Paratroopers of 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division awaits transportation after a successful airborne operation and follow on mission in Deadhorse, Alaska, February 22. The training simulated the recovery of a downed satellite and tested the battalions contingency operation ability. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel Love) (Photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel Love)
Paratroopers with 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division evacuate a cold-weather casualty as a precautionary measure in Deadhorse, Alaska, February 22. The soldier was released the next day without permanent damage. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel Love) (Photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel Love)
DEADHORSE, Alaska -- Airborne Soldiers jumped into Alaska's Arctic tundra, Feb. 22, just a few miles from the Arctic Ocean in minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit temperature with a windchill factor of minus 56 F.
Their mission: A satellite that crashed in a remote area had to be recovered quickly, since it carried sensitive data and equipment and could cause a national security threat if it fell into the wrong hands, said Col. Jeffrey Crapo, U.S. Army Alaska director of operations. Crapo orchestrated the exercise from the ground.
While finding and evacuating the simulated satellite was the mission, the most important aspect of the exercise was actually testing Soldiers' ability to operate in the frigid cold, which cannot be replicated anywhere else, he said.
All 150 Soldiers who flew in the Air Force C-130 and C-117 aircraft out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson had previous cold-weather indoctrination training, which Crapo said entails learning movement by snowshoes and skis and setting up a 10-man arctic tent and stove.
Without that training, Soldiers wearing cold-weather gear could huddle and survive until help arrives, but do little else, he said. But once they receive this training, they become arctic warriors, which means they cannot only survive, but operate and thrive in this hostile and remote environment.
The Soldiers participating in Exercise Spartan Pegasus are from the 25th Infantry Division's 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, just outside Anchorage, Alaska.
Here's how the scenario played out, according to Crapo, a small reconnaissance team jumped carrying skis, while all of the others carried snowshoes.
The jump went without incident and the landing was pretty easy, Crapo said, because the drop zone was on the flat, treeless tundra, with a thick cushion of snow, which made the landing soft, safe and easy.
The difficult part of the jump was dropping from an aircraft at about 1,200 feet and moving at 200 mph through the air in the cold, he said. Some frostbite occurred, but these Soldiers were swiftly evacuated in Small Unit Sustainment Vehicles and Chinook helicopters, as safety was paramount to the training, Crapo said.
Soldiers on skis were tasked with moving quickly to the objective, the downed satellite, while other Soldiers on snowshoes transported tents and equipment and set up a security perimeter, he said. Some Soldiers served as snipers with live ammo, since polar bears inhabit the area and could present a real threat.
Cold took a toll on equipment as well. Most of the SUS-V tracked vehicles quit working, with pressure pumps and batteries failing, and some of the aircraft had issues and were grounded.
The Army will learn a lot from this type of extreme testing of man and machine, Crapo said. In this environment, batteries fail after just a few hours, so they must be warmed with heating packs. Otherwise, they're just dead, useless weight. Even weapons can fail to operate.
Any piece of equipment can and will fail and it's a good idea to have two replacement vehicles or equipment for every item being used, he added.
Another lesson learned is to keep the interior of the aircraft cool so Soldiers don't sweat, which will freeze to their bodies when they make their jump, he said. They must also follow instructions closely regarding how to wear their seven-layer arctic clothing.
The importance of doing this exercise, Crapo said, is that someday, Soldiers may be called upon to fight in this type of environment. The Arctic region is vital to U.S. national security interests and those allies and the Army has to be prepared to go.
Maj. Isaac Henderson, executive officer of 1st Squadron (Airborne), 40th Cavalry Regiment, said the jump was a shock for Soldiers, even though they live in Alaska. The JBER departure temperature was 15 degrees and now they're in near-minus 60 F wind chill.
"It's a real eye opener for them," Henderson said, and "our biggest concern is contact frostbite as they strap on their skis and equipment." As a result, their safety and welfare is carefully monitored.
Sgt. Brant Kuhns, a cavalry scout, said this was his 31st jump. He said he was initially worried about being "spun up" during the jump, meaning that he was carrying so much equipment that he was concerned about the lines of the parachute being tangled.
However, the jump for everyone went smoothly and he acknowledged that the cold was the toughest part. Kuhns had just graduated a week before from the Cold Weather Leaders Course at Alaska's Black Rapids Training Site.
Kuhns said not everyone gets to jump north of the Arctic Circle and that it's an experience he'll always remember.
Brig. Gen. Lawrence F. "Larry" Thoms, commander, 311th Signal Command (Theater) and U.S. Army Pacific Command G-6, visited Soldiers in the extreme cold to provide mentorship and ensure leaders are engaged in cold weather risk management. He also was with a group of foreign military observers who watched the jump.
"Individual and operational readiness is the key to our ability to fight and win the nation's wars -- in any climate," Thoms said. "We must train to survive and fight in extreme cold weather, because the mission of Army communicators is to be ready to enable operational commanders in any environment," said "Our Soldiers must stay arctic tough."