By David VergunFebruary 24, 2017
DEADHORSE, Alaska (Army News Service) -- Airborne Soldiers jumped into Alaska's Arctic tundra, Wednesday, just a few miles from the Arctic Ocean in minus-30 degrees temperatures, with a wind chill factor of minus 56 degrees.
Their mission: A satellite had crashed in a remote area and had to be recovered quickly, since it carried sensitive data and equipment and could cause a national security threat if it fell into the wrong hands, said Col. Jeffrey Crapo, U.S. Army Alaska director of operations. Crapo orchestrated the exercise from the ground.
While the primary goal of the exercise was finding and recovering the simulated satellite, the excercise's most crucial aspect was actually the freezing temperatures, which tested the Soldiers' ability to operate in the frigid cold.
All 150 Soldiers who flew in the Air Force C-130 and C-117 aircraft out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson had already received cold-weather indoctrination training, which meant they knew how to move in snowshoes and skis and could set up a 10-man arctic tent and stove.
Without that training, Soldiers wearing cold-weather gear can do little more than huddle and survive until help arrives, Crapo said. But once they receive this training, they become arctic warriors. They will not just survive but thrive in this hostile and remote environment.
The Soldiers participating in Exercise Spartan Pegasus were from the 25th Infantry Division's 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, just outside Anchorage, Alaska.
Here's how the scenario played out, according to Crapo. A small reconnaissance team jumped carrying skis, while all of the others carried snowshoes. They made the jump without incident. The drop zone was on the flat, treeless tundra, with a thick cushion of snow, which made the landing soft, safe and easy.
The most difficult part of the jump was dropping from an aircraft at about 1,200 feet and moving at 200 mph through the freezing air, he said. A few Soldiers contracted frostbite, but they were swiftly evacuated in small unit sustainment vehicles and Chinook helicopters, as safety was paramount to the training.
Soldiers on skis were then tasked with moving quickly to the objective, the downed satellite, while other Soldiers on snowshoes transported tents and equipment and set up a security perimeter. A few Soldiers served as snipers with live ammo, since polar bears inhabit the area and posed a real threat.
The cold took a toll on equipment. Most of the SUS-V tracked vehicles quit working, with pressure pumps and batteries failing, and some of the aircraft had issues and were grounded.
In this environment, batteries can fail after just a few hours, so they must be warmed with heating packs, Crapo said. Otherwise, they're just dead, useless weight. Even weapons can fail to operate.
It's a good idea to have two replacement vehicles or equipment for every item being used, he explained. The interior of the aircraft also must be kept cool so Soldiers don't sweat, because the sweat can freeze to their bodies when they make their jump.
Someday, Soldiers may be called upon to fight in this type of environment, Crapo said. The Arctic region is vital to U.S. national security interests, which means the U.S. Army must be prepared to operate in it.
Maj. Isaac Henderson, executive officer of 1st Squadron (Airborne), 40th Cavalry Regiment, said the jump was a shock for Soldiers, even though they live in Alaska.
"It's a real eye-opener for them," Henderson said. "Our biggest concern is contact frostbite as they strap on their skis and equipment."
Sgt. Brant Kuhns, a cavalry scout, said this was his 31st jump. He was initially worried about being "spun up" during the jump, meaning that he was carrying so much equipment that he worried about the lines of the parachute getting tangled.
However, he acknowledged that the cold was actually the toughest part. Kuhns had just graduated a week before from the Cold Weather Leaders Course at Alaska's Black Rapids Training Site.
Not everyone gets to jump north of the Arctic Circle, he said. It's an experience he'll always remember.
Brig. Gen. Lawrence F. "Larry" Thoms, commander, 311th Signal Command (Theater) and U.S. Army Pacific Command G-6, visited Soldiers in the extreme cold to provide mentorship and ensure leaders were engaged in cold weather risk management. With him was a group of foreign military observers who also observed the jump.
"Individual and operational readiness is the key to our ability to fight and win the nation's wars -- in any climate," Thoms said. "We must train to survive and fight in extreme, cold weather because the mission of Army communicators is to be ready to enable operational commanders in any environment."
"Our Soldiers must stay arctic tough," he added.
(Follow David Vergun on Twitter: @vergunARNEWS)