Meeting the Arctic Challenge | An Interview with Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler

By Mike CrozierDecember 14, 2022

Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commanding general of U.S. Army Alaska, conducting a battlefield circulation and talking with Soldiers, encouraging them for their efforts during a force-on-force exercise with their Norwegian allies during Exercise Swift...
Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commanding general of U.S. Army Alaska, conducting a battlefield circulation and talking with Soldiers, encouraging them for their efforts during a force-on-force exercise with their Norwegian allies during Exercise Swift Response, May 11, 2022, at Setermoen, Norway. (Photo Credit: Photo by Spc. Kendall Lewis) VIEW ORIGINAL

The 11th Airborne Division traces its roots back to World War II, when it was first activated to assess the potential of large-scale Army airborne formations. With just one parachute and two glider infantry regiments to its name, the Arctic Angels first saw combat in the Philippines as part of the XXIV Corps conventional infantry before playing a pivotal role in the Liberation of Manila near the war’s end. While the 11th Airborne has had its colors cased since 1965, current Army senior leaders sought its reactivation in May of this year. Just one month later, on June 6, U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK) was reflagged as the 11th Airborne Division, reigniting its storied history as it seeks to carry out guidance set forth in the Army’s Arctic strategy. While this year has been one of stark transition for Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, the 11th Airborne’s commanding general made time to sit down with Army Sustainment to discuss the strategic, operational, and tactical challenges and opportunities an Arctic environment presents to the Army and joint force.

This June, the Army activated an airborne division for the first time in 70 years and redesignated U.S. Army Alaska as the 11th Airborne. Even though changes to force structure won’t be immediately realized, how has this new identity impacted your team’s mission and culture?

Everyone who joins the Army does so because they want to be a part of a team with a unique mission that demands your very best in support of your country. Reflagging as the 11th grants us that firm identity and helps ensure our collective purpose and mission. Looking back on our days as USARAK, we found ourselves seeking to act like a division even though we didn’t technically have the label. That misalignment didn’t seem to make sense to Soldiers or Army senior leaders, so bringing the 11th back from its history of World War II excellence created quite the flare up here in Alaska; we can serve as another airborne division in a strategically unique setting. This reflagging felt like a reckoning of what we actually have, are capable of, and will be asked to do for the Army. We have an extremely unique mission set. Not only do we support our partners in the Pacific, but we are also called to be the Army’s extreme cold weather and mountain experts who will pilot, test, and help develop the force structure and equipping concepts for an Arctic division. This has certainly created a buzz that has been felt throughout the ranks here that goes beyond just an updated patch. Many of our most critical force structure initiatives are in motion. An example is our division staff. USARAK itself was largely a garrison staff with limited operational capability. To build the division’s operational capability, we will forge a division sustainment brigade. Furthermore, we await the arrival of division artillery assets and an aviation headquarters. We’re full steam ahead with the metamorphosis from garrison to division headquarters to develop and exercise the Arctic capabilities required for future conflict.

Has that transition played out as expected?

In many ways, yes, but this transition has extended backward from June 2022. In my first 90 days at USARAK, before we became the 11th, our team completed an assessment to identify what our strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and opportunities were in consideration with some of the issues present up here in Alaska, like those of mental health and substance abuse. We did this to gain a clearer picture of those challenges and their impacts on Soldiers and their families. What could we do to fix those behaviors? We kept coming back to the ground truth that USARAK needed a stronger sense of its identity, purpose, and mission. Was the answer clear to transition towards a division? Not necessarily, but it became clearer as a way forward further on in the analysis. Our mission up here in the Arctic is unique, important, and extremely challenging, and it takes a certain level of grit and perseverance to succeed in this environment. With that in mind, we needed something significant to unify all of us around that mission and circumstance. Frankly, reflagging as the 11th was even a bit more than I had hoped for, and I give immense credit to Gen. Charles A. Flynn (commanding general, U.S. Army Pacific) and Lt. Gen. Xavier T. Brunson (commanding general, I Corps) for their advocacy of our division status to most effectively serve the Army across such a vast distance. We also believe this transition will really operationalize the Army’s Arctic strategy, and those wheels were in motion well before June. This winter, we hosted a Joint Pacific Multi-National Readiness Center exercise where we tested and verified our units’ and partners’ ability to deploy, fight, and win in this extreme environment. We’re now focused on maintaining that momentum since the transition has been made official, but we have a long way to go. For so long, we were rotating back and forth to Iraq and Afghanistan, so we really didn’t focus on the Arctic. However, we’re back training in that climate, redeveloping our calluses again and getting back our ethos to do what we need to do with our missions both in the Pacific and the Arctic.

What will the 11th Airborne need to be successful as a division?

We’re going to have to develop a modification table of organization and equipment (MTOE) that’s a bit different from other divisions. We recognize this will come with its own set of challenges, but I don’t believe we can just carbon copy other airborne or light infantry MTOEs; a unique Arctic-specific set should be something to seriously consider. This means change, which is challenging, and even more so when you’re trying to splice by division. A lot of what works elsewhere in the lower 48 may not work up here in the winter, and we’re committed to being the Army’s cold weather and mountain warfare experts. Other Arctic countries like Norway, Sweden, and Finland want to work with an Arctic U.S. force that trains and is an expert in the conditions pertinent to the environment, and we certainly fit that bill. The next, and enduring, step is to ensure we secure resources to match our requirements. As I mentioned earlier, the best case for demonstrating that need is by simply experiencing the Arctic. That environmental harshness should help us clearly prioritize what we need to be successful compared to divisions in the lower 48 or elsewhere.

