FILE – Capt. Corey Wheeler, front, commander of B Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, walks away from a Chinook helicopter that landed on the glacier near Denali, April 24, 2016, on the Kahiltna Glacier in Alaska. The U.S. Army helped set up base camp on North America’s tallest mountain. The U.S. Army is poised to revamp its forces in Alaska to better prepare for future cold-weather conflicts, and it is expected to replace the larger, heavily equipped Stryker Brigade there with a more mobile, infantry unit better suited for the frigid fight, according to Army leaders. (AP Photo)

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. Army is poised to revamp its forces in Alaska to better prepare for future cold-weather conflicts, and it is expected to replace the larger, heavily equipped Stryker Brigade in the state with a more mobile infantry unit better suited for the frigid fight, Army leaders say.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said she expects to make a final decision soon about the Alaska troop change, saying she will likely convert the Stryker unit, which uses heavy, eight-wheeled vehicles, to an infantry brigade.

“I think right now the purpose of Army forces in Alaska is much more about creating an extreme cold weather capable formation” that could be used in Europe or the Indo-Pacific, Wormuth told The Associated Press on a recent trip to Alaska to meet with senior commanders and troops. “We’re trying to get to a place where we have Arctic capable forces — forces that can survive and operate in that environment.”

The U.S. has long viewed the Arctic as a growing area of competition with Russia and China, particularly as climate change brings warmer temperatures and opens the sea lanes for longer periods of time. But officials have acknowledged that the U.S. lags behind those nations. Russia has taken steps to increase its military presence there, and China views the region as economically valuable for shipping and natural resources.RUSSIA-UKRAINE WARLive updates | UN blames Russia for most civilian casualtiesRussia hits Ukraine’s east as Finland moves toward NATO bid‘This tears my soul apart’: A Ukrainian boy and a killingProtesters vent fury at French company for staying in Russia

The changes in the Army were under consideration well before U.S. tensions with Russia soared following its invasion of Ukraine.

Under the new Army plan, the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, now based in Alaska, would be converted to a light infantry brigade. Combined with the division’s 4th Infantry Brigade Combat team, the two units will become the 11th Airborne Division, based in Alaska. And the large Stryker vehicles, which are somewhat old, would be replaced by other vehicles that are more suitable for the icy and snowy terrain, Wormuth said.

The greater focus on cold-weather war includes a move to conduct major training exercises for the Alaska-based troops in their home state, under the weather conditions they would face in an Arctic fight. The troops had been scheduled to go to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in March, but Army leaders decided to keep them in Alaska so they could train under the frigid temperatures and frozen terrain that they would encounter in any cold-weather battle.

“I think it really makes sense to have forces trained in the Arctic environments that they would be used for,” Wormuth said after spending two days at the still snowy base. “If we’re going to have ground forces in Alaska, that’s what we need them to be able to do. They can’t get that experience going to the Mojave Desert or to Fort Polk.”

Last year, in an initial trial event, Pacific-based forces stayed in Hawaii for their scheduled exercises at the National Training Center in California’s Mohave Desert. Commanders said they have learned from these first two moves, as they try to recreate conditions and relocate personnel and equipment from well-established training centers to more remote locations.

During her visit to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Wormuth met with commanders who called the training shift a success. Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commander of U.S. Army Alaska, said the benefits outweighed any shortfalls created by the need to build the infrastructure for the training exercise in the remote north.

“You’re getting the best of both worlds, without losing too much,” Eifler said. “We did get a lot more out of it than we thought we would.”

Eifler said that while they didn’t have as many training observers or civilian role players as they would have at one of the training centers, the trainers that did come were able to learn more about Arctic weather operations.

In addition, Eifler said, the change avoided the costly and time-consuming shipment of vehicles, weapons and other equipment to Louisiana and back. The lengthy packing and shipping process before and after a training exercise in Louisiana or California often forces troops to be without their weapons systems and other equipment for weeks.

During briefings at the Alaska base, commanders said the training included large-scale combat operations under extreme weather conditions in what they called the “most challenging environment on earth.” They said that 10,000 troops — including Canadian Army and Air forces — were involved in the exercise.

But they said the exercise also underscored the need for better cold-weather vehicles, including those capable of carrying Arctic infantry forces.

Gen. Joseph Martin, the vice chief of the Army who was in Alaska this year, said the service has been studying what would be the best type of vehicle for the troops. “Is the Stryker the right vehicle for an Arctic warrior? In the winter, you need vehicles that can move across snow,” he said.

In addition, he said, the vehicle also needs to be able to operate in the spring or summer thaw, when the ground turns to mud.

As Wormuth wrapped up her visit, she suggested that the decision on the Stryker Brigade is moving forward soon. Any final decision would need approval from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“If you’re going to do big movements of equipment and things like that, the summer is a pretty important window because it’s a lot easier to move vehicles around than doing it in the dead of winter,” she said.

