News: Marine Reservists thrive in the Arctic Circle
Story by Cpl. Marcin Platek
HARSTAD, Norway—As the nightfall set in, Marines with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, dug in for the night as if they were out in the desert. Instead of digging foxholes in the sand, they found themselves digging in waist-high snow. The sight of the cold beds-to-be did not faze them; they showed little emotion in their pink faces.
Marines of Company K endured cold-weather training alongside approximately 16,000 troops from 14 nations who congregated in Norway’s Arctic Circle for Exercise Cold Response 2012, March 4-24.
“The current mission of the exercise is to literally exercise the interoperability with our allies,” said Brig. Gen. James M. Lariviere, commanding general of 4th MarDiv. “We’re here in Norway with our Norwegian friends, and we’re operating with Royal Dutch Marine Corps, the British Royal Marine Corps and other allied forces.”
Mandated by the U.N., the Marines training on NATO grounds had to comply and operate according to their standard operating procedures. Learning the different procedures and measures of these organizations applies to real-life situations Marines can face today and in the future.
“Just as we have fought with those units in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are continuing that training here in Norway,” said Lariviere. “Interoperability is the key.”
The multinational invitational exercise also focused on rehearsing conventional-warfare operations in winter conditions.
Those environmental and movement conditions present challenges to the infantry tactics, techniques and procedures that are applicable across the spectrum of warfare, said Col. Mark A. Smith, deputy commander of 24th Marines, 4th MarDiv.
“You have to account for the environment, which has certain effects on your weapons,” said Smith, also the detachment commander for the Marines participating in Cold Response. “You have to know what it does to the ballistics of particular weapon systems you have to know what it does to the maintenance cycle, what you have to do to keep your gear and weapons functioning, but tactics overall are the same.”
“You’re in rugged, mountain terrain, bitter cold, and a lot of snow and ice,” said Smith. “You’re channelized automatically by the terrain.”
The Marines navigated the snowed-in and secluded roads toward the areas of operations, but the roads could not get them to the snow-covered and ice-coated objective areas.
“Now you have to account for ‘how do we move on snow and ice,’ which is where the belted-vehicles come into play, it’s where your snowshoes and skis come into play, and now not only do you have to understand the military aspects of the terrain but you have to understand the safety aspects of the terrain,” said Smith. “An avalanche will kill you every bit as quick as an artillery shell or a machine gun bullet.”
The Norwegians trained the Marines on how to operate in Norwegian belted vehicles, which can move through the Norwegian countryside. The Marines also received training on how to move about wearing snowshoes.
“We taught them basic mobility and how to use the terrain to their advantage,” said Staff Sgt. Manuel S. Zapien, a Marine Corps Mountain-Warfare Training Center instructor, who taught many of the cold-weather techniques to the Marines in Norway. “We also taught them patrolling considerations, since it is a little bit different than patrolling in the desert or jungle.”
The snow coverage gives the enemy an ability to track Marines’ movement. Because of that, the Marines received advanced training on concealing their paths, working in four-man fire teams in cold weather and proper tactical conduct during routine or permanent stops.
Lariviere said the challenging cold-weather operations and training environments became a perfect opportunity to exercise the small-unit leadership that is so important to the Marine Corps.
“Small-unit leadership, down to the fire-team level, is really one of the main focuses in the cold-weather environment, particularly north of the Arctic Circle,” said Capt. Nickoli Johnson, commanding officer of Company K, based out of Terre Haute, Ind. “You are fighting an opponent but also contending with the environment the entire time.”
Surviving in that environment and not becoming a casualty requires multiple ongoing actions performed both individually and as a unit. As the body gets cold, the mind shuts down to stay warm and wants to perform minimal tasks. Zapien termed the effect “cocooning” as one tries to shelter themselves from the cold. Effective leadership is essential in these situations.
“Your small-unit leaders have to constantly be pushing and making sure everything is getting done from the survivability perspective, not to mention that at the same time you have tactical tasks that you are executing,” said Smith. “It just challenges you 24/7.”
To be combat effective in the cold weather, small-unit leaders have to inspect every detail of their Marines and their equipment, said Johnson. They need to be inspecting their appendages: hands, fingers and toes. During routine stops, Marines had to simulate posting security in order to perform essential tasks for well-being and safety such as changing footwear, eating, hydrating and staying warm.
Smith concluded the leadership and discipline can be challenging in any environment, but when you stack all of them together, none are as challenging as cold-weather and mountain-terrain training.
The Marines also spent a total of almost a week aboard Her Netherlands Majesty's Ship Rotterdam, from which they executed three amphibious landings and learned about life aboard a ship.
“This is a unique opportunity to take advantage of the terrain and weather here in Norway, but also to embark on an allied amphibious platform and conduct a landing,” said Lariviere. “For many Marines, this is their first time aboard a ship.”
As the Marine Corps downsizes in Afghanistan, the Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos said it will be going back to its traditional expeditionary roots. According to Lariviere, this exercise will help out in two ways: adapting to a different environment and getting back to amphibious roots.
“It will help us train for the future as we look ahead of what comes after Afghanistan,” said Lariviere. “It’s a different environment than the one we have been used to.”