A group of reservists recently trekked into the Arctic Circle to prepare for international conflict. Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, out of Terre Haute, Ind., deployed to Norway for exercise Cold Response 2012.
The Arctic exercise, which started March 5 and ends Monday, has brought together 16,300 troops from 15 allied nations for simulated combat, terror threats and mass demonstrations in the snow, ice and biting wind.
“I would kind of call it Bridgeport on steroids,” said Col. Mark Smith, referring to the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Pickel Meadow, Calif.
The 24th’s detachment headquarters coordinated Marine participation in the exercise.
But more than hardening Marines and strengthening their discipline, security experts say it is critical to have forces capable of operating in the Arctic Circle, an often overlooked region with boundary disputes between superpowers.
“The importance of why we need forces capable of operating in the Arctic is very basic power projection — to make a show to other players in the international community that we are an Arctic nation, and we are going to protect our interests in the Arctic Circle,” said Will Rogers, a national security and Arctic expert at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.
After years of fighting in a desert environment, most Marines may not think of the North Pole often, but the area abounds with oil, gas and other minerals, making it one of the most contentious regions of the world.
“I don’t think the Arctic becomes less significant in the near term. I think it becomes more important,” Rogers said. “Especially as the Arctic becomes more ice-free and countries become more able to exploit their access to waters that they hadn’t been able to before because of the ice.”
As average temperatures have risen over the past few years, the polar ice has drastically receded, opening routes such as the Northwest Passage. This waterway is claimed by Canada but disputed by the U.S. and other nations as an international shipping route. And that is just one of many sources of tension in the area. Later this year, Russia is expected to make a claim to extend its continental shelf — the piece of a continent that extends beyond the shoreline under the ocean.
It’s part of an aggressive grab to secure rights to natural resources under the sea floor that could extend Russian territory to the North Pole and overlap with claims from Denmark, Canada and other U.S. allies. Russia has already planted a flag on the sea floor under the North Pole, and even China, which has no Arctic border, is beginning to send expeditions north in search of valuable resources. The U.S. government is also working to stake claims by funding the Extended Continental Shelf Project, which aims to “establish the full extent of the continental shelf of the United States,” according to its website.
Mounting tensions in the Arctic and other regions, including the Pacific, coincide with a Marine Corps initiative to return the force to its expeditionary roots after filling a land army role for almost a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.
'Fighting the Environment'
During the Norwegian-led exercise, Marines made bitter-cold amphibious landings, conducted inland operations over mountain terrain and put in some time on snowshoes, Smith said. Most importantly, it prepared units for the worst weather conditions they will encounter anywhere.
“You show me an infantry unit that functions well in the cold and I will show you an infantry unit that can execute any tactical task you give them,” Smith said during a phone interview from Norway. “You are fighting the environment every bit as much as you are fighting an adversary.”
Even the mundane, like making a head call, becomes an enormous undertaking. Layer upon layer of clothing presents difficulties, he said, and waste has to be collected and burned or buried — a near impossibility in frozen ground.
The Corps will continue taking part in Cold Response in the years to come, and could increase its involvement. Other training missions near Russia have already been ramped up, including Black Sea Rotational Force in the Black Sea region bordering Russia. A new round of Marines on March 12 kicked off BSRF 2012 with an exercise in Georgia, which Russia invaded in 2008.
Headquarters Marine Corps has expressed a desire for “greater participation” in Norway, said Lt. Col. Seth Yost, the deputy operations officer for Marine Forces Europe, in a written response to questions from Marine Corps Times. Norway also shares a border with Russia.
While tensions are high in the Arctic, armed conflict remains highly unlikely, Rogers said.
“It’s more of a diplomatic challenge than anything else,” he said. “But projecting power prevents others from wanting or perceiving they can take advantage of the United States.”
Attempts to encroach on other nations’ resources will likely increase as countries push their continental shelf claims to the limit, energy supply becomes constrained, and demand for oil and gas spikes with a recovering global economy.
“There might be a tendency for countries to become a lot more assertive over resources than they would have been,” Rogers said.
To prepare for the unexpected, Marines will continue to participate in Cold Response.
“I realize you can quantify what it costs to put Marines on a plane and fly them over here and take them back,” Smith said. “What I don’t think you can put a mathematic figure on is what you get out of that as a fighting force.”