And in conversations with congressional lawmakers, including during a hearing this week, she made clear that the change would not reduce the number of soldiers in Alaska. Instead, she said that while the infantry brigade will be smaller, the Army would offset that loss by increasing the size and capabilities of the headquarters.

More broadly, she talked with commanders in Alaska about the potential need for more changes as the U.S. military’s Arctic strategy evolves.

The U.S., Wormuth said, has resisted moves to militarize the Arctic, even as Russia has expanded its military presence and basing there. But, she said, “will that mindset continue given what the Russians are doing in Ukraine? Or will that get revisited? Will that create a window to think about things differently?”

Commanders said there are questions about whether one of the Pentagon’s combatant commands — such as European Command or Northern Command, based in Colorado — should take full ownership of the Arctic and the U.S. military role there. Wormuth said the issue needs further discussion, and any decision may be years away.

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India boosts military presence as
border talks with China remain stalled


On volatile border between India and China, a high-altitude military buildup is underway

0003

A close-up of a heliport under construction in Rutog County.

0001

On volatile border between India and China, a high-altitude military buildup is underway

0004

Construction crews are now scattered around Ladakh as Indian authorities speed up their infrastructure race with China.

0005

An overview of a heliport under construction near Aksai Chin Lake, in a region administered by China but contested by India, on May 28.

0002

An overview of a heliport under construction in Rutog County in the Ngari Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, on Nov. 28.

0003 0001 0004 0005 0002

BEIJING’S ISLAND-BUILDING IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA

Runway

Runway

China is expanding the construction of its facilities on Fiery Cross Reef. Provided by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), this June 28, 2015 photo reveals Beijing has nearly completed a 3,000 meter (9,800-foot) airstrip, long enough to accommodate most Chinese military aircraft. Two h...

Expansion

Expansion

Reclamation on Fiery Cross Reef, which lies on the west side of the Spratly Islands, began in August of 2014 and its principal landmass was finished by November. Dredgers have created a land mass that spans the entire existing reef and is approximately 3,000 meters long and 200-300 meters wide.

Facilities

Facilities

This picture taken last November shows construction work being carried out on Fiery Cross Reef. The reef reportedly already houses a helicopter landing pad, a 300-meter-long wharf, a harbor large enough to dock military tankers, barracks and artillery emplacements.

South Johnson Reef

South Johnson Reef

This reef was one of the first facilities to finish principal land reclamation. This recent picture shows that a radar tower is nearing completion at the north end of the land mass. According to AMTI, a new large multi-level military facility has been built in the center of the island. Up to six sur...

A naval base?

A naval base?

Beginning in early 2015, Mischief Reef - also located in the Spratlys - has undergone extensive reclamation activity. Experts say that the recent widening of the southern entrance to the reef, coupled with sightings of Chinese navy vessels, may suggest a future role for the reclaimed reef as a naval...

From reef to island

From reef to island

Significant construction on Gaven Reef began in 2014, with a total of 114,000 square meters of land already created. Satellite pictures show just how fast construction has progressed on the reef. A new artificial island was created between March (left) and August (right) 2014.

Troop garrison

Troop garrison

According to AMTI, China has had a troop garrison on Gaven Reef since 2003, which has included a large supply platform where ships can dock. Experts say a new main square building in the reef appears to be an anti-aircraft tower.

A standardized process

A standardized process

As seen in this image, the basic process of expanding these features involves dredging sand from the seafloor and dumping it onto the reefs. The structure is raised above the high water line, hiding the status of the bank or reef beneath. The sand is then smoothed out and workers surround the island...

'Historic rights'

'Historic rights'

China claims most of the potentially energy-rich waterway, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The US Pacific Fleet commander recently said China was "creating a great wall of sand" in the South China Sea, causing serious concerns about its territorial intentions. Beijin...

Territorial disputes

Territorial disputes

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims, which have led to territorial disputes in the area. Last summer, China's deployment of a massive oil rig in waters also claimed by Hanoi escalated tensions in the region, sparking a standoff at sea and violent anti-C...

US concerns

US concerns

Washington is concerned China's efforts carry a military dimension that could undermine the US' naval and economic power in the Pacific, and has weighed sending warships and surveillance aircraft within 12 nautical miles of the new artificial islands. Washington has repeatedly called on Beijing and ...

Ecological impact

Ecological impact

The Philippines filed a formal plea at the UN last year, challenging Beijing's territorial claims. Manila said China's reclamation activities are causing "irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance of the South China Sea." It also claimed that the destruction of co...

Runway Expansion Facilities South Johnson Reef A naval base? From reef to island Troop garrison A standardized process 'Historic rights' Territorial disputes US concerns Ecological impact

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