The Russian Army’s Arctic Warfare Operational & Tactical Principles By Gilberto Villahermosa

(The text below is excerpted from a longer article that’s included in issue number nine of CounterFact Magazine’s on-paper edition, which is now shipping. That full treatment is titled: “Russia’s Polar Pivot: Putin’s Strategy North of the Arctic Circle.”)

Where the Arctic winter brings almost complete and perpetual darkness, the summer has almost constant daylight. Troops have to be supremely fit, highly trained and well equipped. If they’re not, they suffer accordingly.

In winter hypothermia, dehydration, snow blindness and the possibility of freezing to death are constant threats to troop health and morale. The frozen ground makes digging-in difficult, if not impossible, even in the summer, and explosives often have to be used to blast out fighting positions.

Wind-chill increases the chance of frostbite, and rapid heat transference can easily result in flesh sticking to the metallic parts of weapons and vehicles. The latter require special oils, higher rates of maintenance and an increased rate of fuel consumption for both heating their interiors and transport. Engines have to be turned over regularly or kept running constantly.

Logistics are severely challenged due to both the terrain and the limited number and poor quality of roads. In the absence of tracked and all-terrain vehicles, efficient use must be made of sparse railroads, the most effective means of all-weather land transport in the region.

The bulk of troops and supplies will have to transported by sea, or brought in by air, and that too is an immense challenge in the harsh environment. The polar sea produces unique navigational problems for both ships and aircraft. Magnetic compasses are affected by the proximity of the North Pole. Sextants and chronometers are hampered by mist, fog, ice and overcast conditions caused by atmospheric depressions.

Massive accumulations of ice add to ships’ weight, causing them to consume more fuel. Stability is reduced and the risk of capsizing increased, especially in the face of mountainous waves during the frequent storms.

Attack frontages on land must be greater in the snow because of the difficulty in maneuvering. Reserves must also be larger than normal. Troops may attack on skis or sleds towed behind tanks. On reaching the assault line, troops release tow cables or ropes in order to make a coordinated attack on foot with the tanks. When tracked vehicles are used to tow infantry on skis, tanks can tow two squads and armored personnel carriers (APC) can tow one.

Soldiers are expected to be able to fire their weapons while being towed. In deep snow – defined as 1.5 to 2 times the ground clearance of the vehicles on hand – troops may attack while still mounted on tanks. Pursuit may be conducted by tank-borne infantry if snow or lack of roads preclude use of armored personnel carriers or ski-trained troops are lacking.

In cold weather, attack assembly areas are located closer than usual to the enemy. That lessens the approach distance and therefore minimizes fatigue and cold-exposure time. Second echelon and reserve forces follow closer than normal to reduce commitment time.

Attempts to use adverse weather for defensive advantage must be made. It delays an attacking enemy and denies him shelter, thus prolonging his exposure to the cold. Populated areas and forests provide shelter and should be used as strongpoints. The most critical defensive positions are those located along the most likely avenues of advance: approach roads and areas of light snow.

Snow should be used to conceal strongpoints as much as possible. Parapets of packed snow are to be built around weapons and parked vehicles. Snow may also be packed on the upper portion of combat vehicles to aid in their concealment.

Defensive positions, when not under attack, should be occupied by no more than a third of the total on-hand fighting strength while the remaining troops occupy warming shelters. That permits the majority of troops to be at peak efficiency in the event of an attack.

The limited mobility and extreme cold handicaps efforts in regard to logistics. Stores must therefore be moved as far forward as possible when preparing for an offensive, and stockpiling must continually take place while on the defense. Proper road maintenance, for both the offense and defense, is crucial.

Because deep snow greatly reduces the bursting radius of artillery projectiles, the number of rounds required for target coverage increases. At the same time, the rate of fire decreases due to the additional preparation time needed for ammunition and weapon maintenance. Range estimation against a snowy background makes fire adjustment more difficult.

In short, at all levels, warfare in the Arctic is much more difficult than conflict under normal conditions, and requires specially trained troops and specialized equipment.

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