Guidons and flags waved gently in the breeze as senior leaders from across the Army prepared to address the gathered soldiers. On June 6, nearly 80 years after D-Day and the invasion of Normandy, France, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville presided over the activation of the Army’s first airborne division in decades—the 11th Airborne Division—and laid out its mission to the hundreds of soldiers in attendance:
- Live up to the legacy of the 11th Airborne Division.
- Master Arctic warfighting.
- Innovate and define the future of Arctic operations.
While the mission may seem like a tall order, it’s in the DNA of the division. As McConville noted during the activation ceremony, it was the 11th Airborne Division that defined division-level airborne operations for a generation during World War II.
“It was their spirit of innovation, and their testing and validation of airborne operations at the division level that gave Gen. [Dwight] Eisenhower and the senior leaders the confidence to conduct airborne operations on D-Day that was responsible for their success,” McConville said.
Activating the 11th Airborne Division was simply the beginning, and as soon as the ceremony was complete, the real work began. The fact that the 11th Airborne is doing something that hasn’t been done in decades—no rest cycle or time for a tactical pause—is not lost on Maj. Gen Brian Eifler, the division commander.
In line with the Army’s Arctic strategy, its newest division must maintain readiness, building capacity in pursuit of Arctic dominance, while continuing to support partner nations and exercises throughout the Indo-Pacific and beyond. These exercises include Keen Sword 2023 and Yama Sakura, both in Japan, and Yudh Abhyas in India.
The 11th Airborne is an organization as unique as its mission, and it is a mission placed directly in the hands of Eifler as he leads thousands of soldiers across two installations nearly 400 miles apart in the wilds of Alaska: Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Fort Wainwright.
“Unique mission, unique location, unique organization,” Eifler said. “There’s nothing that looks like us or acts like us anywhere in the Army.”
If the activation ceremony and reflagging of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, and the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, to the 1st and 2nd Brigades of the 11th Airborne Division, respectively, gave Alaska-based soldiers a shared identity, learning and training together in the Arctic is building a shared purpose.
One of the first lessons to be learned is coming to terms with what can and can’t be negotiated in this environment.
“You can overdo it in the Arctic,” Eifler said. “Here, when it’s 30 below zero and you’re sweating, you have to have a plan to dry off your clothes and to get out of those clothes. Otherwise, you’ll die.”
It’s not hyperbole, and it’s not a consideration that generally needs to be made elsewhere. Even the most basic soldier skills, like map reading, require additional consideration in the Arctic. Terrain features on a map present differently. Standard step counts fall apart, and nameless creeks become raging rapids depending on terrain and the time of year.
But leaders in Alaska believe that from experience comes a better, more experienced soldier. Leaders like Command Sgt. Maj. Vern Daley, the senior enlisted adviser for the 11th Airborne Division, who has served in Alaska several times across both brigades and has experienced the Arctic firsthand.
“Alaska makes for great junior and midgrade leaders,” Daley said. “As they push through it, No. 1, it makes them tougher, and No. 2, it makes them really look at a given situation.
“The great leaders that come out of here understand that they are empowered to make calls,” Daley said. “We have to have leaders that can make the calls on the spot, have the toughness, situational awareness, and then analyze and understand they’re empowered here.”
Part of empowering leaders is developing policies driven by data, giving leaders the opportunity to make the best decisions for their soldiers, including in the wearing of Army-issued cold-weather gear.
It’s something that can be difficult to navigate in an Army used to uniformity, Eifler said. “But we know when we study the science, there’s a physiological difference between people” and how they react to the cold.
Acknowledging the science and individually enforcing the wearing of cold-weather gear, rather than as a blanket order, requires a different kind of leader, Eifler said—one who is more thoughtful in their approach to planning, and one who knows the soldiers in their formations.
“Leading here does take a different type of soldier,” Eifler said. “It does take someone who’s willing to learn and be proactive.
“Because of the extra steps and extra care and extra connection that’s required to not just survive, but thrive, in the harshest environment on the planet, it can make you a better leader,” he said.
To teach the newest Arctic Angels, as 11th Airborne soldiers are called, the division relies heavily on its leaders, but there also is a wealth of institutional knowledge at the Northern Warfare Training Center near Delta Junction, Alaska. The center teaches soldiers how to navigate mountainous terrain in arctic and subarctic conditions and offers cold-weather survival courses. The cold-weather courses don’t just reinforce proper use of Army equipment like arctic stoves, tents, ahkio sleds and skis; instructors also teach students to trust their training and their equipment.
