aspects from gathering to asymmetric warfare. this was back in the 1980s-1990's. im sure there is still programs like this. Us as well as the USMC have been working In Norway and other areas within the arctic region for years. I Know there is ALWAYS room for improvement. my opion in this is that we need improved logistical, and naval training here. we need ice breaker ships for access and airborne as well as aircraft availability too. its ther but need to be increased in numbers and training.
The author is certainly correct that the US must compete more strongly in the Arctic, and although reactionary behavior is not necessarily the best COA, it is wise to confront the challenges that our adversaries pose in this unprotected region. However, sending a permanent detachment of SOF would not have nearly as much strategic importance as improving/augmenting conventional forces geared toward the region, which would more directly and logically confront the threat that our adversaries pose.
I completely agree. I do not feel as if a SOF detachment would be the best option. If we want to compete with Russia and China in this region, we will need conventional forces in the region, as Brock suggested.
The author makes a good point here, saying that it would bring us strategic advantage to have a unit near the arctic. I raise the question, does it NEED to be a SOF unit? I'm not opposed to SOF ending up in the Arctic region, however, it doesn't seem to make sense to place a unit there preemptively. I'm not convinced they would necessarily have a purpose for being stationed there. Possible options include assigning more conventional forces to the units that are already there, or providing different training to the units there. If the first ice-free summer is predicted to occur around 2030, we need to ensure we have a stronger presence by then.
I agree. I think that SOF units are already so small and need such a large investment of resources that it would be more economical to use conventional army personnel as a dedicated arctic warfare unit. This unit can be supplemented by SOF units, which already do several training exercises in cold weather environments, but I don't see why the author's idea of a permanent arctic army presence cannot be fulfilled by conventional forces.
I agree that it would be in the United State's best interest to establish a strong presence and formidable position in the arctic to confront its near-peer adversaries before they gain an advantageous foothold in the region. It is important to demonstrate to US competitors that the US is not taking a backseat in the newly unearthed territory as the author states in the article. There are many reasons as to why this would be beneficial, but I think focusing on deterring any further advancements by China and Russia is enough reason to become involved in the arctic.
I think maybe a warm base for SOF rotations (maybe a company at a time), similar to what we did in other environments. But the logistics piece is going to be paramount and that will in my opinion need to be both a SOF support element and conventional combined (remember SOF does a lot of specific equipment purchased over the counter to support their capabilities). That area is already difficult to get supplies so the area is going to need a good support network for all facets to project combat power. Don't forget the Marines have been in this type of environment for decades and they are mostly expeditionary so keep them in mind when it comes to establishing a foot print, they have different equipment needs. A Marine Unit maybe the answer.
Interesting piece, wish I had seen it sooner. My last job in the Army before retiring was serving as the J2 of Alaskan Command from 2013 – 2017. I also served with the 10th Special Forces Group, USAJFKSWCS, 1st Special Warfare Training Group, and JSOC in the past, which is why this article caught my interest.
If Special Operations Forces (SOF), or more specifically Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) in this case, need to establish a permanent detachment / forward headquarters in Alaska, I think Kodiak Island would probably be a better option than Fort Richardson for a couple of reasons:
1. Special Operations are inherently Joint operations, and Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) already has a presence on Kodiak, where Detachment Kodiak of Naval Special Warfare – Group ONE runs what is affectionately known as "the Hypothermia School," training SEAL platoons and Special Boat Unit (SBU) Detachments in maritime cold-weather operations. Detachment Kodiak is a small unit with only six instructors commanded by a SEAL Warrant Officer, but they have a pretty impressive compound for housing their students and all of their gear, and it could probably be enlarged to accommodate a small SOF forward headquarters.
2. Coast Guard Air Station (CGAS) Kodiak is the Coast Guard's largest air station, which has a squadron of C-130's stationed there in addition to rotary wing units. It could probably accommodate the presence of SOF air assets without too much new construction being necessary. Also, in any big emergency, Elmendorf AFB near Fort Richardson and Eielson AFB near Fort Wainwright will be absolutely slammed with air traffic. That's especially true concerning Elmendorf AFB in the event of a strong earthquake, because Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage was built in what was later determined to be an earthquake liquefaction zone. That makes Elmendorf AFB critical for bringing in supplies, equipment, and people as part of the relief effort. CGAS Kodiak would provide SOF a place to operate that's away from the chaos and the traffic jams at the two main USAF bases in the event of an earthquake or anything else going on.
Just in case you might think that Kodiak being a bit further from the Arctic Circle / Arctic Ocean is a disadvantage, it really isn't a significant one. Most of Alaska has to be accessed by air due to the lack of roads and the distances involved, and the extra 45 minutes of flight time from Kodiak shouldn't cause SOF units much of a problem. I think the added benefits would definitely outweigh the lone drawback.