In the past year the Corps has upped the ante in its preparation for a major cold weather confrontation with a power like Russia or North Korea — a fight likely to prove more physically taxing and hellish than the Middle Eastern climes the Corps is accustomed to.
Attention to the smallest of details can be a matter of life and death, and even the most mundane of tasks take longer.
“What you see taking a long time is just day-to-day operations,” said 1st Lt. Wilson J. Fortune, a platoon commander with the U.S. Marines deployed to Norway.
“The small things, just getting dressed in the morning, all those small things you do are just compounded by the cold and it really adds up.”
To make matters worse, the Corps is behind the curve and is playing catch up with other Arctic allies and potential adversaries.
That’s why the Marines have ramped up cold weather training in the deep north, testing equipment in those harsh conditions and getting familiar with the tactical and logistical challenges of snowy tundra.
And new gear is coming down the pike to fill capability gaps and ensure that Marines can take the fight to the enemy in deep snow, bitter cold and mountainous terrain.
“We haven’t been in the cold-weather business for a while,” Marine Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller said in January at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Some of the risks and threats there, there is a possibility we are going to be there.”
The Marine Corps hasn’t fought on an icy battlefield since the Korean War’s Chosin Reservoir campaign nearly 70 years ago. But now Marines are again preparing for that kind of conflict, most likely with Russia or North Korea.
In Norway, two rotations of roughly 300 Marines have deployed in the past year to foster cold weather fighting and survivability skills. Marines now routinely conduct winter training at the mountain warfare center in Bridgeport, California. And in January the 2nd Marine Air Wing put its aircraft — including AV-8B Harriers, RQ-21 drones, EA-6B Prowlers, MV-22 Ospreys, CH-53E Super Stallions, UH-1Y Venoms, AH-1W Super Cobras and the C-130J Super Hercules — through extreme cold weather training at Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin, in an exercise dubbed Ullr Shield.
Marines can expect a fight in the cold to result in higher casualties than similar operations in temperate climates or even the scorching deserts of the Middle East. The cold and snow, compounded with mountainous terrain, makes cold weather conflict a tedious affair, requiring more planning and closer attention to details.
Neller was visiting Marines in Norway in December when he made a controversial comment about a looming “big ass fight” that the Marine Corps must prepare for.
“I was trying to make the Marines make sure they understood that, when they train, they have to keep in the back of their mind to be physically, mentally, and always their spirit has to be steeled and ready for serious conflict that is going to test them beyond anything they have ever done,” Neller later said.
FIGHTING THE ENEMY — AND THE COLD
Extreme cold weather environments can affect everything. Weapons systems are not as effective. Optics might not work properly. Radios and vehicles require extra maintenance. Aircraft performance suffers.
To survive in the snow and sub-zero temperatures, Marines will be overburdened with more equipment — extra warming layers, skis and snowshoes for mobility, and cooking stoves to melt drinking water. That means everything from preparation for a patrol to actual movement just takes more time.
Operating in high altitudes with thinner air saps energy, and couple that with deep snow and elevated terrain means it can be easy for Marines to overexert themselves, even doing relatively simple tasks. And dehydration, heat stroke and heat exhaustion, are threats Marines still face in cold weather, not just the deserts of Iraq and Syria.
Injuries tend to go up in cold weather climates. An infantry battalion will see 15-30 casualties in hot or temperate climates, but Marines conducting winter training in Bridgeport, California, will see 30 to 45 injuries, according to the Corps’ guide on small unit operations in mountain warfare.
Meanwhile, injures pose a greater risk because the rotary-wing aircraft the Corps relies on for medical evacuations have limited capabilities due to the cold and high altitudes.
FOOD AND WATER
For those who hate MREs, well, cold weather fighting will be especially unpleasant.
The human body needs to consume more calories to generate heat and to compensate for extra exertion.
That means Marines need to consume up to 4,000 calories a day, Fortune said. But, even the high-calorie MREs designed for cold weather — which includes delicious menu items like beef stroganoff — offer just over 1,500 calories per meal, Marine Corps officials said.
Dehydration remains a significant risk, especially because the cold air can sometimes confuse Marines and make them think that they are not thirsty.
In Norway, the Marines boil snow for drinking water, according to Sgt. Mateusz Zawisza, a platoon sergeant who recently trained in the arctic region near Norway’s Russian border. At night, the Marines “sleep with canteens so they don’t freeze.”
Marines are equipped with Nalgene bottles that have thermal covers to keep them from freezing.
The extreme cold in places like Russian and North Korea is a nightmare for tactical and logistical planners. The need for more food and water, the health risks of high altitudes, more casualties and limited helicopter capability are all facets of operational planning Marines will face.
Marines must confront the day-to-day challenges of freezing weather while still maintaining the agility, mobility and lethality that is required for effective combat operations.
The cold impacts propellants in everything from ammunition to rockets. It burns at a slower rate, which means weapons like your standard issue rifle, the AT-4 and the M-203 grenade launcher will see decreased effectiveness and range.
It’s a lesson learned from the 1950 Chosin Reservoir campaign.
“The greatest degradation to firepower occurred due to ammunition failure. Some ammunition burned at an uneven rate and 3.5-inch rocket launcher ammunition tended to crack open when the temperature fell below -20 degrees Fahrenheit,” reads a statement from an old Marine Corps document titled “In Every Clime and Place: USMC Cold Weather Doctrine.”
Marines at Chosin found their mortar and machine gun rounds proved less effective in the cold. Accuracy was thrown off by bouncing base plates. Marines learned to use straw and sticks under the weapons system to keep the them from bouncing after rounds were fired.
