As great power competition between the United States, China, and Russia intensifies the Arctic has developed into an international competition space and potential future battlefield. Due to its wealth of resources and strategic significance, the arctic has drawn increased investment from these three competing countries. In addition, geographically similar regions such as the Himalayas have become flash-points in recent months as tensions rise between Chinese and Indian Forces along their disputed mountainous border. In such environments, terrain and weather can be enemies as deadly as foreign soldiers, and both Special Operations and conventional military forces will have crucial roles to play in competition, deterrence, and combat.
In September 2020, a 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) team, along with attached troops from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska conducted Valor United 20, an arctic warfare training exercise in Seward, Alaska. Special Forces and conventional soldiers alike developed their patrolling and survival skills in some of the most unforgiving terrain in the United States. Key focus areas for the training were arctic, alpine and glacier movement, crevasse rescue, and long-range high-frequency communications. In addition to training, the 1st SFG (A) team assisted 212th Rescue Squadron with wilderness search and rescue operations.
In conflict with a peer adversary, U.S. forces may not come to rely on the same communication systems as in the Global War on Terror; both Special Operations Command - Pacific and the conventional force have identified the need for long-range radio communications skills to be able to transmit messages without interference from skilled, technically advanced opponents. Special Forces communicators were able to leverage their skills to send high-frequency radio messages from austere glacier and mountain camps in Alaska across the Pacific to Okinawa, over 4,400 miles away, as well as to forces at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
As part of the communications training, the Special Forces team partnered with signal soldiers from the 17th Combat Service Support Battalion. Special Operation Forces and conventional communicators shared tactics, techniques and procedures, and learned from each other, as the training exercise enhanced shared understanding and furthered the capability of SOF and conventional forces to talk to each other. After the exercise, the 17th CSSB communications Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge stated, “This was the best training I’ve ever received in the Army.” This sentiment was echoed by several other conventional soldiers. As a result of the exercise, several conventional personnel also expressed interest in attending Special Forces Assessment and Selection and pursuing Special Operations careers.
Along with training in their key focus areas, 1st SFG (A) Green Berets also polished their skills in cold weather prolonged field care, and reception of short takeoff and landing planes on improvised landing strips in the field. Given their duties as a mountain operations team, select 1st SFG (A) teams must be able to support themselves for lengthy operations in harsh arctic or alpine environments without compromise by adversary forces. As part of these operations, the Detachment can be called to provide special reconnaissance for SOF or large conventional forces. During training, team members also practice their recon skills, building concealed surveillance sites and conducting long-range photography.
Coming out of the exercise, both Green Berets and conventional soldiers expressed enthusiasm for the lessons they learned and said they are eager to continue honing their skills. Reflecting on the training, a 1st SFG (A) Operations Sergeant said, “This was a great opportunity to refine previous Small Unit Tactics training and expand our proficiency to conduct arctic operations in an austere mountain environment.” As national governments in D.C., Beijing, and Moscow focus their attention on the arctic domain, the soldiers of 1st SFG (A) stand prepared to counter and contest adversary efforts in any environment, no matter how unforgiving.