In the Arctic, America’s clandestine forces game out a great-power war

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT OVER KODIAK ISLAND, Alaska — To the uninitiated, this felt like madness. From an altitude of 8,000 feet, six Navy SEALs were about to parachute into Marmot Bay, where the water temperature was just barely above freezing.

Their inflatable boat went first, rumbling down the ramp of this MC-130 transport plane before snapping out the back. These stout, nondescript airframes were engineered specifically to enable the “low visibility” operations that are a hallmark of the U.S. military’s clandestine forces. As one of the SEALs roused from a nap, the plane leveled off.

One by one, they approached the exit, turned their backs to the vivid blue-green vista below and out they went, hurtling toward an icy splashdown.

America’s Special Operations forces are in the midst of a major transformation. As the powerful militaries commanded by Russia and China compete with the United States for dominance in the resource-rich Arctic, the Pentagon has dramatically expanded its focus on what a war would look like here in one of the planet’s most treacherous settings — and how its most advanced units could be brought to bear on a direct threat to the U.S. homeland or to NATO allies who inhabit the coldest climes of Europe.

Special Operations troops are distinct from conventional military forces, tasked with the secretive, sensitive, dangerous assignments such as kill-capture missions, hostage rescues, and sabotage. This winter, The Washington Post was granted rare access to teams of SEALs, Green Berets, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and other elite personnel while they stress-tested the innumerable limitations imposed by Alaska’s vast, merciless wilderness, including in Kodiak, a wind-blasted outpost off the state’s southern coast, and in austere training areas outside the central city of Fairbanks.

The sobering takeaway, it was instantly clear, is that any conflict in the High North would be an unmitigated nightmare for those sent to fight it.

Capt. Bill Gallagher, who commands the SEAL unit involved in the exercise, characterized the Arctic as perhaps the most rugged and extreme place for any military to operate, saying even the most routine functions can be an existential threat.

The troops who landed in Marmot Bay wore dry suits under their uniforms to insulate them against the inevitable effects of submersion in 37-degree water. Without such gear, a person encountering similar conditions would be in a race against death.

Here, Gallagher said, “the environment can kill you quicker than any enemy.”

The Arctic, warming four times faster than the rest of the world and opening to commercial and military activity like never before, is evolving rapidly and compelling the Pentagon to keep pace, officials say, creating the potential for competition and conflict among Washington, Moscow and Beijing.

The United States would probably be challenged by either one. Russia, bloodied but resurgent in Ukraine, has earned useful combat experience against a skilled foe, and is only growing its competency in areas like electronic warfare, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Pentagon, emerging from a more-limited form of combat in the Middle East, can only study and theorize what Moscow has learned from its large-scale war, Cancian said.

China, meanwhile, is outpacing the United States in technology like hypersonic missiles, the Pentagon has acknowledged. And the sheer size of its military poses an enormous concern, Cancian said. “The big Chinese advantage is in numbers,” he said. “Their fleet is large and getting larger.”

The twin challenge has forced the Defense Department to look inward at its own shortcomings, some of which are revealed in the Arctic.

For instance, many of the satellites that monitor activity north of the Arctic Circle have “blind spots,” limiting how well the U.S. government can track incoming threats,…

This article was originally published by a . Read the Original article here. .

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