High altitude and cold weather warfare are specialized military operations that require special training, special gear, and very special troops. As this is written, troops are carrying out combat operations or patrols in mountainous areas around the world. US and allied mountain troops are operating in Afghanistan, Indian and Pakistani troops are patrolling their mountainous border in the Himalayas, Russian troops are operating in the Caucasus Mountains in Chechnya, Israeli mountain troops patrol on Mt Hermon, and South-American counterinsurgency units trained for mountain operations are hunting guerrillas in the Andes.
Virtually every country in the world that contains or has interests in mountainous and/or Arctic areas has specialized troops trained for the extreme climate and terrain. Some countries such as Finland, Norway and Sweden train virtually all troops for this type of warfare. Even countries that do not have mountainous areas will probably have at least a few special operators who have received mountain training.
Among the best-known mountain units are the Austrian Gibergsjaegers, French Chasseurs Alpine, German Gibergsjaegers, Italian Alpini, Polish Podhale Rifles, Romanian Vanatori de Munte, Spanish Cazadores de Montana Aragon, Swiss Third Mountain Corps, US 10th Mountain Division and US Marines, British 3rd Commando Brigade, and the Dutch Marine Corps.
Many countries specifically select mountain troops from citizens living in mountainous terrain. These recruits are already acclimated to higher altitudes and usually are skiers and used to working in cold weather. Italy’s Alpini, for example, traditionally have been recruited from the Italian Alps and most Alpini units are multi-generational. An interesting note on the Alpini is that the 4th Alpini Ranger Regiment is specifically trained as an Alpine special operations unit, which is skilled at carrying out parachute insertions into the snow and in extreme-condition raiding. This unit has proven quite valuable in NATO operations in Afghanistan.
As specialized operators, mountain troops must be trained in an array of special skills. Their training usually takes place at high altitudes, as only at altitude can they become accustomed to high-altitude exertion. Most mountain-training centers are located somewhere approaching 10,000 feet. For example, the Indian Army’s High-Altitude Warfare School at Gulmarg is around 8,000 feet and the USMC Mountain Warfare School in California is at 9,000 feet. Before they can successfully operate in extreme conditions, they must learn to survive in those conditions, to deal with the many health problems unique to the cold, high-altitude environment where they will operate. These include: heat loss, dehydration, altitude sickness, high-altitude cerebral and pulmonary edema, hypothermia, frost bite, trench foot, snow blindness, carbon monoxide poisoning (from heat sources in enclosed areas), and sanitation and waste disposal.
Troops must also be trained to eat and drink enough to survive and operate under extreme conditions. For example, 6,000 calories per day is required for operations in the mountains, as are 6 to 8 quarts of water. Even when soldiers eat substantial amounts, troops have lost 25 pounds in three weeks of high-altitude operations. Mountain troops learn when to eat to maximize their calories. For example, eating high caloric food right before crawling into the sleeping bag will produce more heat, which the sleeping bag will retain. Psychological problems can also occur during high altitude operations including depression, withdrawal, and lethargy, which keep soldiers from leaving the shelter and carrying out operations. Troops should conserve energy, but they may have to transport heavy loads at times because of the need to bring in most survival needs including fuel and food.
Troops must be equipped and trained to dress properly. Clothing for cold weather warfare is designed to be layered with a vapor layer closest to the body, then an insulation layer, and finally a protection layer. The outer layer will normally be white or white and gray to provide snow camouflage. Changes of clothing must be available as well, in case the soldier gets wet. Boots will be specialized mountain boots with an inner vapor layer.
Training of junior officers and NCOs is extremely important for mountain operations since units will normally be broken into small maneuver elements due to the terrain and mission, and junior leaders will have to make crucial decisions in combat regarding the mission and relating to the health and survival of their troops. Some radios will not work well in cold and mountainous terrain and batteries will fail much more readily. Often, satellite communications equipment will be the only effective way to maintain communications with a base. Command and control aircraft flying overhead may also allow better communications.
Land navigation over snow and ice requires special training as well, even with GPS available. As part of their mountain survival training, troops must be trained to find their way and in what to do should they become separated form the rest of their unit on a mission.
Many considerations will affect individual operations in mountainous environs and extreme conditions. Prior to deploying to their operational areas, troops need to acclimatize for 10 to 15 days at a similar altitude. Normally, when operating in glaciered areas approaching 20,000 feet, troops should only remain for a maximum of three to four weeks before returning to lower altitudes. Commanders must always bear in mind, too, that in extreme weather conditions, troops must remain ready to fight the enemy, even while fighting the elements. Even elite, highly trained mountain troops have found in Afghanistan that it can be psychologically draining to pursue an enemy that has spent his life at those altitudes and, hence, seems immune to the affects.
Logistics have a whole new dimension in mountain operations. Although specialized all-terrain snow vehicles may be used on mountain roads and some paths, in many regions terrain will dictate that supplies will have to be transported on the backs of soldiers or on sleds. Even today, many mountain units still have integral mules and horses for use in transporting supplies. Members of mountain units who work with animal transport need to be skilled in breaking down loads into sizes that can be readily placed on a pack mule, and how to load and care for their work animals.
Helicopters can deliver supplies to the closest LZs (landing zones), but the lift capability of choppers is degraded at higher altitudes and rapidly changing high-altitude weather can affect flying. The French Alouette helicopter, which can fly higher than US helicopters for example, can still only deliver about 180 pounds of supplies at altitudes above 20,000 feet. The US Blackhawk helicopter tops out at 18,700 feet. Helicopters will need to be prepared with skis for landing on snow and crews will need to be trained for mountain operations. US helicopter pilots, for example, are trained in Colorado for high altitude operations prior to deployment to Afghanistan. The fact that more food, fuel, spare clothing, and other supplies are needed when operating in extreme conditions can make logistics problems even greater.