In 2021, the Army released its Arctic strategy, “Regaining Arctic Dominance.” The document outlines the need for sustained “robust logistics” to achieve the Army’s operational and strategic objectives. How does the 11th Airborne define robust as it postures and trains for large-scale combat operations against a near-peer adversary?

Every logistics task has its own unique set of challenges in the Arctic. In fact, right now our logistics force is split between bases. There are 350 miles between Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and we have a large combat sustainment support battalion (CSSB) split between those two disparate locations. That’s a challenge in itself, but it becomes an even bigger deal when our winters are in full force. Frankly, it can be lethal and extremely high risk, so you must be robust in this sense by having contingency plans for any routine task or movement that is made difficult by our conditions and distance. Right now, we do not have a sustainment brigade, which hampers our ability to resolve complex sustainment problems within a dedicated staff. When we have that structure in place, everyone will benefit, including those of our brigade combat teams. We’ll be able to effectively and efficiently break down some of these more complex logistics problems and execute our required tasks as we modernize in tandem. From a logistics perspective, we’ll continue to rely primarily on aerial delivery to preserve offensive momentum, extend operational reach, and hold terrain. We will have some over-the-snow capability as that develops, and that will include sustainment and resupply capabilities. It’s a fantastic undertaking that we’re a regional combat training center now, but there are challenges that arise without a dedicated sustainment brigade to support its operations, like the 916th Support Brigade at the National Training Center. While our CSSB is certainly carrying its weight, standing up the sustainment brigade in the future will add a lot to our robust capability set as our command-and-control element aligning those smaller units within the CSSB currently.

When compared to your time at the 10th Mountain and the 25th Infantry Divisions, what’s different about training and equipping the 11th in an Arctic environment as you drive toward a point of being Arctic capable and dominant?

The Arctic environment is probably the harshest on the planet — if you can train, operate, and lead here, then I believe you can do so anywhere. Serving in the tropics or jungle, as the 25th is called to do, comes with a suite of extreme challenges as well, and the same can certainly be said for the 10th when you throw frigid mountain ranges into the equation. What each does well in unison, I believe, is focusing training and equipping priorities to meet and exceed their environment’s demands. Up here in Alaska, considering the great forests and mountain ranges around us, we’ve changed our whole training mentality to fit the environment. Training seasonality ensures we’re leveraging the coldest months to make our training more realistic and demanding, since normal tasks in different climates are anything but up here. In the Arctic, changing a windshield wiper in -50 F temperatures is absolutely a significant event. Essentially, we must be innovative in everything we do that may seem like standard day-to-day elsewhere. When I was at Fort Drum, New York, with the 10th Mountain, we liked to refer to ourselves as a blue-collar division, and I think the same ethos is felt with the 11th. We can’t just go out and train for the sake of it in many cases, as you have to think differently. The conditions are hard to experience until you’re in Alaska and feel that intense cold on a winter’s day. The speed of war has already accelerated, but that doesn’t alter the challenge of our environment. We have to be ready no matter what, and that starts with training that stresses us in all the right ways to achieve that expected dominance.

Quality of life issues for Soldiers and their families have been front of the collective mind the last few years. What are some of the key initiatives you are pursuing for the Arctic Angels to connect Soldiers and their families while they are serving in the unique Alaskan environment?

The most important thing that’s come from this transition is our new shared identity. Without that, it’s hard to build cohesive and lethal teams. Our largest and most impactful program, Mission 100, has had its greatest effect at the smallest unit level possible, its key byproduct being that troops have complete trust in each other and their leaders. Mission 100 is our campaign to connect 100 percent of our Soldiers and leaders with each other — leaders contact 100 percent of our Soldiers’ spouses or next of kin, and 100 percent of our Soldiers receive a wellness check from behavioral health or military family life counselors. We’ve seen a large drop in the number of suicides this year, but our work on this cannot stop until that number is and remains zero. The Army recognized a problem here, and they surged the resources necessary to get after its root causes. What’s been so enduring about Mission 100 is its uptake and buy-in at all levels, which is just so critical. We’ve made this a priority across the division. In fact, it’s more important than anything. Everyone went to a counseling session to help us defeat the stigma of receiving help, and we’re seeing that about 25 percent of people got help that would not have received it otherwise without this program. The second- and third-order effects of this are playing out, too, which is a huge boost. Soldiers know they have a safe place to talk to someone and they can bring their families into that when needed, too. Outside of that specific programming, we were able to get most of the division out in the field for training this winter, which was a huge positive for our readiness. Soldiers were excited for the challenge, and they’re excited for more. If you’re seeking a challenge, this is the place to be. I believe Soldiers recognize that while also understanding that the Army is ready to support them to the fullest extent possible while they’re in Alaska ensuring our Arctic force is ready now and for the future.


Mike Crozier is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4’s Logistics Initiatives Group. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgetown University.


This article was published in the Fall 22 issue of Army Sustainment.


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