Recently, Project 6633 asked authors to answer the question, “How can American special operations forces compete with near-peer adversaries in the polar regions?” The winning essay, “Competing in the Arctic through Indigenous Group Engagement and Special Reconnaissance Activities,” penned by Colonel Kevin D. Stringer, proposes US Army Special Forces should be the primary special operations effort in the high north due to their heritage and experience conducting engagement with the indigenous population. He charges them with maintaining “regular and persistent engagements with the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.” While this mandate falls under the purview of Special Forces, in many cases, it would be more resource-efficient and politically palatable to have special operations force civil affairs teams (CATs) expand the competitive space in the northern latitudes. Stringer states that “US Special Forces have a civil affairs opportunity with the large number of indigenous governance organizations and bodies.” This begs the question: Why not offer this mission to United States Special Operations Command’s dedicated civil affairs (CA) unit?

Despite the region’s location on the geographic periphery, access to natural resources and expanding trade routes underscore the region’s importance. Both Russia and China are eager to galvanize their positions as key influencers. China recently announced plans build a third icebreaker, furthering its efforts to incorporate the northern sea route into the Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, following a 2007 stunt planting of its flag on the North Pole, Russia has expanded its military presence in the Arctic and seeks to establish itself as the preeminent power in the region.

The 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion (US Special Operations Command’s Europe-aligned CA unit) is uniquely suited to fulfill the mission set illuminated by Stringer’s essay. However, as the Army’s Arctic strategy, Regaining Arctic Dominance, states, Arctic-capable forces cannot be rapidly developed. Indeed, formations cannot “simply be re-purposed or provide (sic) add-on capability to be proficient and survive arctic conditions.” Instead, they require specialized training and equipment. The lack of Arctic-oriented CA capacity can be filled through specially trained and equipped high north CATs, the establishment of a winter warfare section within the 92nd, and increased engagement in the US Special Operations Command–North (SOCNORTH) and Special Operations Command–Europe (SOCEUR) areas of responsibility.

Renewed strategic competition necessitates the United States maintain access, presence, and influence across the high north. Essentially, failure to address this capability gap cedes access, presence, and influence in the region to Washington’s competitors. National leaders require the full range of special operations force (SOF) options in the polar north. Our adversaries are not waiting. Neither should we.

Why Civil Affairs?

The SOF CA mission set is uniquely suited to expand the competitive space in the high north. While the polar and near-polar regions are divided by nation-states, the population there is not. A full nine percent of the population is indigenous, coming from over forty ethnic groups. The Arctic Council, an international organization for intergovernmental cooperation and coordination in the Arctic region, is one of the few international organizations where indigenous groups participate at the same level as nation-states. In the council, eight Arctic states share membership status with six “Indigenous Permanent Participant” organizations, who in many cases enjoy de jure administration of their ancestral lands. In this region, the lines between traditional government and indigenous governance are blurred, and on-the-ground conditions cannot be divined from capitals thousands of kilometers away. Under these circumstances, CA’s indigenous governance expertise, civil network development, and engagement skills are crucial competencies for any special operations unit operating in the polar region.

Furthermore, what military presence does exist is often minimal and sometimes explicitly absent. Iceland’s coast guard is administratively a law enforcement agency and the nation lacks any other military branch. Canada’s Arctic defense forces are primarily the Canadian Rangers, an overwhelmingly local and indigenous reserve organization. In space where conventional state infrastructure is ceded to bottom-up, locally derived systems, CA provides an opportunity to strengthen our allies and partners.

A core CA mission is civil reconnaissance, which is the targeted, planned observation of civil factors of the operational environment, providing commanders with crucial information pertaining to the human, physical, and informational domains. As noted in Regaining Arctic Dominance, climatic shifts will cause permafrost to thaw, resulting in formerly secure infrastructure such as roadways, airfields, and bridges becoming inoperable. Therefore, maintaining an accurate common operational picture of these environments requires persistent access and presence. These remote environments where indigenous populations and critical infrastructure intersect are prime candidates for civil reconnaissance.

However, at this crucial juncture, the civil affairs regiment is not prepared to operate in the high north, whether organically or in a cross-functional team. The 92nd must address this gap. Like the specialization seen in Special Forces companies, the 92nd should develop one high north CAT per company capable of operating in a polar environment, either independently or integrated with a mountain Special Forces team, or ODA (operational detachment alpha). These CATs will enhance persistent presence missions in mountainous or Arctic countries. Additionally, they would serve as a force capable of attaching to other SOF elements in the event of contingency operations in the polar regions. Furthermore, they will serve as subject matter experts capable of facilitating winter environment training for their companies. High north CAT certification will focus on two closely entwined competencies currently absent from the training progression: military mountaineering and winter warfare.

