In Alaska, American commandos game out a great-power war

The Washington Post was granted a rare embed with Navy SEALs and Green Berets as the Pentagon, wary of a conflict with Russia or China, stress-tested its preparedness in Arctic conditions.

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT OVER KODIAK ISLAND — To the uninitiated, this felt like madness. From an altitude of 8,000 feet, six Navy SEALs were about to parachute into Marmot Bay, where the water temperature was just barely above freezing.

Their inflatable boat went first, rumbling down the ramp of this MC-130 transport plane before snapping out the back. These stout, nondescript airframes were engineered specifically to enable the “low visibility” operations that are a hallmark of the U.S. military’s clandestine forces. As one of the SEALs roused from a nap, the plane leveled off.

Go time.

One by one, they approached the exit, turned their backs to the vivid blue-green vista below and out they went, hurtling toward an icy splashdown.

America’s Special Operations forces are in the midst of a major transformation. As the powerful militaries commanded by Russia and China compete with the United States for dominance in the resource-rich Arctic, the Pentagon has dramatically expanded its focus on what a war would look like here in one of the planet’s most treacherous settings — and how its most advanced units could be brought to bear on a direct threat to the U.S. homeland or to NATO allies who inhabit the coldest climes of Europe.

Special Operations troops are distinct from conventional military forces, tasked with the secretive, sensitive, dangerous assignments such as kill-capture missions, hostage rescues, and sabotage. This winter, The Washington Post was granted rare access to teams of SEALs, Green Berets, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and other elite personnel while they stress-tested the innumerable limitations imposed by Alaska’s vast, merciless wilderness, including in Kodiak, a wind-blasted outpost off the state’s southern coast, and in austere training areas outside the central city of Fairbanks.

The sobering takeaway, it was instantly clear, is that any conflict in the High North would be an unmitigated nightmare for those sent to fight it.

Capt. Bill Gallagher, who commands the SEAL unit involved in the exercise, characterized the Arctic as perhaps the most rugged and extreme place for any military to operate, saying even the most routine functions can be an existential threat.


The troops who landed in Marmot Bay wore dry suits under their uniforms to insulate them against the inevitable effects of submersion in 37-degree water. Without such gear, a person encountering similar conditions would be in a race against death.

Here, Gallagher said, “the environment can kill you quicker than any enemy.”

Threat assessment

The Arctic, warming four times faster than the rest of the world and opening to commercial and military activity like never before, is evolving rapidly and compelling the Pentagon to keep pace, officials say, creating the potential for competition and conflict among Washington, Moscow and Beijing.

The United States would probably be challenged by either one. Russia, bloodied but resurgent in Ukraine, has earned useful combat experience against a skilled foe, and is only growing its competency in areas like electronic warfare, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Pentagon, emerging from a more-limited form of combat in the Middle East, can only study and theorize what Moscow has learned from its large-scale war, Cancian said.

China, meanwhile, is outpacing the United States in technology like hypersonic missiles, the Pentagon has acknowledged. And the sheer size of its military poses an enormous concern, Cancian said. “The big Chinese advantage is in numbers,” he said. “Their fleet is large and getting larger.”

The twin challenge has forced the Defense Department to look inward at its own shortcomings, some of which are revealed in the Arctic.

For instance, many of the satellites that monitor activity north of the Arctic Circle have “blind spots,” limiting how well the U.S. government can track incoming threats, said Iris Ferguson, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for Arctic policy, an office established only two years ago. Coastal erosion and thawing permafrost, among the most visible signs of climate change, have wreaked havoc on U.S. radar sites and airfields.

Russia in recent years has turned the lights back on at Soviet-era military facilities throughout the region, refurbishing a constellation of bases that outnumber NATO’s collective presence there. Given Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea 10 years ago and its bid now to fully subjugate Ukraine, Moscow’s moves in the North have raised questions about its larger ambitions, Ferguson said.

“We worry at times about the potential offensive nature of some of their investments,” she added. “And really, their invasion of Ukraine has been a wake-up call to the international community at large but certainly to our Arctic partners.”

In March, two Russian bombers flew through a strategic choke point between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom. It marked a first since the Ukraine war began two years ago, undercutting assumptions held by some in the Pentagon that Moscow’s wartime commitments would weaken its presence in other parts of the world.

A substantial portion of the oil and gas interests that make Russia an energy powerhouse is located across the Arctic, flanked by nuclear-capable submarines ported on the White Sea. China, too, has asserted that its status as a “near-Arctic nation” grants Beijing a say in the region’s governance, as Asian nations also have a stake in the commodities transported across the Northern Sea Route.

The two powers’ deepening ties, on prominent display since the Ukraine invasion, also have manifested in the High North. Last summer, for instance, they sent a joint naval patrol past Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, startling some observers.


The West, too, has escalated its activity in the region. The approximately 400 U.S. and NATO commandos sent to Alaska as part of a larger annual exercise were the largest contingent of Special Operations troops ever to train in the Alaska Arctic, officials said. Other U.S. troops trained simultaneously in Norway’s Arctic region as part of the military alliance’s largest exercise since the Cold War.

Meanwhile, as U.S. military planners game out the potential consequences of a feared Chinese assault on Taiwan, a key partner in the Pacific that President Biden has pledged to defend, there is growing concern about the threat of “spill over,” officials say.

Col. Matthew Tucker, who oversees the Special Operations forces with purview of North America, said that such a contingency could trigger the activation of homeland defense plans — including those that run through Alaska. “The likelihood that (a China-Taiwan war) remains isolated in the South China Sea,” he added, “is probably not something … we would bank on.”

