Military Drills in Arctic Aim to Counter Russia, but the First Mission Is to Battle the Cold
RESOLUTE BAY, Canada — After finishing a training drill on surviving the bitter cold, the soldiers gathered around Ranger Debbie Iqaluk to hear about an inescapable fact of life in the high Arctic: The ice is melting despite the frigid temperatures.
And that means the Russians are coming.
Her retelling of how she watched as an enormous iceberg fractured, just a few feet from the military base here, was riveting. It is one thing to be told constantly that the melting polar ice cap has opened up the Arctic, disappearing what used to be an impenetrable barrier between North America and Russia. It is quite another to see it firsthand.
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The iceberg took five years to melt, but by 2018 it was gone, taken over by a sea that with each year is melting earlier in the season. That has brought Russia right to Canada’s doorstep, cutting into the “Fortress North America” concept that has long comforted military planners on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
NATO is rushing to try to catch up. Last month, hundreds of troops from member countries and partners, including France, Norway, Finland and Sweden, joined Canadian soldiers, reservists and rangers for the Nanook-Nunalivut exercises that aimed in part to help alliance forces match Russian readiness in extreme-cold climes. (The United States sent observers but no troops this year.)
“Russia is increasing its military presence in the Arctic,” said Dylan White, a spokesman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, citing the new Russian icebreaker fleet, weapons systems and radar. The Western military alliance, he said, is “monitoring Russia’s Arctic buildup carefully.”
In fact, Russia has already claimed the North Pole, and in 2007 sent two minisubmarines to place a titanium Russian flag on the seabed, two and a half miles underwater. Twelve years later, during last month’s alliance exercises, Canadian military officers were still grumbling about the stunt.
Ships now successfully ply the Northwest Passage in July — something that was unheard-of in 1845 when Sir John Franklin, a British explorer, tried to sail it, only to become icebound near King William Island. He lost his life and those of his 129-member crew.
Twenty percent of Russia’s gross domestic product is pulled from the Arctic, whether in minerals or through its shipping lanes. It is far ahead of North America when it comes to maneuvering in the region; by comparison, less than 1 percent of the United States’ economic output is derived from the Arctic.
Over the summer, a Maersk vessel loaded with Russian fish became the first container vessel to complete an Arctic sea route that Moscow is planning as part of an Arctic superhighway.
The Beaufort Sea, seen in March, was once frozen over for most of the year. Global warming has opened up the Arctic, bringing Russia right to North America’s doorstep.CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times
Moscow’s military ambitions in the Arctic have also increased as Russia moves to defend the territory that it claims.
Last month, Russia’s Defense Ministry flew a group of reporters to a military base on Kotelny Island, between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea on its new Arctic shipping route, to show off antiship missile launchers and air defense systems firing shots at a practice target.
Russia has also expanded its fleet of icebreaker ships to more than 40 (the United States has only two that are operational) and reopened military bases in the Arctic that were shut down after the end of the Cold War. Two months ago, a top Russian lawmaker told a state-run news agency that Russian special forces were training for a potential conflict in the Arctic.
At a meeting on Tuesday of the International Arctic Forum, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia outlined an ambitious program, including new ports and infrastructure, to further cement Russia’s standing in the region. “We don’t see a single matter that requires NATO’s attention” in the Arctic, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia said at the same event.
In a telephone interview, Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan of Canada made clear that the alliance had no intention of ceding the icy expanse.
“We want Russia to know what our capabilities are,” Mr. Sajjan said. “It prevents them from doing more aggressive things.”
Resolute Bay is known as the “place with no dawn” by the Inuit people, who were forcibly relocated there in 1953 as part of a Canadian government plan to lay claim to land in the far north before Moscow could.
It is the second most northerly military base in North America; Canadian Forces Station Alert, just 500 miles from the North Pole, is first. Until Russia appeared on the horizon, “force protection” detail at Resolute Bay simply meant soldiers armed with ancient rifles standing guard against polar bears.
This year, it was ground zero for Operation Nanook-Nunalivut, the efforts to train troops how to survive in the high Arctic.
