Training to fight and operate during the winter in Canada is relatively straightforward. Almost any location in Canada between November and February affords the opportunity for winter warfare exercises. As one moves further North into the Arctic though, soldiers need more than a proficiency in winter warfare. The Arctic is not just a colder version of a Canadian winter; it is a unique operating environment not unlike the jungle, mountains, or desert and, through experience, soldiers need to develop a special skill set. The goal is to produce an expertise on how to live, move, and function in the harsh conditions of the Far North.
The intent of NOREX 2015, which took place in and around Resolute Bay, Nunavut from March 20 to 30, 2015, was to provide just that sort of experience. It was led by the Arctic Response Company Group (ARCG) a specialized unit within 4th Canadian Division, the Canadian Army’s major formation in Ontario. The ARCG is tasked to operate in the Arctic year round. The focus of NOREX 2015, which involved elements of 31 Canadian Brigade Group based in Southern Ontario, 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group based in Petawawa and Canadian Rangers from nearby communities, was designed around winter arctic operations. Activities included general arctic training with the Canadian Rangers and a live fire range, although the “key aspects of this exercise are to enhance our mobility, sustainability and survivability in the High Arctic,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Shane McArthur, Land Component Commander and Exercise Director for NOREX 2015. “We have to ensure we can provide support and operate when and where Canadians require us.”
Given the extreme cold, isolation, and unique terrain, this is a tall order. “Any country with a north as vast as ours needs a military which can conduct tasks regardless of terrain, time of year, or weather conditions,” said Lieutenant-Colonel McArthur. “We are here to make sure that the ARCG, as part of the Canadian Army, can respond to the needs of Canadians in the North when they need us.”
After flying in, NOREX 2015 set up a command and control centre in the Canadian Armed Forces Arctic Training Centre (CAFATC), a large facility constructed in Resolute Bay. With approximately 200 personnel on the exercise, the population of Cornwallis Island nearly doubled overnight. The next two days were spent preparing for long-range snowmobile patrols. This included a 10 kilometre shakeout snowmobile patrol designed to test and re-confirm equipment, clothing, transport, and to afford the soldiers deployed on NOREX 2015 a period of acclimatization to the cold. Although all members of the ARCG are winter warfare and snowmobile qualified, for some this may be their first opportunity to test these skills in extreme conditions.
“After a few kilometres, visibility dropped to about a metre,” said Private Chris Monteath, who was driving one of the snowmobiles when the ground winds suddenly picked up. “It was an interesting experience not knowing what was around the bend. I got a rush out of it.” The Signaller from London, Ontario, also learned a thing or two about dressing for the cold as the windchill dropped below minus 50. “I thought I was good — and for the most part I was, but some of my clothing nearly froze to my face,” he said. “The shakeout made a lot of sense before really heading out to the tundra.”
Well prepared, the ARCG set out in three separate patrols. Using snowmobiles and BV-206s, a type of tracked snow transport vehicle, the reservists and regular force soldiers, guided by Canadian Rangers, set out to cover more than 200 kilometres over rock, snow and sea ice. The patrols reached as far as Little Cornwallis Island at the 75th parallel, northwest of Resolute Bay. With the support of 440 Transport Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and chartered civilian air assets, the ARCG also performed airmobile insertions around the area. For six days, the patrols practiced movement, sustainment and survival in austere conditions.
“There are not a lot of features to navigate with,” said Lieutenant Josh Bloess, of the manoeuvre challenges in the treeless and mostly white arctic. The platoon commander from 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment added that with the magnetic pole so near, “compasses don’t work either.” The sun, rising in the north east and setting in the north west and always low to the horizon, also creates a disorienting effect. Accurately judging their positions and moving from location to location was a function of GPS, Canadian Ranger guides and, hopefully, a developing instinct.
But it is the weather that is the biggest challenge, impacting everything from physical health to transport to morale. While the soldiers’ gear is good, designed to purpose, avoiding even minor cold-induced injuries requires knowledge, some of which is pretty simple. “Keep your feet dry,” advised Sergeant Bill Roppel, a member of The Grey and Simcoe Foresters, who has participated in many winter and arctic exercises with the ARCG. There are many tiny bits of wisdom to accumulate on coping with the cold — and not just relative to a soldier’s well-being. The advice on keeping snowmobiles and kamatiks, the Inuit cargo sleds, in running order is equally abundant and minute. All of it critical.
“There is not a lot of room for error. You have to fight the weather and the equipment,” said Master Corporal Ken Keddy, from Hamilton. The fourth year McMaster student notes that, in the cold, redundancy and self-reliance is important. The ARCG can dial 911 up here but they are calling their own number. At the CAFATC in Resolute Bay, for example, Lieutenant Melinda Suich, a Critical Care Nurse on NOREX 2015 explains that “we don’t have all the same stuff as you would find in a hospital, but it is enough to care for quite a lot. We can handle most trauma, but surgery would require another evac.”
Helping the soldiers to survive and adapt to the arctic conditions were the Canadian Rangers, who accompanied the ARCG on patrol. Acting as guides and mentors, Rangers from 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group showed their resourcefulness on many occasions, especially when it came to snowmobiles. “When a pull-cord broke, one of them taught us how to wrap another cord around the clutch to get the machine going again,” said Corporal Daniel Reckman, a member of the 1st Hussars from Sarnia, Ontario, adding he didn’t know, “you could start the thing from the other side of the motor.”
Canadian Rangers also helped keep up morale. “First thing in the morning, we crawl out into the cold,” said Corporal Kilbourne, describing the psychological trauma of getting out of a warm sleeping bag into the icy morning. “They [the Rangers] get up smiling and laughing.”
At the end of ten days, soldiers gained significant experience in moving and living in the arctic. “NOREX 2015 demonstrated that 4th Canadian Division’s Arctic Response Company Group is able to respond in the far North when called upon by the Government of Canada. The soldiers and leadership have shown their unique ability to survive and function in this harsh and extremely challenging conditions of Canada’s arctic,” said Brigadier-General Lowell Thomas, Commander, 4th Canadian Division.