Having specially trained mountain engineers helps units create landing zones or comfortable living quarters at higher altitudes. Units that operate at very high altitudes have found that prefabricated synthetic igloos that may be easily transported and assembled, then over-layered with snow, work best.
Evacuation of casualties can be a daunting task when operating at altitude. In Afghanistan, more than one helicopter has gone down attempting to rescue the crew of another downed helicopter. Mountain troops train in taking casualties down cliff faces with ropes, evacuating them on sleds, and other methods to get them to a LZ for a MedEvac chopper.
One important characteristic of unit commanders of mountain and extreme warfare units is the ability to assess the terrain in which the unit will operate, to ensure the proper skis, snowshoes, climbing gear, clothing, food and mission-specific weapons are available. Commanders must also be aware of special considerations for operations in mountain terrain, such as that troops operating in snow and ice will give off a very distinctive infrared signature making them especially visible to an enemy armed with IR (infrared) goggles. Therefore, positions must be chosen and precautions taken to mask IR signatures when setting a camp or an ambush in the snow. Often, a small unit operating in mountainous conditions will be gathering intelligence on enemy movements below. The ability to construct well-camouflaged hides is, therefore, an important skill. Light and noise carry much further in cold air as well, so noise and light discipline are very important. The perfect example of how effective a skilled ski trooper who blends with the terrain can be is Finn Simo Hayha, who during the Winter War with Russia killed more than 540 Russians with an iron-sighted Mosin rifle, some with a submachine gun at close range. His ability to blend with the Northern forest, emerge to kill, then ski away, made him very effective.
An important skill for mountain troops is the use of skis. Soldiers primarily train in cross-country skiing, but at least some troops will also train in downhill or Alpine skiing. The best skiers will normally act as trail breakers for following troops, but the fatigue factor is so great that trail breakers must constantly be alternated. For troops who grew up on skis, basic skills will already be there, but others must be trained to turn, brake, recover from falls, use poles, and shoot from skis using poles as shooting sticks or by going prone and flattening the skis to act as braces. A very important skill is skijoring, where troops are towed behind tracked mountain vehicles to move faster and save energy. Crew-served weapons and supplies can also be towed using sleds. In fact, for mountain operations, crew-served weapons will normally be sled borne. Troops must learn to maintain their skis just as they do the rest of their equipment. Troops will learn to use snowshoes as well.
Similar Principles, Differing Applications
Operators in mountain units will receive basic mountaineering training to include rope management and knots, use of natural anchors, use of artificial anchors, use of fixed ropes, basic rock climbing, rope bridges and lowering systems, free climbing, and lowering of casualties. Units will normally have lead climbers who have been through more advanced training and can set-up roped movement on snow and ice and lead in multi-pitch climbing on mixed terrain that includes rock, snow, and ice. Advanced climbers will be trained in glacier crossing and crevice rescue and a myriad of other more advanced skills.
Other skills include crossing ice and avalanche-prone areas, crossing mountain streams, and water survival, including what to do if the soldier should fall into a stream. Some combat swimmer units such as the US Navy SEALs and the British SBS train for operations in arctic waters and mountain lakes.
Tactics must be adjusted to fit the mountain terrain. For example, attacking up a slope is much more difficult hence, short-term mountain defense has the advantage. To dislodge an entrenched enemy on higher ground will take much effort and fire support. However, skilled climbers can sometimes flank a position and attack it from above. When on the defensive, reserves must be kept close to the defensive positions and aggressive patrols mounted around the areas. Unit commanders must remember that cold and altitude can affect weapons.
In the past, mountain artillery units were normally armed with light howitzers that could be disassembled and moved by mules. Today, transport frequently determines the location of artillery and mortars and the supporting range of artillery. Artillery cannot be readily moved where there are not roads. Artillery firing points are usually located where ammunition can be delivered—in valleys, villages, and near road heads.
Indirect Fire And Air Support
Howitzers and mortars also have the advantage of offering indirect fire, which is normally more effective in mountainous areas where direct fire is precluded by terrain features. Air-burst shells and those with variable time fuses normally work better than point-detonating artillery rounds, which can bury themselves in soft snow and fail to detonate, or detonate well below the surface, losing much of their effect. Helicopter gunships and aircraft such as the Specter gunship have proven especially valuable in Afghanistan. Laser designators are used for guided munitions, but colored smoke grenades also show up well in the snow.
Snipers are especially effective in mountain warfare and mountain units will often have a larger number assigned, especially those armed with longer range weapons in .338 Lapua or .50 BMG. Special care must be taken to keep individual weapons functioning, though. Special lubricants that do not freeze at low temperatures must be used, and weapons should not be taken inside warm shelters as condensation can form, then freeze when the weapon is taken back outside. Some weapons have been developed especially for extreme warfare such as the Accuracy International AW (Arctic Warfare) Sniper Rifle, which is designed to operate reliably to -40 degrees.
This quick overview of the training and tactics needed for mountain and arctic warfare should serve to illustrate that mountain troops deserve the elite status they hold. The Royal Marines Mountain and Arctic Warfare training course has deservedly been called by many spec Ops from around the world, the toughest training they’ve ever undergone.
High altitude and cold weather warfare are specialized military operations that require special training, special…
by Eric Poole / Jun 14, 2009