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Winter is here: SOF cold weather operations

19th July 2017 - 10:17 by Andrew White in London

As the international coalition of Special Operations Forces continues to concentrate on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns across the Middle East and North Africa, commanders are being forced to review the focus on contingency missions in extreme environments including the Arctic Circle and ‘high north’.

Providing a natural resources-rich environment, this area of the Globe is witnessing increased levels of activity as interested state actors position themselves to strategically dominate and exploit the region.

As a result, state actors are focused not only on the development of doctrine, concepts of operation (CONOPS), tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) associated with operating in a cold weather and sometimes high-altitude environment; but also on the technology types capable of optimising the performance, endurance, survivability and range of force components.

Subsequently, SOF are being tasked with increasing frequency to conduct cold weather operations (CWOs) which require mature capability solutions in order to successfully execute missions from the air, over land and in the maritime environment. 

In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited his Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) newly established forward operating base (FOB) in the Arctic Circle.

The Trefoil FOB forms part of a wider Russian initiative to amass similar base locations across the Arctic Circle and High North and follows Moscow’s decision to establish the Hatsavita Mountain Training Centre, near Labinsk in the Caucasus mountains, to train Special Purpose Brigades of “Spetsnaz” force components in CWOs.

More recently on 29 May, the Russian MoD disclosed plans to establish an R&D facility at Arkhangelsk, Priozersk and St Petersburg, to optimise understanding of weaponry and munitions used in low temperature environments.

Meanwhile, NATO continues to respond to Russia’s expansionist strategy with plans of its own to run the 2018 iteration of Exercise Trident Juncture in Norway with “tens of thousands of personnel expected to participate in the CWO training program”, according to Norwegian MoD officials.

Designed to develop CONOPS and TTPS in “extreme, cold and changing conditions”, the exercise was “ideally suited to strengthen cooperation between military and civilian organisations, and military cooperation between the participating countries,” NATO sources explained. 

Similar efforts to enhance capabilities for CWOs are being undertaken by the US Special Operations Command. Elsewhere the US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) continues to seek an uplift in CWO training regimes following nearly two decades of campaigns in hot and dry environments including Iraq and Afghanistan.

The difficult topography of the Arctic and High North presents significant challenges for SOF, which must contend with mountain ranges, vast plains of snowdrift across ice caps and iceberg-riddled waterways.

Mobility remains a critical component for the successful execution of any special operation with current options ranging from fixed and rotary wing helicopters, specially adapted to operate in the cold weather environment, through to tactical ground vehicles, skis and snow shoes.

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