“You’d never get more than one round on target,” said Edward McClowski, a historian with the Marine Corps University and a retired Marine officer.
That’s still a big problem today. Mortar rounds can miss targets by a hundred yards or more if Marines do not know how to operate their weapons in the cold.
For Marines today, advanced optics like the EOTech or red-dot sights can suffer from “thermal drift.” When it gets too cold, an optic can shift from its zero, meaning accuracy of the weapon system will be off.
The Marines’ latest cold-weather training missions are necessary to understand how weapon systems will perform in the cold and underscore the need to pay close attention to gear maintenance.
Just moving a weapon from a heated tent into subzero temperatures outside can impact the weapon’s battlesight zero and throw off accuracy when engaging enemy targets. Moving from cold to hot areas can cause condensation that later freezes and damages the weapon.
Standard CLP lubrication won’t cut it either for weapons cleaning. In the cold, Marines need to use lubricant arctic weather, or LAW, which is rated to -65 F. If there is no LAW, its recommended to fire the weapon dry.
At Chosin Reservoir, Marines learned to fire the weapon dry, as it heated the Marines added lubrication. But as the fighting died down, the Marines had to wipe the weapon dry again, otherwise it could freeze and crack the gun, McClowski said.
“Taking care of the gear so it takes care of you,” is an important part of everyday operations and training in Arctic environments, Fortune said.
Cold weather training is giving Marines a sneak peek on how their gear and weapons are handling the environment.
But not everything is working well, and the Corps is now trying to adjust.
Marines in Norway in 2016 found that their standard issue pack frames for the FILBE ruck were breaking in cold weather climates. The Corps is now fielding new reinforced frames.
But as a contingency, the Marines most recently deployed to Norway brought old-school ALICE pack frames, a ruck that the Corps has used off and on since 1974.
“We did make a switch to the ALICE pack frames,” Fortune said. Those frames have “held up very well so far, not as much concern with those that they are going to snap.”
Also, the new reinforced frames appear to be holding up, Fortune said.
Meanwhile, the Corps is overhauling its cold weather clothing and skis.
The Marine Corps wants to buy and field a new extreme cold weather cap that can handle temperatures as low as -50 F and gloves that retain touch-screen capability, according to a Marine Corps Systems Command formal request for information.
The Marines are also planning to dole out nearly $7 million for nearly 2,700 sets of new skis, boots and bindings.
But fighting effectively on a frozen battlefield will require more than new clothes and skis.
The Corps doesn’t have many vehicles that can traverse the snow. In fact, it only has one, known as the BV-206. It’s a small tracked vehicle that can carry Marines through the snow, but it is not armored, and its hard to equip with weapons.
Marines in Norway are using the BV-206 but also training with the British version called the Viking, which is up-armored and capable of mounting crew-served weapon systems and machine guns.
Snow mobility is an issue the commandant highlighted in January, but he did not elaborate on whether the Marine Corps will buy new over-the-snow vehicles.
“A lot of other nations like Scandinavia have moved to a more mechanized approach,” Fortune told Marine Corps Times.
Despite the need, it makes little sense for the Marines to invest heavily in a vehicles for one specific kind of terrain; a better approach is to adapt and test the current fleet, according to Magnus Nordenman, the director of trans-Atlantic security at the Atlantic Council.
Dismounted movements over the snow is an arduous task, something the Marines have been focusing on while in Norway.
“I think we can make the same movements that we are used to out of the snow in skis,” Fortune said, comparing dismounted patrols on land and snow.
ARE MARINES READY FOR A COLD WAR?
Despite the uptick in training for cold weather ops, not every Marine gets to the mountain warfare training center in Bridgeport. The Norway rotation is only comprised of roughly 300 Marines.
The Corps has been conducting cold weather training with small units, but it still hasn’t trained as a full division.
That might be insufficient if the Corps confronts a major adversary.
Simply training an infantry unit is not enough; the Corps needs to send some of its support elements that “are needed to generate combat power,” Nordenman told Marine Corps Times.
Marines need to be testing more of their combat vehicles and aircraft to fight in the environment and make necessary adaptations to those platforms.
“Training in Norway also provides an opportunity to train with the best when it comes to winter warfare in austere conditions,” Nordenman said. “You can’t find a better ally for this than Norway. Other NATO allies, such as the U.K. Royal Marines, have figured this out too.”
Another rotation to Norway is expected to deploy sometime this spring.
“The Marine rotational presence [in Norway] is an important signal to Russia that this region is on America’s radar,” said Nordenman. “The rotational force itself is not a deterrent, but it shows U.S. intent to take care of its ally in Europe’s north.”
The Corps learned how to survive and fight in extreme cold at the Korean war’s battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Prior to that, Marines had little to no experience fighting in extreme cold weather climates. The fight at Chosin made the Corps what it is today.
Before Chosin, small groups of Marines use to partake in expeditions up to the North Pole and in World War Two, the 6th Marine Regiment conducted some cold weather training in Iceland. But the Marines had never trained as an institution to fight in cold weather environments, McClowski said.
Heading into the fight at Chosin, Marines were ill-prepared for the daunting task of not only fighting but just learning how to physically survive in the harsh environment. To make matters worse, Marine Corps equipment was not up to the task.
Marines at Chosin were issued cold weather parkas and snow pack boots, but these clothing items were never designed for sustained fighting in cold weather. Sweat and condensation from the parkas and boots resulted in many cases of frostbite.
In total, over 7,000 Marines were classified as cold weather casualties at Chosin Reservoir, some had to have their limbs removed from frostbite, McClowski said.
“Doing all the right things…caring for your weapon, caring for your equipment, caring for your body,” matter greatly in extreme cold weather environments, McClowski said.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.