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U.S. Army, International Soldiers Conduct Arctic Training In Alaska


As climate change opens the Arctic to more trade and resource exploration, militaries around the globe are training troops to operate in extreme cold. This winter, the U.S. Army gathered elite international soldiers from as far as Nepal at its Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska. The U.S. is in the middle of restructuring its forces around the world. And as Alaska Public Media's Zachariah Hughes reports, that includes getting troops battle-ready far to the north.

ZACHARIAH HUGHES, BYLINE: It's about 15 degrees below zero at the Black Rapids Training Site a hundred miles south of Fairbanks and Chief Warrant Officer Rommel Hurtado is striking his knife to start a fire in a pile of twigs.

ROMMEL HURTADO: It's a very tedious process. You know, nature provides.

HUGHES: Usually this camp is used for training troops how to survive and fight in cold terrain. But recently, specialists from 12 countries came together for a summit on Arctic and mountain warfare. Diminishing sea ice means more access for northern trade routes and potential resource extraction, and it's getting many nations interested in establishing a presence here or, at the very least, having soldiers who can launch rescue missions in case of an emergency.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL ALAN BROWN: We recognize that cold regions are pretty significant right now and becoming more significant.

HUGHES: Lieutenant Colonel Alan Brown is a spokesman for the Army in Alaska.

BROWN: The Arctic is only going to become more relevant so military forces across the world are going to have to be able to adapt and react to these colder regions.

HUGHES: Brown says that from Ukraine to the Hindu Kush Mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, many global hotspots are in fact quite cold. Survival skills from the Arctic are transferable. Snowshoeing up a hill in a white tunic, Lieutenant Colonel Francois Dufault watches soldiers and specialists ski by. Dufault is from the Advanced Warfare Center in Canada and says he's studying how different militaries perform the same task.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL FRANCOIS DUFAULT: I think the most important thing that we're looking at when we go outside like this is how you get dressed because in the Arctic, you know, the big point is the layer system, and either you will freeze or you'll be overheating.

HUGHES: Denmark is trying to integrate the unique abilities of its Home Guard in Greenland, some of whom spend months patrolling the remote coasts by dogsled. The Germans have a course in high-altitude sniper shooting. Dorjnyam Shinebayor is head of the Mongolian army's Special Task Battalion. He says his military is drawing on nomadic traditions for carrying artillery and supplies.

DORJNYAM SHINEBAYOR: Yeah, we're using the horse and yaks and camel, yeah.

HUGHES: But the Defense Department is sending somewhat mixed signals. The current nationwide troop drawdown could hit Alaska's two Army bases hard, significantly reducing the U.S. military presence in the high north. The closest combat-ready force with similar training would be in upstate New York.

Kicking up clouds of ice and sending the air to 60 degrees below zero, the Black Hawk helicopter lands. On board is General Ray Odierno, head of the U.S. Army. He visited Black Rapids for a quick lunch and speech to troops.


GENERAL RAY ODIERNO: As I look at the new environment that we're operating in around the world, in order to solve these many problems that are popping up it's going to require a joint interagency multinational solution.

HUGHES: One conspicuous absence at the meeting was Russia, with whom the U.S. military is barred from working because of sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine. But that doesn't mean they aren't present in discussions about the region. The Russian military is significantly expanding its infrastructure in the Arctic, building airfields, deepwater ports and activating four combat brigades there. The build-up is getting the attention of other nations, some of whom share borders and sea routes with Russia. For NPR News I'm Zachariah Hughes in Black Rapids, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.