Winter combat – a capability that is melting away

The Swedish Armed Forces are in the process of losing a part of their capability to operate in a winter environment – snow, darkness and cold. Can it really be that bad? Yes, replies Magnus Ståhl, head of the Swedish Armed Forces Unit for Cold Weather Operations at  Boden/Arvidsjaur:– Someone who can cope with military action in arctic conditions, has also a good chance of surviving in other extreme conditions. Desert and jungle environments presenting no exception.

The Unit for Cold Weather Operations in action. Photo: Sven-Åke Haglund

You can hardly believe your ears.  
Sweden of all countries, after a string of mild winters, is near to suffering an acute shortage of officers with winter skills.
– It happens that we get students coming here who have never been north of the river Dal. Never mind put on a pair of cross country skis or snow shoes.
Lieutenant Colonel Magnus Ståhl was appointed to position of head of the Armed Forces Unit for Cold Weather Operations as late as November 2007, but he is already hardened to the bitter realities of his position: 
Winter warfare capabilities within the Swedish Armed Forces are no longer what we thought they were.
There are, naturally, a number of causes:

  • Mild and short winters in the southern half of Sweden – with few exceptions – in the last ten years.
  • Early retirement of officers (55 plus) with cold weather competence..
  • Closure of all training regiments north of the Dal River, except the garrisons at Boden and Luleå.
  • No major winter manoeuvres in Nordkalotten (Sweden’s arctic region) since the training exercise "Snöstorm" (snow storm) in 2001 – other than NBG’s final rehearsal during the early winter of 2007.

For the Swedish military the ability to undertake combat operations in sub-arctic conditions has been a badge of honour since the emergency period of military preparedness during WW2, but this ability is fading fast as the Armed Forces start to have problems with getting anything done in the cold and the snow. 
You can hardly believe your ears.

"... time’s running out"
– It’s not too late to save the situation, but time’s starting to run out, says deputy head of the Unit for Cold Weather Operations, Major Peter Hesse.
While the officers of the Unit for Cold Weather Operations present ongoing projects aiming to restore winter warfare capabilities, we leaf through a brochure describing the activities in Boden/Arvidsjaur. It is stated, among other things, that:

"Sweden’s winters, be they winter storms in Österlen on the east coast, chaotic traffic conditions in Stockholm or weeks with temperatures below minus 30 in northern areas, are peculiar to the country and must be mastered."

Pretty self-evident, isn’t it?
– Absolutely, but it requires training, practice, testing. Surviving in the bitter cold is no longer a matter of course for Swedish troops, says Magnus Ståhl.
Magnus Ståhl points to another factor that should also be obvious to all; that new equipment should also be tested in harsh climatic conditions. Preferably before delivery ...
– During the NBG exercises the Galten all-terrain vehicle was used under occasionally harsh cold and snowy conditions, and the tyres became rock hard due to the extreme cold. The vehicle slid about on the road like a hockey puck. The only thing to do was to order snow chains, which immediately lowered marching speed to 30 km/h.
– The norm for our task forces’ winter capabilities, for both personnel and material, is that they are expected to be able to operate in temperatures down to minus 35 and with 70 cm of snow on the ground.

Reserve Officers: a forgotten resource
Ståhl informs us that a part of his job is to make best use of the training competence that remains.
– We go through old lists of officers, those who have the right experience, those who have taken supplementary winter courses, and we try, through our network of contacts, to reach out to those who have shown a special interest.
– Officers in the reserve are often a forgotten resource. We, at the Cold Weather Operations Unit, are happy to hear from anyone reading this article who feels that they have something to offer.

We read on from the same brochure: "Winter conditions exist throughout Sweden. However, the environment in which the capability to conduct winter warfare is really put to the test is that where little or no infrastructure exists and in wilderness. Cold weather capabilities have been proven to be necessary in international missions carried out by the Swedish Armed Forces for example in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and have even been of great help in Africa."

– Training in a winter climate is training in difficult conditions as such: being able to perform designated tasks regardless of the weather. It’s about being able to take care of yourself, retaining a balanced nutritional intake and making sure that you take in enough fluids. It’s about keeping an eye on both yourself and your comrades.
– It’s exactly the same for other extreme conditions. Actually, training in extreme cold is a good preparation for dealing with the direct opposite, extreme heat.

There can be no snow and cold guarantee in winter such as this one, even in Boden, only 40 kilometres from the Luleå coast (even if there is a stark contrast in the depth of snow between here and that in central and southern Sweden). But the Boden garrison also has the old K 4 unit in Arvidsjaur attached to it. A guarantee of snow and cold may be issued with a certain confidence, as regards training located in Arvidsjaur.

– Our operations in Arvidsjaur are a rare boon for cold weather training. We have almost lost count of how many foreign special forces train or have trained in Arvidsjaur, and shouldn’t say much about it either – out of respect for our guests. The Cold Weather Operations Unit, colleagues from the Ranger Battalion in Arvidsjaur, from the rest of the garrison ... offer their assistance in the form of instructors, course planning, material – everything that the units from abroad could wish for.

During our visit to the Unit for Cold Weather Operations our team of reporters from Insats&Försvar (Mission&Defence) form the clear impression that an intensive programme of development of winter combat capabilities is under way, with focus placed on educators and young cadets and officers. 

The Officers programme offers cold weather training in the form of three courses (totalling ten weeks training).. The final stage includes Operation in sub-arctic conditions – in short, units should not just be able to survive, they should also be able to perform their military tasks effectively. This education in winter warfare rounds off with a flourish: Unconventional warfare – missions in mountainous terrain.
Another example of a determination to take back winter warfare capabilities is presented by the course given at the end of last year in Arvidsjaur, aimed at instructors from central and southern Sweden.
– The main goal of the course was to prepare teachers and instructors for the extended cold weather training that all student officers are going to be put through next winter, says the man responsible, Major Ronny Karlsson.

Simple ... but difficult
The Unit for Cold Weather Operations has proposed that every military unit, whether from the army, navy or air force, should send an officer to attend courses such as these in order to maintain winter warfare capabilities, or, even better, to take things a step, or a ski stride, further. Ronny Karlsson:
– On our most recent course we had some really good discussions on the subject of  cold injuries and their frequency, which has unfortunately increased over a number of years. That’s why we put so much focus on a few central issues that are always important, but have an extra special significance in a cold weather environment  – namely the right attitude, combat worthiness and seeing to the wellbeing of the troops. 
– A sound cold weather warfare knowledge base among the officer corps is the best guarantee of the security and wellbeing of our soldiers. It’s as simple, or as difficult, as that.

Text: Sven-Åke Haglund