- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2008

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) | As Canada prepares to spend billions defending the Arctic with icebreakers and deep-water ports, the soldiers who will actually stand guard over that frigid frontier have a shopping list of their own.

Warm boots would be nice. So would snowmobiles that run, food that doesn’t freeze and shovels that dig.

Internal assessments released to the Canadian Press of a Canadian Forces advanced winter-warfare course last March in Resolute, Nunavut, depict a military still learning the basics of working in the far north and vulnerable to challenges that extreme weather can bring.

“A lot of things popped up,” said Lt. Col. Marco Rancourt, commander of the Canadian Forces Land Advance Warfare Centre in Trenton, Ontario. “Conducting operations in the Arctic is difficult.”

The course is designed to train participants to safely lead other soldiers in Arctic operations. It was also intended as a dry run for a permanent winter-warfare school based in Resolute.

Mistakes, however, were made even before the soldiers and equipment arrived.

Snowmobiles were drained of gas on the flight up to save weight. But that allowed condensation to form inside the gas tanks, which caused the machines to repeatedly stall as water in their fuel lines froze in Resolute’s severe subfreezing temperatures.

Soldiers had to boil water, pour it over the frozen sections and try to get the machine going before the hot water turned to ice as well.

“It’s kind of tricky working machines up there,” Col. Rancourt said.

It’s tricky cooking, too. The soldiers were issued standard boil-in-a-bag rations, which promptly froze and required large amounts of fuel to thaw out, placing added demands on limited supplies.

“Up north, logistics lines are much more fragile,” said Col. Rancourt. “It’s more of a problem up there.” Building snow shelters was also part of the course, but military-issue, aluminum-bladed machetes and square-nosed shovels couldn’t cut into dense, wind-compacted Arctic snowbanks.

Then there was the clothing.

Soldiers didn’t have gloves to wear inside their outer mitts, so they froze their hands every time they had to remove their mitts to do something such as fuel up snowmobiles.

The trainees only had one hat and ski mask each, so those vital articles never got a chance to dry out during the weeklong exercise.

Mukluks (soft boots) also got damp from snow melting along the sides of the snowmobiles. That led to cold and wet feet. And soldiers didn’t have warm slippers to wear once they got their feet out of the mukluks.

“Extremities suffered the most in the Arctic,” says one of the documents summarizing the problems.

The course was designed to first give participants a couple days to acclimatize to cold weather before heading north, but that was done at Canadian Forces Base Borden near Toronto, nowhere near the type of terrain or climate the soldiers were about to enter.

“Due to the warm weather conditions, proper winter training and preparation for Arctic winter training was not achieved,” says a document.

There were so many small but crippling problems that soldiers may have been grateful for airlift conflicts that led to the course being reduced from two weeks to one, Col. Rancourt suggested.

“It had the benefit, at least, of we didn’t get too far out there and have to deal with being very far from the community with the type of small problems we faced.”

In the future, the documents recommend, the military should bring in civilian Arctic adventurers for advice.

“These [people] should be brought into our planning process to provide mentorship, as well as recommendations for new equipment.”

Still, the military is calling the program a success. All 33 candidates graduated and Natural Resources Canada facilities in Resolute were declared suitable for ongoing winter-warfare courses.

Col. Rancourt said that despite the problems the course revealed, the Canadian Forces compare well with other countries that train in Arctic conditions, including the United States and Britain.

“I’m not sure [other nations] are conducting a lot of training above the 75th [parallel],” he said. “It’s one thing to fly above. It’s another thing to be on the ground.

“We are getting there. I’d say compared to those other forces that actually have an active part in the north, we’re probably equal to them, if not better.”

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