Earlier in the year I wrote an article of 10 short term ways the Army could make itself better suited to fight in the mountains. Let’s look at long term strategies that could affect some positive changes to the US Army’s mountaineering capability.
Disclaimer: this is solely an opinion article for entertainment
The Airborne Model
The airborne community in the conventional US Army is spread over locations in North Carolina, Italy, and Alaska. The airborne culture is a subset of infantry culture as a whole. They train to be flown over contested territory, jump out of aircraft, and conduct unsupported operations. The nature of their mission comes with inherent risks, skill sets, and bravado (as it should). Once a soldier is in an airborne unit, they have 2 other duty stations they could transfer to and still be in an airborne unit.
Currently the only conventional active duty mountain unit in The Army in the 10th Mountain Division located at Fort Drum, New York and Fort Polk Louisiana. In WWII the mountain division was composed of civilian mountaineers and outdoorsmen who were enthusiastic about mountain training and were able to answer the call to use technical mountaineering skills to capture Mount Belvedere. After the war, the division was decommissioned. Read more about the formation of the unit HERE.
The current 10th Mountain division was reformed in 1985 as a rapid deployment light infantry unit. Although they do not focus specifically on mountain warfare, it is now known for its ferocity as a light infantry unit and being the most deployed unit in the US military. It plays an important role in the US’s military strategy so in this long term strategy, we will leave the 10 Mountain Division as is.
A new mountain division could be formed, the 21st Mountain Division composed of the new Mountain Infantry Brigade Combat Team. This new Mountain IBCT would be better suited to transport, sustain and support mountain troops.
Location, location, location
Lake Placid, New York – Located just two and a half hours east of Fort Drum, Lake Placid is a ski town in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains and was the home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. It has cold winters and heavily wooded rolling hills making it a prime candidate for simulating the “Nordic” regions of the world such as Finland, who’s actions during the Winter War is what convinced the US to stand up a military mountain unit in the first place. This terrain is difficult to fight in, which is why Rogers Rangers had to standardized and use a new code of tactics to be effective in this area during the French and Indian War.
The Adirondacks have a small but passionate skiing and climbing community that can lend itself to mountain training. There is plenty to do off duty that will keep soldiers and their families happy to be in Lake Placid.
Fort Carson. Colorado Springs, Colorado – The Springs is close to Camp Hale, the original home of the 10th Mountain Division. There are good reasons why mountain troops were originally trained in Colorado: the mountains are dramatic, it gets a lot of snow, and most of all it has elevation. Colorado Springs has an elevation of 6,000 ft, which by itself is on the cusp of affecting people’s performance. In addition, it is a short drive away from many of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks. As a reference, the highest elevation battles have taken place around the Shiachen Glacier at over 20,000 ft, and the highest elevation mountain on earth is over 29,000 ft. Colorado’s elevation is not going to fully prepare our mountain soldiers for the highest altitude they could possibly be fighting at, but it’s a lot better than Fort Drum’s 590 feet of elevation. Colorado’s elevation can help simulate the high elevation “Alpine” religions that exist all over the world. Lastly, Colorado has a massive civilian mountaineering culture and an Olympic training center that can immerse soldiers in the lifestyle both on and off duty.
Fort Wainright. Fairbanks, Alaska – Fairbanks is already home to the 1-25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. In addition, Alaska also is home to the Northern Warfare Training Center which already trains soldiers in cold weather and mountainous operations. Fairbanks is a prime location for arctic mountaineers. To the east is the Army’s Yukon Training Area, which is seen as the Army’s proving ground for arctic operations and also has mountainous terrain. To the south is Denali, the tallest peak in North America at 20,310 ft. To summit Denali is seen as a major feat in any mountaineer’s career. Between the world class rock climbing in the summer and ice climbing/skiing in the winter, any North American mountaineer would love to train in Alaska.
Use The Guard
The locations of these proposed brigades would line up well with locations of national guard units that already train in mountaineering. To the east of Lake Placid are the New England states that are the home to most of the 86th Mountain Infantry Brigade and the Army Mountain Warfare School. Colorado is home to another national guard regiment of the 86th brigade and US army Alaska already trains on mountain and cold weather tactics.
The New York and the New England National Guards should form one of the battalions of the Nordic Brigade. Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico National Guards should form one of the battalions of the Alpine Brigade and the Alaska National Guard could form one of the battalions of the Arctic Brigade.
There could be plenty of cross training between the Guard and Active Duty, shared training events, shared training areas, and a shared mission. This could possibly make it easier and more practical to transfer between the two branches. If an active duty mountain soldier wants to transition to part time to go to school, pursue a civilian career, or focus on family, they wouldn’t have to travel far (if at all) and they could still contribute to the military mountaineering community part time. It should also make the transition back to active duty easier if they choose to do so. Nesting specialty active duty units with specialty guard units could increase flexibility, which in turn could increase retention of personnel and skill level of these units.
We have all the data of the capabilities of our ground vehicles, helicopters, planes, and ships. However, do we know for sure what our soldiers can do in the mountains? How quick can they gain the high ground, call for fire, and evacuate casualties? How far can they trek in the snow, how long can they stay out in austere mountain environments? The National Training Center gives us these answers for the California desert and Joint Readiness Training Center gives us these answers for the swamps of Louisiana. A Mountain Training Center can give us these answers and help us develop equipment and training based on unit performances, similar to the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center’s Mountain Training Exercise.
This would make the Army more aware of its realistic capabilities and track unit performances over time. Units might even compete with each other or its former self. If it took a company 12 hours to reach a peak last year, what can that company do differently this year to be faster and more efficient? Was the company slower this year? Was it a training gap or inefficient execution? Did this new tactic or new piece of equipment help us or hurt us? In order to progress and be better units need to know IF they are progressing and being better. Colorado has great locations for this Mountain Training Center which would test both infantry and mountain skills.
The Most Valuable Assets
The mountain infantry is unique because it isn’t a job that gets significantly easier with technology. You can’t simply slap more armor on a vehicle, develop a heads up display helmet, or design a new cyberspace network that will make soldiers more mobile and lethal in the mountains. Instead, money would be better spent on the Army’s most valuable assets: the individual soldiers.
It is especially important to retain Mountaineers in mountain units because it takes years of training and constant refreshing of skills to become proficient. It would be inefficient and frustrating to soldiers to constantly rotate soldiers in and out of the mountain community. This would be solved by making mountain infantry a separate MOS (11E) with strict physical requirements, just as many foreign mountain units do. Once a soldier has passed the initial requirements, it is understood that they can remain in the mountain community as long as they would like. It takes years of training and experience to be able to evaluate routes and avalanche danger. It takes constant practice and skill refinement to set up a good fixed rope for follow on troops or safely lead a 3 person climbing party.
Maybe you are an 18 year old who loves the outdoors and doesn’t want to settle for a desk job in a city. Maybe you have an established career but you are looking for an exciting way to serve your country part-time. Maybe you’re a climber, skier, hunter, or hiker who is looking for a steady way to get paid to do (and teach) what you love the most. This future mountain division that is outlined above would appeal to a wide audience and invests time and money into attracting and keeping the Army’s most valuable assets.