Everything freezes

On a training range outside Fairbanks, the temperature is about 20 degrees. It felt almost balmy for the Green Berets who, at another point in the exercise, had endured a low of minus 40.

At such extremes, everything is pushed to its breaking point. Batteries get zapped of their charge. Moisture that accumulates inside a rifle can lock the weapon’s bolt, rendering it useless. Plastic easily shatters.

And everything freezes. That includes blood packs and IV solution, requiring military medics to rely on their body heat to protect precious liquids.


With any casualty incurred in this environment, hypothermia can set in within minutes. Significant blood loss compounds the challenge. If a medic has to provide a transfusion, they must account for the fact that doing so will further reduce their patient’s temperature.

Threats lurk everywhere, even underfoot. Some soldiers trained on navigating glaciers, where one wrong step can mean plunging into a deep icy fissure, necessitating a dangerous recovery.

“Everything is already harder when you’re in the mountains,” said one commander, “because the mountains are always trying to kill you.” Like others interviewed for this report, he spoke on the condition of anonymity under strict guidelines imposed by the military.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, where the Pentagon maintained a network of bases and could largely count on the safe passage of evacuation helicopters, there was an expectation that wounded personnel had a good chance to survive if they received medical care within 60 minutes. Soldiers dubbed it “the golden hour.”

But the Arctic’s sheer expanse, and the advanced targeting capabilities possessed by the Russian and Chinese militaries, have raised doubts about the feasibility of that here. “You had the golden hour back then,” a Special Forces medical sergeant said. “Now it’s like, do you have a golden day?”

A company commander with the Army’s 10th Special Forces Group explained that time, the most limiting factor in any mission, is even more important in conditions this difficult to endure.


“You have to get to your casualties faster, you have to treat them faster, you have to get to a warming tent faster,” the commander said. “Everything is expedited.”

To that end, a team of Green Berets spent one afternoon learning to drive their snowmobiles into an idling helicopter, simulating how to perform a swift load-up and departure. This is a crucial skill, and they quickly gleaned how difficult it can be.

The helicopter, a Special Operations variant of the Army’s dual-rotor Chinook, was augmented with a pad that grabs the snowmobile’s tracks and helps to pull it aboard, but the vehicle’s front skis would twist perpendicularly, causing them to snag the aircraft’s steel edges and bring all momentum to a halt.

When one soldier needed an extra shove from the helicopter’s crew, another wryly observed, “Not a real easy way to do it, huh?” At one point, a snowmobile track tore through the snow, flinging rocks everywhere and prompting a burst of laughter among those waiting for their turn.

Eventually, the process became more fluid. As a full moon emerged on the horizon, members of a Danish commando force, among the NATO personnel most specialized in the tundra, readied their night vision goggles. A soldier zoomed his snowmobile into the belly of the Chinook, followed by another. The helicopter lifted off and orbited the training area a final time.

The company commander explained that today, the 10th Special Forces Group — based in Colorado and focused on operating in Europe — is the Army’s clearinghouse for clandestine cold weather operations. But over the past two decades, much of its attention was centered elsewhere. Watching his soldiers learn from the Danes, he said, was encouraging.

“We’ve been focused on Centcom,” the commander said, referring to the U.S. military command overseeing operations in the Middle East. “We focused on Europe as well. But we’ve ignored much of the Arctic.”

A turning point

In the years after 9/11, the Pentagon turned its Special Operations forces into agile units that could execute America’s counterterrorism objectives largely void of the political risks that accompany major military deployments. This approach greatly expanded the numbers of personnel — from 38,000 in 2001 to 73,000 in 2020 — and empowered U.S. Special Operations Command in ways that unmoored it from the conventional military.


As national security officials grow more concerned about the prospect of a conflict with Russia or China, they’ve argued that, rather than being prepared to fight on its own through brushfire counterinsurgencies, reliant on other parts of the military to aid its missions, Special Operations needs to complement the larger force.

“We got used to being the supported entity,” said Gallagher, the SEAL Group 2 commander. “Now as we look toward strategic competition, really our focus is … how we can provide support.”

Some observers are skeptical, though, that Special Operations is refreshing its philosophy across the board. Richard Hooker, a former National Security official in multiple presidential administrations and now with the Atlantic Council, said such changes would be reflected in new budget requirements and an organizational redesign, yet “we really haven’t seen much of that.”

Cancian, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees it this way: “In the past, they tended to be sort of prima donnas. So the fact that Special Operations Command is up there is indicative of their effort to shift the organization more towards great power conflict.”

Outside of Fairbanks, the potential at least was evident as Marine Corps reservists operating HIMARS rocket artillery vehicles simulated a targeting mission in the Hayes mountain range. Miles away, two Chinooks touched down, and off stepped a team of Green Berets and Danish commandos holding rifles and skis.

Planners called for the commandos to slip into the foothills, discreetly identify attack coordinates and radio them back to the Marines, who would fire off a volley of rockets, hop back in their vehicles and scoot off immediately — lest they become a target themselves.

The Marines fired 16 rockets in all, each roaring across the training area before crashing into the ground and throwing up puffs of snow. The munitions lacked explosive charges, rendering them, as one Marine put it, concrete telephone poles juiced with rocket fuel. The standard rockets they had wanted to use were unavailable, he said, citing demand in Ukraine.

[Preparing for a theoretical war with China, the Marines are retooling how they’ll fight]

The Green Beret company commander was eager to see this part of the exercise play out. His team not only had to endure the elements, it had an essential support role to perform.

“That’s where our roots have always been,” he said. “And we’re trying to return back to that.”