As the weather turns colder, the newly-minted Marine Corps lieutenants of Alpha company will head out on their field exercises, gathering training stories they’ll tell for a lifetime about how cold-weather-hardened they got by the Virginia snow. I was once an “Arctic Alpha” lieutenant – assigned to the first training company of the year at the Basic School – and it’s a bond among marines across generations. But the frozen ground and snow we were exposed to at the Basic School is more often treated as a novelty than a serious and important training experience. Chances are that this year’s Alpha Company marines will go the rest of their careers without ever truly feeling cold again. Unless, perhaps, one of them gets to go to Norway.
In January 2017, a company of marines arrived in Vaernes, near the Trondheim Airport in Norway, about a third of the way up the Norwegian coast and just shy of the Arctic Circle. I had the unique opportunity to visit with them a few weeks ago. Almost 300 marines spent 6 months training alongside their NATO allies and their other non-NATO Nordic partners (the Finns and Swedes). The company was replaced once last summer with a fresh 330 Marines, and will rotate at least two more times. Norway has committed to the Marine Corps presence at least through 2018.
This new program received far less publicity than the marines going to Darwin, Australia beginning in 2012, but it could be an even bigger move – both for the Marine Corps and the U.S. military writ large. There is evident strategic value to this program. Marines working closely with NATO send important signals to U.S. allies and to Russia. Yet there are even more important gains that could result if the Marine Corps is able to capitalize on the knowledge and experience they gain. After decades of conventional readiness losses, this program has the potential to help the recovery of the U.S. military’s conventional cold weather warfighting capability.
Strategic Implications of Marines in Norway
The Russians have made their displeasure with the Marine Corps presence in Norway known, citing it as an affront to the Norwegian-Russian relationship. The Marine company is located only 1000 kilometers as the crow flies from the Norwegian-Russian border, living alongside the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway (MCPP-N) – a decades-long agreement to store equipment on the European continent. That gear is prepositioned for convenience, and could be used anywhere around the world. A few caves scattered around the Trondheim area hold enough equipment to sustain a Marine expeditionary brigade’s ground combat element for 30 days. This new rotational force is the first time that actual marines have been present in Norway for a sustained period of time. But marines are not there to guard equipment. They are there to train and exercise in Norway, near the Russian border.
In 1949, in order to allay Soviet fears when Norway joined NATO, Norway promised that no foreign troops would be permanently based on its territory, unless they are required as a response to a threat. Norway’s Defence Ministry believes that the rotational nature of the Marine Corps presence means they have kept their word . In the past, the presence of foreign military members as a part of joint headquarters elements or exercises has not been seen as violations of this policy. Russia has reacted angrily, citing Norway’s own claims that Russia does not currently pose a threat. Nevertheless, Moscow does not look poised to do more than complain for the time being.
For NATO and America’s other European partners, this is a clear show of support and investment in relationships from the United States. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, NATO pushed out four battalions in the Baltics and Poland, with the United States leading one of the battalions. Further, after some of President Donald Trump’s early speeches raised concern that the United States was not committed to NATO’s common defense, this deployment is a useful reassurance effort. However, its value is much more than symbolic.
The Need for Cold Weather Readiness
Slowly, the U.S. military is turning to the reality that readiness has atrophied, especially in types of combat unlike what the military seen in the last 16 years. Looking at the medium and long-term threat environment, it is not just the Middle East – with its deserts and warm river valleys – that the United States needs to worry about. A resurgent Russia, a rising China, and perhaps most importantly, a reckless North Korea mean that the U.S. military needs to be prepared to fight in frigid climes.
The U.S. Army is also investing in improving its cold weather fighting ability at its Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska, but the Army’s consistent readiness woes across the board mean that the Marine Corps needs to be prepared to lead the fight. And as unpleasant as the cold may sound to some, the Marine Corps specializes in doing the warfighting that others are unable or unwilling to do.
The battle of Chosin Reservoir was one of the Marine Corps’ finest hours, and is among the coldest battles in recorded history. It is estimated that half of the American casualties during the battle of Chosin were a result of the cold, and nearly all of the marines who fought and survived suffered cold weather injuries (e.g. frostbite), leading to a lifetime of pain and other symptoms. The temperature got as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Another Chosin is foreseeable. Last month, the Pentagon wrote a letter to Congress stating that the only way to eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat would be through a ground invasion. As tensions escalate, Pentagon leaders are planning for another Korean War scenario. While we all hope things never get to that point, they will need to think through the lessons learned from Chosin, and the fact that even in Pyongyang the average high temperature in January is usually 26 degrees Fahrenheit. In the event of a new Korean conflict, the Pentagon can do better than to deploy marines to Korea without the proper gear and training. The Marine Corps rotational force in Norway has the potential to plug a major gap in U.S. military capability: credible conventional cold weather warfighting ability.
