JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Working outside in 40 degrees below zero isn’t something a person generally thinks of doing, at some point, the numbers start to lose value and cold is just plain cold. But that didn’t stop the U.S. Army and Air Force from what they do every year for Exercise Arctic Warrior.
Primed with extreme cold-weather gear, a mind-over-matter tenacity and a varsity mentality, over 25 aircrew members assigned to the 374th Airlift Wing boarded four C-130J Super Hercules and short-notice deployed from Yokota Air Base, Japan, to support the more than 500 paratroopers of the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division (Spartan Brigade) for Exercise Arctic Warrior 21, at Donnelly Training Area, Alaska., Feb. 8.
AW 21 is an exercise helping Soldiers and Airmen develop and refine the tactics, techniques, and procedures necessary to successfully operate in remote and extreme cold conditions and overcome both environmental and military challenges.
“This exercise demonstrates the effectiveness of our Arctic training and ability to face a near-peer threat in an Arctic environment, “said U.S. Army Col. Chris Landers, Spartan Brigade commander. “Our Paratroopers are trained to deploy on short notice and operate effectively in the deep Alaskan winter.”
On the morning of execution, the 374th AW aircrew threw on their extreme cold weather gear and stepped onto the flightline to begin a long and cold day.
Crew chiefs were the first to show, next were the loadmasters and then came the pilots – each crew conducting their specific pre-flight and loading procedures.
“Prior to take-off, we have to go through a series of pre-flight checks like getting rid of any ice from the aircraft so it doesn’t have any aerodynamic issues, setting up for unapproved runway landings, starting the auxiliary power unit and preheating the engines,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Josh Aleshire, 374th Aircraft Maintenance Support Squadron flying crew chief instructor. “It takes a lot of time for certain steps while working under cold weather conditions, and since oil is the life-blood of the engines, preheating the engines keeps them running properly and secures their longevity. All of these measures guarantee the reliability of the Yokota airlift mission.”
As the pilots and crew chiefs were finalizing their checks, loadmasters were working with Spartan Brigade leadership to safely load the more than 500 paratroopers onto each aircraft.
Executing an exercise like AW 21 from the air requires a wide scope of expertise and capability to safely conduct personnel drops and landing operations under arctic winter conditions.
“When the C-130s fly around the flagpole performing local training at Yokota, we're getting the basics down so that when we get called to perform more challenging missions such as AW 21 we can be as ready as possible,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. David Ince, 36th Airlift Squadron pilot and Air Force mission commander for AW 21. “Arctic Warrior is unique in that it tests the Arctic airdrop and sustainment objectives in a way that wouldn't be possible without tactical airlift assets. The 36th was tasked to support this mission all the way from Japan because we are PACAF's premier tactical airlift platform.”
As they converged on the drop zone, the four C-130s got into formation, preparing for the final approach to the drop zone. The paratroop doors opened, and subzero temperatures invaded the cargo bay. The greenlight was called to the jumpmasters and over 90 paratroopers jumped into the freezing arctic skies over Donnelly Training Area.
What was their mission? To ensure the nearby Air Strip was clear for the C-130s to safely land.
The freezing, snow-covered landscape neared as the C-130s approached the remote landing zone. As the pilots landed their aircraft, dirt and snow kicked up, creating a cloud that trailed the C-130s until they slowed to a stop.
The cargo doors opened and 300 paratroopers – eyes wide with adrenaline – shrugged their more than 50-pound ruck sacks higher onto their backs and headed out into the blistering cold temperatures to begin the 10-day exercise.
Arctic Warrior depends on joint and multinational partners to succeed. From multiple supporting Army units, to Air Force crews, to Canadian partners on the ground, AW 21 allowed the opportunity for lines of communication and long-term relationships to be established in preparation for future contingencies and operations.
“We're a mobility platform; flying around the Pacific and performing tactical airlift is what we do best,” said Ince. “I'm very proud of how our team performed; even in the face of COVID-19 and a unique arctic tactical problem, we were able to launch a four-ship of C-130s a quarter of the way around the world with only a few days notice and then support a challenging Arctic Joint Forcible Entry Operation scenario.”
The U.S. military’s number one priority is readiness. It takes practice to be proficient at deploying battalion-sized units while working cohesively with joint forces with little or no time to plan and coordinate.
In Alaska, it is essential that exercises like Arctic Warrior are conducted during the harsher conditions prevalent in winter to improve systems and procedures which validate that the U.S. Army and Air Force are, in fact, ready.