Military Mountaineering

A basic aspect of winter warfare is the ability to conduct operations in alpine terrain. 1st Special Forces Command’s A Vision for 2021 and Beyond expressly highlights the need for integrated, cross-functional SOF at the micro level. Simply assigning two units to work together does not automatically bestow compatibility or comparable capability between them. Expecting interoperability because of a task organization chart, at best, breeds animosity between units and, at worst, turns an ad hoc addition to the team into a liability.

Currently, CATs do not train on specialized infiltration techniques such as mountaineering. Infiltration or movement techniques cannot serve as a barrier to SOF integration. Simply put, attaching a CAT to a mountain ODA and expecting the resulting cross-functional team to retain its full capability is impossible. This can be overcome through deliberate training to a set standard across US Special Operations Command.

Fortunately, this problem set is not unique to the civil affairs regiment, and low-cost solutions exist within the Department of Defense. In addition to in-house mountaineering training conducted within 10th Special Forces Group, both the Black Rapids Training Site in Alaska and the Army Mountain Warfare School in Vermont offer the basic military mountaineering course. This two-week school grants the “E” skill identifier, level I mountaineer, and provides soldiers with the knowledge base to integrate into a larger mountaineering element. Level I certification is the same level of certification most members of a mountain ODA earn. A common skill vernacular can reduce weeks of cross-training otherwise required to bring the cross-functional team to a functional level to days of developing standard operating procedures as the component members establish a baseline with each other.

Initially, the entire unit will have to attend this training to build unit capability. As high north CATs experience turnover, new members will attend as individuals to replace those who have moved on. As the program develops, other training opportunities such as the Special Operations Advanced Mountaineering School should be pursued.

Mountain warfare specialization remains relevant outside polar regions. Mountaineering experience significantly enhances existing CA missions, such as those in the Caucasus and Balkans. Mountainous terrain is prevalent across the SOCEUR area of responsibility, comprising over 35 percent of the continent’s landmass. Outside of the northern European plain, these numbers increase drastically; for example, mountainous terrain comprises over two-thirds of both Georgia and Norway. A mountain certification increases opportunities for training within a cross-functional team or with partner forces, participation in host nation exercises, and partnership with existing search-and-rescue or mountaineering networks, furthering access to the region and broadening opportunities to enhance civil resiliency in the region.

Failure to invest in specialized skills severely inhibits full cross-functional team integration. Creating mountain warfare CATs and demonstrating a shared skill set builds rapport across SOF by removing infiltration as a barrier to entry for operations.

Winter Warfare

Mountaineering by itself does not bestow Arctic capability. It must be paired with dedicated winter warfare training. Skis and snowshoes replace foot movement. Traditional lubricants freeze and batteries must be kept warm and used sparingly. Uniform and packing lists transform from questions of comfort to questions of survival. Fortunately, this is not an unsolved problem set.

The extreme winter conditions that a globally deployable force must prepare for are uncommon at most US military bases. Arctic-capable units must train deliberately for such environments. They are “enabled by doctrine, trained at echelon, with the right equipment, and manned by Soldiers with the appropriate knowledge, skills, and abilities to successfully operate in the Arctic.” Therefore, the development of Arctic-capable CATs requires specialized training to shoot, move, communicate, and survive. The cruel realities of life below zero require relearning fundamentals.

Winter warfare specialists have overcome this problem set in a myriad of ways. The Northern Warfare Training Center offers the Cold Weather Leaders Course. This ten-day course familiarizes small-unit leaders in brigade combat teams with the principles of operating in Arctic and sub-Arctic conditions. Our Swedish partners offer the Basic Winter Warfare Course, which is frequently attended by ODAs. Other NATO allies offer similar courses, and recently 10th Special Forces Group introduced a four-week Winter Warfare Course. 10th Special Forces Group also conducts the Cold Weather Instructor Course (CWIC), whose graduates serve as subject matter experts for their companies, planning and executing their cold weather training. Each course should be considered toward the eventual codification of requirements for high north CAT certification. However, in the nascent stages of the program, the focus should be on CWIC and the Winter Warfare Course. Both are tailored toward SOF-particular techniques, and therefore bolster SOF interoperability. As an instructor course, CWIC is designed to export knowledge to parent units, which would allow a CA company to focus a training cycle on a winter environment with a reduced need to outsource training and instructors.

