I recently read two articles by Major John Spencer about Urban Warfare wish lists, one in 2018 and one in 2020. In the articles he asserts that urban battlefields are the future of warfare, and I absolutely agree. He goes on to list 24 “wish list” items or tools that he would want Army units to have in order to be better suited for urban combat.
Is Mountain Warfare relevant to future conflicts? Yes, here’s why:
Water. Mountains make up 25% of the earth’s surface, are home for 600 million people, and an estimated 3 billion people rely on mountains for fresh water to drink, grow food, generate power, and sustain industries. It is estimated that by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population could face water shortages. Mountains and rivers often form boundaries between regions or countries. This can cause battles to secure water at its source, reference the ongoing conflicts in the Himalayas between India, China, and Pakistan.
Transportation. As mentioned above, mountains form natural borders. Mountains channelize most people and goods into taking specific routes through an area or border crossings. No amount of time or technology is going to change that. In order to ensure free passage and free trade, mountain boarders need to be safe and secure.
Protection. Switzerland knows this. The mountains provide protection from an invading force, while also providing everything needed to sustain living. This can work both ways, as we’ve seen in the last 20 years that mountains can give safe haven for people who want to do bad things.
So using Major Spencer’s rules of only listing things that actually exist, these are items or tools or changes that the Army could do in 2021 to make units more capable in the mountains.
Disclaimer: I am not saying that things in this list aren’t already being addressed by the Army, only that I’d like to see more of it.
Adjustable trekking poles
There’s something that can relieve the stress off of soldiers’ muscles and joints, while helping them move farther and faster and increasing their longevity as a soldier, and never it runs out of battery? No, I’m not referring to a multi-million dollar exoskeleton being developed by defense contractors. I’m talking about a $100 set of trekking poles. Trekking poles provide stability and support while walking, can give you a third (or fourth) point of contact on slopes, and can overall take some of the weight off of a soldier’s legs and distribute it to their arms. In addition to saving the body some wear and tear, they help with stability in steep or uneven terrain. They help soldiers with mobility, which is arguably one of the most important aspects of mountain warfare. The Army does field some already but there seems to be a stigma against using them because they don’t look tactical and you don’t have both hands on your weapon. If it’s a concern you can use just one for your weak hand, or store them if you want both hands available. Get rid of the stigma, mountaineers use trekking poles.
Pin binding skis
There is a lot of debate about whether or not the conventional mountain infantry even needs to ski. The argument against skiing is that it is too hard to teach to “never evers” (more on this later). Recently, The Army chose to test short fat skis with bindings that fit different types of boots that soldiers are already issued. These skis bridge the gap between the less efficient snow shoe and a full fledged alpine touring ski. They are a great mobility tool and are a step in the right direction for getting people who have never skied to glide over snow. However, in an ideal world mountain soldiers would have the time and the training to properly learn how to ski on an alpine touring setup. The Army has gone “full send” on programs recently like implementing the ACFT and the seven day weapons qualification. Can the Army go “full send” on their ski program for the few units that should actually be using them?
Snow camo uniforms
Multicam Alpine, Marine Corps Snow Camo, Over Whites. We have three patterns to choose from. Could we pick one and put it on the inside of reversible cold weather clothing? The current system of wearing them over your uniform is so cumbersome that they are often left behind. Between the long range observations that are possible in the mountains and the rising threat of unmanned aerial systems, being able to remain unseen in mountainous environments can increase the survivability of these soldiers.
Intermediate rifle cartridge
A widely accepted fact is that fighting in the mountains tends to happen at longer ranges than in flat, wooded or urban terrain. It is argued that the standard issue 5.56 M4 is only truly effective 200 meters and closer. That does not inspire confidence in soldiers who are in an area where they can routinely be spotted (at shot at) from 400-500 meters away. Switching some or all of the 5.56 M4s for an intermediate caliber such as the more efficient 6.5 Grendel could increase the range out to 800 meters. This is a quick and relatively inexpensive fix because the round can use the same lower receiver and magazines. The 6.5 Grendel is an efficient round that is similar in size and weight to a 5.56 but has a similar trajectory and ballistics to the larger 7.62 NATO that our medium machine guns use. In fact, we could modify those to use 6.5 Grendel and then we can all carry the same ammunition. There is currently an evaluation for the Army’s new rifle chambered in 6.8mm for its Next Generation Squad Weapons. The 6.8mm will also extend the range of the rifleman, but that could take years to field. A 6.5 Grendel upper receiver is a quick and easy fix in the meantime.
LPVO (and the training that goes with it)
While we are replacing the upper receivers, we might as well put a Low Power Variable Optic on it. LPVOs are becoming more popular for civilians, but I think they really belong in the mountains. If mountain soldiers are given a round that can shoot 800 meters, they better be able to see 800 meters and be able to identify what they are looking at. The Army already contracted SIG Sauer to make the Direct Viewing Optic, so let’s issue them to mountain units first.
Smaller light weight tents with light multi-use stove
Currently the standard winter tent for our mountain soldiers is the big, heavy 10 man tent. It weighs 56 lbs. The stove that it is typically coupled with is the Arctic Space Heater which weighs another 50 lbs. They get packed into a sled that weighs close to 40 lbs by itself. Along with fuel and water the sleds can weigh over 200 pounds. For flat arctic conditions, this system is adequate. In the mountains, this system kills our mobility.
Let’s look to the civilian mountain hunting market to find smaller lighter weight tents that can fit in a pack along with collapsible wood stoves. Decreasing the tent size from squad size (10) to team size (4 or fewer) enables the lowest levels to have shelter during multi-day missions. There are commercial off-the-shelf shelters and stoves that could fill the gap while the Army can develop their own solution.
Skill and interest based recruiting
Currently, there are no skill or interest requirements to be in a mountain unit. Mountaineering is one of those activities that if you have no interest, you’re not going to be good at it. If we recruited people that already knew how to ski we could spend less time doing ski instruction and more time using them as a mode of transportation. If we had recruits that don’t know how to drive a car, would we make them drivers in a mechanized unit? (Don’t answer that)
If the ranks of a mountain infantry unit is filled with people who don’t care about mountaineering, then it’s just another infantry unit. We should be recruiting mountaineers and outdoorsmen and women from across the country (what few are left), and make it worth their time to be there. How do we do that?
Mountaineer as an MOS
If being a mountaineer was a separate job in the military, it would give those soldiers more time to focus on their mountain skills. So many young people fantasize about becoming fighter pilots because there’s an aura of them being highly trained and highly skilled professionals doing a dangerous job. Is it more dangerous than ice climbing or skiing potentially hazardous terrain? Leading people through the mountains is a skill that needs to be refined and practiced, ask any AMGA guide. Making it a separate MOS could drive home the point that they need to be proficient in the mountains. We should be mandating that mountaineers get time to get their ski hours and climb hours just like pilots need to get their flight hours to ensure their skills are current. Is this something that can be done in 2021?
Just get out and train
The number one thing the Army can do to become more capable in the mountains is to get out and train at the lowest levels. Too many soldiers attend the Mountain Warfare School but never use the skills they learned when they get back to their units. Those soldiers should be sharing their skills any chance they get and the people in charge should be fostering these opportunities. If you’re looking for guidance or support, reach out. After all, mountaineering is a community.