That education, the specialized knowledge gained from serving there, is key to winning in the Arctic. In the winter of 1939, the Finnish army took on a much larger Soviet force and won, because they knew the terrain and believed in their equipment and their mission.
The history of military battles is filled with tales of small forces succeeding in the face of overwhelming odds: the Spartans at Thermopylae, Greece; Easy Company’s fight through Europe during World War II; and, in 1939, a few thousand Finns held off a Soviet division with little more than their knowledge of home.
A December 2021 article by Elisabeth Braw on Foreign Policy magazine’s website details the fight to defend Finland, and while the article focuses on the similarities of Ukraine today and Finland of the late 1930s, it also lends support to the power of specialized knowledge.
“ ‘Small Finnish groups came skiing in our troops’ rear and cut our supply chains,’ a Soviet soldier later recounted. ‘In the middle of December, our tanks were without fuel, the horses that pulled the artillery were without oat, and the soldiers were without food. Many of the tanks were, at any rate, rendered useless by other white-clad Finnish soldiers on skis throwing Molotov cocktails into the tanks’ turrets.’ ”
The article goes on to say that while they weren‘t without losses, the Finns held their ground and won the day.
“On Dec. 22, 1939, the attackers were forced to retreat. According to a former high ranking Finnish military official, they’d lost more than 3,000 men, and hundreds of others had been injured. The Finns, in turn, had lost 274 men, with another 445 injured and 29 lost,” Braw’s article says.
Forged by Experience
Experienced soldiers and proven leaders, forged by experience in the Arctic, are who leaders across the 11th Airborne Division are building, and they’re the key to modern cold-weather operations.
“Part of the reason why our soldiers and NCOs are so good is because it’s a razor’s edge,” Daley said. “The reality is, sweat is your enemy; cold is your enemy. So, as a leader, you have to know your team. You have to assess each individual. You have to know them.”
He added, “It’s having that experience and being able to push through and ride that razor’s edge, because the line between hard and stupid is superthin, and up here, it’s thinner than anyplace else, because here, you’ll get somebody killed.”
A truth of Army special operations forces is that humans are more important than hardware. For all the recent advances, technology continues to struggle in the Arctic. Whether it’s batteries or LCD screens, the instruments soldiers generally take for granted anywhere else often come up lacking when exposed to the unforgiving climate.
Even the best cutting-edge sensors can be rendered near-useless at subzero temperatures, but the 11th Airborne Division’s 95th Chemical Company soldiers, armed with an Arctic education, know the value of low-tech solutions that can reveal chemical traces despite any low temperature.
Even if technology improves to a point where it can survive, or even thrive, in the Arctic, it still will depend on people to wield that technology to make it effective.
Laying the Groundwork
The future of cold-weather operations is being written in Alaska. This is a live lab, designed by nature to test even the toughest soldiers and equipment. Whether it’s the Army’s new Cold Temperature and Arctic Protection System, the future Cold Weather All-Terrain Vehicle or even snow tires for Humvees, Arctic warfighters and the systems to support them will be tested and proven there.
As that Arctic education spreads throughout the Army and to partner nations, excellence in executing warfighting fundamentals is, and will continue to be, the hallmark of Arctic warriors and leaders.
Since their inception, the exploits of Little Groups of Paratroopers have become legendary in the Army, and there’s no reason why squads of Arctic warriors should be any different.
Alaska is different. Succeeding in the Arctic is hard. Everything is harder there. But leaders there believe the challenges make the struggle worth undertaking. Success on the other end will be earned, soldiers and squads will be developed and proven, and leaders will be forged. Not in fire, but in the harshness of extreme cold and nature’s indifference.
“It’s a new experience, and you’re not going to experience this anywhere else,” Eifler said. “I think those that embrace the grit that is required and take on the challenge of experiencing Alaska and helping their troops experience it, they can handle things elsewhere very easily.
“This place is for tough soldiers. If you can lead here, you can lead anywhere.”
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Staff Sgt. Michael Sword is the public affairs NCO in charge for the 11th Airborne Division, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Previously, he was a master instructor, course developer and team leader at the Defense Information School, Fort Meade, Maryland. In his 14 years as a public affairs professional, he has supported NATO and partner-nation training exercises throughout Europe and the Indo-Pacific. He deployed three times to Afghanistan.