Winter Warfare Section

For sustained readiness to conduct operations in the high north, the 92nd must maintain a winter warfare section, like that held by 10th Special Forces Group. Once mature, this team of three to six experienced noncommissioned officers will be responsible for certifying high north CATs. The section will assist the CATs with scheduling and coordinating training opportunities across echelons. Additionally, they will track each team’s training pathway, and at the end of the progression, validate that the CAT met the individual and collective requirements to deploy as a high north CAT. Additionally, they will serve as an institutional link to other military and civilian organizations to ensure that units receive the most modern, safe, and tested techniques and methodologies available.

In addition to nurturing the winter warfare skills of the high north CATs, the section will be responsible for equipping them as well. The section will maintain specialized equipment that would be cost-prohibitive and unnecessary to purchase for six individual CATs. Equipment such as avalanche beacons, probes, and snow machines may be necessary for operational or training requirements but not used at a frequency that necessitates purchasing sets for each CAT. The critical factor for consideration is that training and deployment requirements are met simultaneously. Training on equipment you do not deploy with and deploying without equipment you trained with greatly hinders the efficacy of this proposal. Collocating equipment procurement with subject matter experts ensures that teams are operating with proven gear common across winter warfare professionals and that high north CATs are equipped to achieve interoperability across the SOF enterprise.

Engagements on the Periphery

Properly trained and equipped high north CA teams open the door for a variety of engagements within the SOCNORTH and SOCEUR areas of responsibility. Either integrated into a cross-functional team or as an independent element, training for the Arctic generates opportunities that offer a robust return on investment, both in strategic competition and during contingency operations. As home to many autonomous indigenous groups who participate as peers to nation-states in intergovernmental organizations, the Arctic presents both an opportunity to apply the governance expertise of a CA team and an opportunity for a team to hone its craft.

One such engagement would be realistic military training conducted with organizations such as the Alaska State Troopers and others within the Alaska state government. Such training offers high north CATs a US-based opportunity to increase understanding of tribal governance within an advanced governmental structure. Studying how local groups interact with highly developed state and national institutions is critical as we strive to map networks, identify vulnerabilities, and strengthen the national resiliency of our allies and partners. Such indigenous groups are perfect for cross-functional team engagement, as the local defense and governance aspects in these tight-knit and isolated communities are often intertwined.

At the opposite end of the spectrum (and globe) lays an additional opportunity to study governance in polar extremes. McMurdo Station, run by the National Science Foundation, serves as the primary hub for the three thousand Americans conducting research operations across Antarctica every summer. A subject matter expert exchange with the administration of McMurdo Station would grant the team increased awareness of the challenges and best practices associated with governing and maintaining critical infrastructure. Lessons learned here can be applied to any isolated organization operating in extreme conditions. Such austere settlements range from mining outposts, not unlike those found in Svalbard, to potential logistical hubs supporting nascent northern sea lanes.

In addition to these opportunities, the high north is rife with exercises primed for CA participation. The annual Adamant Serpent exercise involves a nonstandard infiltration of ODAs to Gotland Island, Sweden. Upon arrival, the training unit conducts linkup with the Swedish Home Guard, and advises, assists, and accompanies them on missions. This scenario could easily be adapted for a cross-functional team. Using the same nonstandard infiltration lanes, a CAT could advise the local government on managing the incursion-induced crisis, with minimal modifications to the exercise. Similarly, other exercises within the SOCNORTH area of responsibility can be modified to add network development lanes in realistic environments to enable nonstandard logistics, medical, and communication capabilities that support or enable other participating units. The low profile and small size of CATs make them ideal for the implementation of such concepts.

The skills and knowledge described build a depth of experiences that directly enhance the 92nd’s ability to provide SOCEUR with governance specialists capable of operating in extreme polar environments. To specialize in winter warfare will not come with a diminished ability to map networks or identify and employ civil networks. On the contrary, the operating environment of the high north, with its robust and empowered indigenous autonomous communities, is an ideal environment for properly trained CATs. High north CATs provide the means to maintain access, presence, and influence in a region seeing increased Chinese interest and Russian posturing. We cannot wait for a crisis to develop this capability.

Capt. Clayton Hudak is a civil affairs officer in the US Army. He holds a BA in international relations from Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, where the late professor Michael Corgan ignited his interest in all things Arctic.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Staff Sgt. Christopher B. Dennis