By Andrew White, London
As the operational focus of the international coalition of Special Operations Forces continues to focus on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns across the Middle East and North Africa, commanders are being forced to review focus of contingency missions in extreme environments including the Arctic Circle and ‘High North’.
Providing a natural resources-rich environment, this area of the Globe is witnessing increased levels of activity as interested state actors position themselves to strategically dominate and exploit the region.
As a result, state actors are focused not only on the development of doctrine, concepts of operation (CONOPS), tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) associated with operating in a cold weather and sometimes high-altitude environment; but also on the technology types capable of optimizing the performance, endurance, survivability and range of force components.
Subsequently, SOF are being tasked with increasing frequency to conduct cold weather operations (CWOs) which require mature capability solutions in order to successfully execute missions from the air, over land and in the maritime environment.
In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited his Ministry of Defense’s (MoD’s) newly established forward operating base (FOB) in the Arctic circle.
The Trefoil FOB forms part of a wider Russian initiative to amass similar base locations across the Arctic Circle and High North and follows Moscow’s decision to establish the Hatsavita Mountain Training Center, near Labinsk in the Caucasus mountains, to train Special Purpose Brigades of “Spetsnaz” force components in CWOs.
More recently on 29 May, the Russian MoD disclosed plans to establish an R&D facility at Arkhangelsk, Priozersk and St Petersburg, to optimize understanding of weaponry and munitions used in low temperature environments.
Meanwhile, NATO continues to respond to Russia’s expansionist strategy with plans of its own to run the 2018 iteration of Exercise Trident Juncture in Norway with “tens of thousands of personnel expected to participate in the CWO training program”, according to Norwegian MoD officials.
Designed to develop CONOPS and TTPS in “extreme, cold and changing conditions”, the exercise was “ideally suited to strengthen cooperation between military and civilian organizations, and military cooperation between the participating countries,” NATO sources explained.
Similar efforts to enhance capabilities for CWOs are being undertaken by the US Special Operations Command. Elsewhere the US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) continues to seek an uplift in CWO training regimes following nearly two decades of campaigns in hot and dry environments including Iraq and Afghanistan.
The difficult topography of the Arctic and High North presents significant challenges for SOF, which must contend with mountain ranges, vast plains of snowdrift across ice caps and iceberg-riddled waterways.
Mobility remains a critical component for the successful execution of any special operation with current options ranging from fixed and rotary wing helicopters, specially adapted to operate in the cold weather environment, through to tactical ground vehicles, skis and snow shoes.
The Russian MoD, on 20 February, initiated a military convoy expedition travelling over 1,000km from Siberia to Kotelny Island to demonstrate possibilities in the area of Tactical Ground Viehicles.
Encountering temperatures as low as -60C, the expedition featured multiple tactical ground vehicles including Trekol All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) as well as DT-10PM and DT-30PM tracked vehicles.
Elsewhere, the Canadian SOF Command (CANSOFCOM) continues to work up plans to acquire its proposed Next Generation Fighting Vehicle (NGFV) as it seeks to enhance mobility options across the Arctic Circle.
Snowmobiles continue to provide a popular choice for maneuverability of SOF units across cold weather environments.
Polaris Government and Defense exhibited its Timbersled Snow Bike Conversion Kit concept at the SOF Industry Conference (SOFIC) in Tampa, Florida on 16th May 2017.
“Special Forces and other militaries also use our snowmobiles and commercial vehicles in snow and winter environments,” Polaris explained to SOF while highlighting how the “amphibious, all-terrain, all-season and global-reach platform is being considered by a number of undisclosed special operations units worldwide.
Meanwhile, USASOC’s 10th SFG has received an uplift in ski technology following a $160,000 deal with snow sports designer and manufacturer Romp Skis.
Providing 10th SFG Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) Teams with 350 sets of cross-country skis and bindings, the deal is expected to significantly enhance traversing capabilities of special operations teams seeking to covertly cross terrain while pulling heavy loads of pulks of associated mission equipment.
Helicopters operating under the command of Special Operations Air Components, continue to provide a robust capability to insert, extract and resupply SOF across the cold weather battlefield.
On 6 January 2017, the Russian MoD revealed its intention to stand up its first dedicated Special Operations Air Component formation, dedicated to supporting Spetsnaz teams with rotary wing platforms.
This includes the support of ongoing CWOs in the Arctic Circle – a move which was quickly followed on 20 February with the decision to procure an undisclosed number of Mi-8AMTSh-VA helicopter in an Arctic variant.
Finally, parachute insertion remains a favored method of entry into target areas for SOF, with companies such as Airborne Systems North America and Complete Parachute Solutions (CPS) continuing to extend boundaries regarding altitude, cold weather and other extreme conditions.
Responding to such requirements, CPS conducts an annual jump test program in the Himalayan mountain range, aimed at identifying future challenges as demand for higher altitude descents in lower temperatures continues to rise.
However, Russian armed forces are now also benefiting from Cold Weather-specific parachute technology in the form of the Zvezda Research, Development & Production Enterprise Arablet-2 Special Purpose Parachute System.
Efforts to enhance mobility, protection and lethality for SOF across cold weather environments looks set to expand into the future operating environment despite ongoing fiscal constraints.
However, even the most mature Special Forces Commands will require robust, efficient and effective training cycles in order to not only maintain a high tempo of operations to counter Violently Extremist Organizations (VEOs) across what has become a global battlespace, but also equally specialist mission requirements in the Arctic Circle against better equipped near-peer and peer adversaries.
For more, see the Jul-Aug issue of Special Operations Forum
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