A Guide to Arctic Warfare

1.0. What is Arctic Warfare?

Arctic warfare encompasses land and maritime military operations in extreme snow, ice, and cold conditions. Often applied synonymously with winter warfare, Arctic Warfare has specific characteristics and unique properties. Even though interlinked with winter warfare, Arctic warfare stands out as operations conducted in an explicit environment of extreme temperatures. In contrast, winter warfare includes different operational environments depending on temperatures and geographic location, i.e., any fairly snow-rich country during winter. Highlighting the difference is essential because of the requirements and following measures that a war-waging actor in Arctic climates needs to account and prepare for.

Freezing temperatures, extreme weather, and nature’s brutality will remind any actor waging war in Arctic climates of its harsh conditions. Everything takes time. To conceal presence, maintain crucial equipment slowly deteriorating and sustain combat readiness. Moreover, being surrounded by deep snow will inevitably constitute a logistical nightmare. Limited or non-existent transport routes and a landscape so white that any contours are diminishing put improvisation and creativity to the test. These qualities are vital to efficiently mastering the art of Arctic warfare and countering nature’s wrath.

Cold to frigid climate zones can be supremely challenging to humans and their equipment. Even the most minor mistakes can and will have fatal consequences. As the icy temperatures constitute a life-threatening condition, anyone waging Arctic warfare must first survive the third enemy, i.e., nature. Moreover, Arctic climates’ particularities hinder regular conventional war efficiency. Vehicles burn extraordinary amounts of fuel, weapons jam, and infantry personnel get frostbite or die from hypothermia. Thus, warfighting entities often employ small units of specially trained soldiers to meet these challenges. They often rely on skis or snowmobiles and move camouflaged across the white landscape to complete their objectives and allow for more significant troop movements to proceed.

New technologies are increasingly enhancing battlefield performance in modern warfare theatre. However, conventional masses of soldiers lack adequate training, and many assumptions derived from technical superiority easily overshadow basic needs among troops. The Arctic climate does not allow such flaws. An inability to observe the Arctic battlefield’s differential terrain and specific properties blurs the requirements to feed, clothe, shelter, move, and manoeuvre an army operating in an Arctic climate. Such negligence will inevitably bring fatal consequences. But for the attentive, a game-changing advantage also lies, allowing inferior actors to hurt and counter superior entities severely. Training, clothing, and equipment adapted explicitly to Arctic warfare, accompanied by proper tactical concepts, allow the inferior to make nature its ally.

Swedish Army Rangers during an exercise in Northern Sweden. Image: Swedish Armed Forces.

2.0. The properties of the Arctic battlefield

The properties inherent in the Arctic battlefield raise demands on proper measures to feed, clothe, shelter, move, and manoeuvre an army operating in an Arctic climate. Any successful military operation will depend on specialised adaptations when temperatures drop below 0. Adaptations to efficiently manoeuvre in unforgiving weather and terrain conditions put one factor in focus: time. Any activity in such a climate will be more time-consuming, affecting tactics, equipment and materiel, vulnerabilities towards nature-inflicted injuries, and morale.

2.1. The weather

The weather primarily encompasses temperatures. Low temperatures raise different demands on an actor’s ability to operate on the battlefield, requiring specific skill sets and training. The US Army illustrates these conditions using different categories of coldness ranging from Wet cold to Hazardous cold [source]. As the effects of any temperature on humans are affected by wind, this is not an exhaustive list. However, it serves as an illustrative example of the challenges accompanied by lowered temperatures.

In the dry Arctic climate, Dry cold (-7°Cto-20°C) is a good starting point to understand the challenges of weather conditions. Proper equipment, training, and leadership are vital for any operation’s success. However, the low humidity and frozen ground make surviving with absent thaw and severe freezing easier. Intense cold (-20°Cto-32°C) degrades the operational quality as attention to detail diminishes when the body and mind are subject to threatening low temperatures. As a result, simple tasks take longer and more effort than in warmer weather, partly due to dexterity loss from bulky clothing.

In Extreme cold (-32°C to -40°C), weapons, vehicles, munitions, and other equipment fail due to the low temperatures. The challenge of survival becomes paramount in these conditions. Finally, Hazardous cold (-40°C) encompasses extremely low temperatures, which demands extensive training before operating in these environments. Apart from challenging temperatures, weather phenomena unique to the Arctic battlefield can include military operations [source]. These include:

  • Ice fog – Occurs at temperatures below -30°C. Heat sources such as firing weapons, running vehicles, or field kitchens create heat and ice fog. The mist then leaves a noticeable lasting signature miles away. Again, movement and concealment are vital factors. 
  • Blizzard – Include considerable falling and blowing of snow masses from sustained winds. Blizzards may reduce visibility by hundreds of metres. 
  • Whiteout – Occurs when sunlight is diffused through clouds onto unbroken snow surfaces. The result is an inability to distinguish irregularities in terrain as the horizon effectively disappears. 
  • Gray-out – Occurs during twilight when the sun is close to the horizon. Like a whiteout, the result is a loss of depth perception as the surroundings are filled with an overall greyness. 
  • Temperature inversion – Large temperature differences depending on increased elevation. Temperature differences can be as much as 20 degrees on hills or mountain sides.
  • Looming – An optical illusion which aggravates range estimation as objects appear closer and taller than they are.
    Chinook winds – warm winds that produce thaws in cold regions that usually do not see thaw before Summer. Chinook winds may make roads and trails impassable and frozen water routes unreliable.

2.2. The Terrain

Apart from the weather, the properties of the Arctic battlefield are primarily affected by its specific terrains. For example, cold regions’ topography is naturally made up of snow. Still, it also encompasses other factors such as boreal forests, tundra, permafrost, and overflow ice.