There are no northern lights despite the clear night, the troops are told, because, well, it is too far north. Trees cannot survive either. The landscape is unrelentingly white — white snow meeting white sky. The sea is white, the land is white.
KING WILLIAM I.
“I thought I knew what winter was about,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Williams, the commanding officer of the First Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment. “But then I arrived here, and realized I don’t know anything.”
The most important thing that Colonel Williams said he tried to impress upon his troops was that of the two hostile forces in Arctic warfare, the one loaded with sophisticated weaponry was probably the lesser threat. The weather, he said, can dwarf everything: “You can’t fight somewhere if you can’t survive it.”
Simple tasks have to be entered into daily calculations. Going to the bathroom at night means putting on multiple layers of winter gear, like long johns, socks and liners, as well as a balaclava, parka and hoodie, before trudging into the frigid cold. With all that, soldiers said they routinely questioned whether they really needed to go.
The weather dominates conversation as if it is a separate presence. The troops wake up talking about how cold it is and go to sleep thinking about how cold it will be when they wake up.
“I’m supposed to be learning how to make an eight-person igloo,” said Pvt. Doug Peach, from Abbotsford, British Columbia, as he huddled outside a tent in the curiously named Crystal City, essentially a bunch of tents surrounded by snow and igloos a few miles from the main base at Resolute.
Instead, Private Peach said he had been counting the days since he arrived (six) and the days until he was to leave (another 15). Icicles hung from his mustache.
The temperature that day was a balmy minus 22 Fahrenheit. By comparison, it was almost toasty inside the igloos, made of blocks of hard-packed snow, where temperatures soared to just above freezing.
Early one morning, Ranger Iqaluk stood between the frozen sea and a group of soldiers heading out on snowmobiles on a practice mission to secure an airfield. Wearing an enormous pair of whitish gloves made from the fur of a polar bear, she served as a sort of Delphic oracle for whether the expeditioners had a chance of returning with their limbs intact.
“He needs to pull up that collar,” she muttered, nodding at one soldier whose fleece-lined hoodie had dropped to expose the top of his wool hat.
As the line of snowmobiles took off, the soldiers performed a constant stream of “lookbacks” to make sure they had not lost the person following behind in the blinding snow.
At least 80 soldiers examined during the exercises by Wendy Sullivan-Kwantes, a scientist, developed frostbite, mostly around their hands, feet and ears. She attributed the problem to heavy-duty mittens provided by the Canadian military that, while warm, did not allow for dexterity. Soldiers who needed to repair damaged snowmobiles, or even light a fire, had to take their mittens off.
“Many people are spending their own money to get better mitts,” Ms. Sullivan-Kwantes said.
Two days later and about 870 miles away, some of the military exercise’s participants were in Tuktoyaktuk, Canada, showing their mettle by ice diving into the partly frozen Arctic Ocean. The proposition was so breathtakingly heart attack-inducing that the Canadian hosts decided to dare visiting dignitaries sponsored by the Atlantic alliance to take part.
First, the semiprofessionals — Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian and Canadian naval divers — demonstrated how to don so-called dry suits, carrying air tanks on their backs and connected to safety ropes.
Watching the divers Janne Luukimen of Finland and Chris Trufal of Canada slide below the ice and into the frigid water underneath was almost calming; the two were pictures of gritty determination. There was no yelling, just methodical equipment checks followed by no-ripple entries into the sea, where they disappeared beneath the ice.
Not so the visiting V.I.P.s, who put their names in a hat. Three were picked for 10-second plunges into the sea: Chief Warrant Officer Dominique Geoffroy of Canada, Col. Jacques Roussell of France and Lt. Col. James Kerr of Australia. (Australia is not in the alliance but acts as if it is.)
As everyone else huddled in parkas, mittens and boots, yelling encouragement, the three men, clad in boxers and briefs, strutted onto the ice, where they were to jump in and count to 10 out loud. Only upon arriving at 10 would they be pulled out with a rope.
Mr. Geoffroy and Colonel Roussell acquitted themselves passably with a few shouts and a lot of gasping, and got to 10.
Colonel Kerr got there, too, but the route he took was shorter. “One! Two! Three!” he bellowed, using an expletive. “Four, eight, nine, 10!”