Training and Readiness Value of Marines in Norway
While the Marine Corps has Moscow and NATO’s attention, this rotational force in Norway has gone relatively unnoticed in the American media, which is perhaps for the best. The rotation was not meant to be a flashy show of force. Instead, those marines are there for a training mission. Still, the lack of media attention may also be indicative of a lack of higher level attention in the Pentagon.
The “permanent staff” doing support for marine forces in Norway today is composed of two reservists – a colonel and a captain – who are scheduled to rotate on a 6-month basis. Both are highly capable officers doing yeoman’s work. However, this lack of staffing and continuity, especially from the active duty side, may represent a lack of buy-in from Marine Corps leadership. This is no dig on reservists – I am one. But, the use of reservists can sometimes signal that the active duty side has not quite figured out how to incorporate an idea, a program, or a mission.
On the other hand, the commandant of the Marine Corps and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have visited the Marine company in Norway this year. The presence of the four-stars is more evidence of the strategic importance of this program. However, it is not clear that the active duty Marine Corps leadership, in between the top brass and this infantry company, has awareness of the lessons being learned on the ground. Feedback mechanisms must go up a strong chain of command, to Marine Corps leadership able to incorporate lessons learned and new requirements. At the current level of investment (one company without significant top-level focus) this program may not reach its potential. Instead, it might represent a symbolic win, and some useful training for a few marines, but it will not significantly improve readiness and the ability to meet the conventional threats that the United States currently faces.
The lessons learned in this environment will have wider-ranging implications than are typically processed at the company level. While marines can also train in Bridgeport, California at the Mountain Warfare Training Center, opportunities there are limited and lack the lessons learned from training alongside allied forces. Training on familiar terrain also means only learning the lessons the Marine Corps can teach itself, not allowing for growth.
The marines in Norway will learn lessons about what works and what doesn’t in the cold. Their gear and their tactics have not been tested for years, even decades, in these environments. In order to support them, they need to be allowed to fail: for gear to be exposed as substandard and for technologies to need tweaking. Then, leadership needs to be responsive to those failures. That could mean acquiring the gear that the Norwegians (or other partners) are using to great effect, or it could mean going back to the drawing board and innovating new tactical solutions. During my trip to Norway, I could see that some Norwegian gear and clothing were enviable from a marine’s perspective. As the Norwegians are fond of saying: “there is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”
As these 330 marines learn important lessons, the Marine Corps as a whole cannot develop significant cold weather capability one infantry company at a time. Combat engineers and artillery need to be able to fight in the cold as well. The Marine Corps will also be responsible for a wide array of combat service support functions that need to be able to withstand the cold, not to mention logistics and air support. Without truly testing these capabilities, it is hard to say that the Marine Corps is cold weather-ready.
In addition, the Marine Corps’ force structure is heavily dependent on first tour enlisted marines, only choosing to retain roughly 25 percent for future service (in 2018 it will be 22 percent). The few marines with Norway experience who stay in service will be dispersed into other assignments, from recruiting duty to Okinawa. That means the Marine Corps’ knowledge will atrophy quickly, unless investment is made in continuing relationships and expanding training opportunities. The fact that the knowledge will exist only at the company level means that company leadership (lieutenants and captains) will have to wait 10 years, if they are still in the Marine Corps at that point, to truly affect planning and training as leaders.
Global security geopolitics are dominated by threats from Russia and North Korea. This is not tomorrow’s problem. The Marine Corps of today should think through opportunities to test gear and troops in environments like the Norwegian north, alongside partners whose knowledge can help shorten the learning curve. When America sends marines to train in the cold, attention should be paid to the results. How are their tactics? How is their gear? What do American partners use that U.S. marines don’t have, and what do they do differently, perhaps for good reasons? Is the Pentagon prepared to react quickly to the answers to these questions, to make sure the Marine Corps is ready?
As Russia continues to flex its muscles, and as Kim Jong Un appears to be double-dog-daring the West to respond to his antics, the United States must be able to credibly state that it is prepared for a cold weather fight. Reflecting on the Korean War and the environment that we asked Marines to fight in with 1950s technology, we can and must do better for the modern-day warfighter. Although this small but symbolic program is an interesting start, the Pentagon should be putting significantly more thought and attention to the military’s conventional cold weather capability.
Lindsay L. Rodman is the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow (Canada), placed at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, where she focuses on the U.S.-Canadian bilateral security relationship and arctic security. She is also a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. Her comments here are her own, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps. Special thanks to the Atlantic Council for enabling her trip to Norway.