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US Army attack helicopters are making 150-mile deep strike runs in the Arctic, where pilots grapple with frozen equipment and whiteout landings

U.S. Army AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters assigned to 1st Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment Attack Reconnaissance Battalion (ARB) prepare for flight on Fort Wainwright, Alaska, January 13, 2019.
U.S. Army AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters assigned to 1st Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment Attack Reconnaissance Battalion (ARB) prepare for flight on Fort Wainwright, Alaska, January 13, 2019.U.S. Army photo by CW2 Cameron Roxberry
  • US Army attack helicopter units are pushing themselves and their aircraft in the Arctic.

  • A training in Alaska last month featured drills in a tough environment, including a 150-mile deep strike run.

  • They face a variety of challenges in subzero temperatures, from keeping aircraft ready to whiteout conditions.

Soaring through the Alaskan skies during a training exercise meant to ready them for war in the unforgiving Arctic, US Army attack helicopter pilots battled the brutal conditions and freezing temperatures, challenging themselves and their aircraft.

11th Airborne Division soldiers and troops from international allies and partners trained together, including in exercises to improve helicopter readiness in cold weather conditions, a massive 150-mile helicopter deep strike, and confronting threats and challenges such as enemy air defense and electronic warfare interference.

The sheer scale and effort seen during the training, the third annual Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center's Alaska rotation, speaks to "the progress that we have made as a division to be able to operate in this unique, very challenging environment," Brig. Gen. Thomas E. Burke, the 11th Airborne Division's deputy commanding general for support, told Business Insider during an in-person interview at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

The Army has put renewed emphasis on preparing its soldiers for combat in the Arctic after years of focusing on counterinsurgency ops in the Middle East. Readiness to fight in the region's unpredictable conditions is now a top priority for the Indo-Pacific region, USARPAC commander Gen. Charles Flynn told Business Insider. The region is home to several US rivals and adversaries, to include China, Russia, and North Korea.

Focus on molding soldiers into Arctic warriors for operations in what Maj. Gen. Brian S. Eifler has previously described as "the most challenging environment on the planet," preparing attack helicopter pilots to conduct missions in the extreme cold is also a major priority.

Two Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment, approach a mock evacuation site while participating in a mass-casualty training event at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Nov. 21, 2017.
Two Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment, approach a mock evacuation site while participating in a mass-casualty training event at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Nov. 21, 2017.U.S. Air Force photo by Alejandro Peña

That requires a host of specific and uniquely difficult preparations, like attaching skis to helicopters to prevent them from sinking into snow or other changing landscape conditions. The skis, like ones seen on Blackhawks at Fort Wainwright, are fat and wide, giving the helicopter a larger footing to land on.

Aircraft are also kept warm inside, which helps them stay ready "so that when it's time to do the mission, we can push them out, start them up pretty quickly, and get into the air," Burke said.

But in general, he added, the aircraft are "remarkably able to function in extreme cold weather conditions." But some other pieces of equipment can't endure subzero temperatures that sometimes run as low as -60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Soldiers told BI during observations of the training that there have been cases of hoses cracking and breaking while being unrolled in freezing weather, and they warned of the dangers of working on helicopters or any vehicle without proper protective gear.

Burke told BI that "a lot of those lower 48 solutions," referring to the 48 continental states, "are insufficient up here in the Arctic."

"And so," he said, "we are constantly searching for, what is a better solution. What type of equipment is more resilient in these extreme cold weather conditions?"

Paratroopers from the U.S. Army 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 11th Airborne Division, hold onto static lines inside of a C-130J Super Hercules assigned to the 36th Airlift Squadron, Yokota Air Base, Japan, prior to conducting an airborne assault as part of a joint forcible entry exercise during Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center 24-02 in Alaska, Feb. 8, 2024.

Some of the first exercises during the recent training in Alaska included preparing helicopter pilots to land in snow and how best to do that to avoid "whiteout," which is when the helicopter picks up all the snow, causing it to obscure the pilot's vision and the aircraft's surroundings.

When helicopter pilots land, they have to approach snowy conditions in a certain position and at a relatively fast speed to best avoid whiteout, but pilots still need to be ready to land the aircraft in those conditions, even if they can barely see the ground. Helicopter pilots also have to be able to land in confined spaces, such as a small openings located in dense forests.

Burke said "that takes a level of training and finesse that may not necessarily be trained to the same extent in another unit because the requirements aren't there routinely."

A pilot's strengths in these kinds of situations come from their familiarity with their helicopter's different capabilities. Inside the cockpit, a pilot may be heavily reviewing instrumentation and altitude and air speed indicators while landing to effectively time their descent and avoid the worst effects.

AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters fly over a mountain range near Fort Wainwright, Alaska, on June 3, 2019.
AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters fly over a mountain range near Fort Wainwright, Alaska, on June 3, 2019.Cameron Roxberry/U.S. Army via AP

Towards the end of the recent JPMRC rotation in Alaska, Eifler told reporters about a 150-mile deep strike conducted with attack helicopters.

"We did a 150-mile deep attach with our Apache division while avoiding air defense emitters that we put out," Eifler said. "They had to duck and weave over those 150 miles close to the terrain to get to the target and destroy it and get back safely."

Navigating the battlespace was challenging. It was the first, longest, and biggest deep strike in JPMRC history, Eifler said.

The opportunities, particularly for helicopter pilots, are limitless, Burke told BI. "You can replicate almost any global environment here in Alaska," he said, pointing in particular to mountainous and forested trainings, and adding that pilots get to replicate distances you can't elsewhere.

As soldiers told Business Insider during the training in Alaska, if you can master warfighting in the Arctic, you can wage war anywhere.

Read the original article on Business Insider