2.2.1. The snow

The snow, making up for large parts of the arctic battlefield terrain, is a persistent phenomenon in the high Arctic. However, different types of snow make up for various challenges and opportunities on the battlefield. A snow cover may be deep or shallow. The snow itself may be dense and compact or light and incohesive. For military purposes, observations on depth and the snow’s capacity to support over-snow vehicles and skis are an integral part of any operation. Snow may be distinguished by grain size, density, hardness, stratification, crusts, internal hoarfrost, and temperature of a layer of natural snow [source].

To illustrate, the US Army categorises snow as light, moderate, or heavy [source]. Each classification affects visibility and ground movement due to accumulation:

  • Light snow – visibility is equal to or greater than 5/8 mile (or 1,000 metres) in falling snow. A trace of one inch (2.5 centimetres) per hour accumulates.
  • Moderate snow – visibility is 5/16 mile to half a statute mile (or 500–900 metres) in falling snow. One to three inches (2.5 to 7.6 centimetres) per hour accumulates.
  • Heavy snow – visibility is cut to less than 1⁄4 statute miles (or 400 metres) in falling snow. Three or more inches per hour accumulate.

2.2.2 Boreal forests

Boreal forests are the northernmost area where trees can exist. They consist of vast areas where evergreen spruce and firs are the dominant plant life. The tree line is generally low, and transitions to completely treeless areas occur at elevations around 600 metres.

2.2.3. Tundra

Low temperatures and a short growing season hinder tree growth and result in tundra. The tundra terrain is a flat landscape with limited drainage due to the permanently frozen ground.

2.2.4. Permafrost

Permafrost occurs when the temperatures are below 0° C for 2 or more years. Frozen ground increases demands on military operations as any fighting position without engineer support must be built above ground.

2.2.5 Overflow ice

Overflow ice occurs in temperatures below 0° C when a layer of ice ruptures and flows up through the surface as water underneath it is under pressure. Despite the extreme cold, overflow ice can occur repeatedly and form layer upon layer. As a result, it is difficult to detect and creates a significant obstacle along roadways.

3.0. Historical battles

An inability to tackle the arctic challenges has historically been a decisive factor in failed campaigns. Examples are to be found in the French invasion of Russia in 1812, the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939, and the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II. Notably, the climate hinders any strategic offensive capability to materialise in practice. But there are exceptions, most notably the march across the Belts in 1658, ending in a decisive victory for the Swedish army against its Danish opponent in the Second Northern War.

3.1. Making nature your ally: The march across the Belts

During the wars between Sweden and Denmark in the 16th and 17th centuries, Denmark’s prime defence from invasion was its islands. In January 1658, however, large amounts of Danish waters froze, offering the Swedish king a bold opportunity. On January 30th, Charles X Gustav of Sweden led his army from Jutland across the Little Belt to Funen. After occupying Funen and worried about the risk of being isolated on the island, the king proceeded on February 5th. Continuing to Lolland, Falster and Zealand, the Swedish army ended up 22 kilometres from Copenhagen on February 15th, forcing an unconditional surrender by the Danes. The resulting treaty of Roskilde gave Sweden large parts of its contemporary territory: Scania, Blekinge, Halland, and Bohuslän [source].

Swedish King Charles X during the march across the belts. Painting by Johann Philip Lemke.

3.2. The scorched earth: France’s invasion of Russia

When Napoleon Bonaparte began his invasion of Tsar Alexander’s Russia in 1812, he initially met little resistance. He quickly led his army into enemy territory and then struggled towards Moscow. After a series of costly battles and a widespread typhus epidemic, Bonaparte finally reached the city. To find it abandoned. During the next few days, Moscow was set on fire, with four-fifths of the town destroyed.

Isolated and lacking adequate logistics due to hostile operations targeting army supplies, the French army awaited a Russian capitulation which never came. Instead, the French were forced to retreat and began their long journey in October 1812.

Supplying the military became impossible as Russian light cavalry constantly struck and broke up isolated French units. The partisan tactics further increased the suffering of French troops dying of starvation and the unforgiving cold. Finally back on French territory after a 2 month’s march, only 50,000 of the initial 650,000 soldiers were still standing [source].

Napoleon’s retreat. Painting by Adolph Northen.

3.3. Facing the Finnish Sisu: The Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland

When the Soviet Union began its invasion of Finland on November 30th, 1939, Soviet troops took Finnish commanders by surprise due to its stretched frontline and massive troops. However, the large quantities of soldiers made up for a golden opportunity when the Finns started to organise their defence. Using guerilla tactics, i.e., the advantages of speed and economy of force, Finnish troops isolated small portions of numerically superior Soviet forces. As a result, the Soviets divided into smaller fractions; the Finns could attack them individually in coordinated small-unit operations. Compared to the Soviets, initially dressed in their ordinary khaki uniforms, making them highly visible in the white landscape, Finnish ski troops dressed in white snow capes made them almost invisible.

In early January 1940, the Soviet invaders were completely stuck along the Eastern front. However, on February 1st, the red army conducted a new offensive and eventually managed to break the Finnish defence, leading to the peace agreements on March 7th. Even though the Finns could not completely resist the Soviet invaders, they surely managed to put up a good fight and substantially increase the cost for the Soviet Union in what initially was thought of as a quick invasion [source].

Finnish ski troops during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland 1939.

3.4. Preparing for failure: Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union

On June 22nd, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union with 4,5 million troops along a 2,900km long frontline. However, what was assumed to be a quick and efficient military operation soon became a stalemate when the harsh Soviet winter arrived. The cold weather and rugged terrain gave the German army no choice but to wait out the winter in a frozen wasteland. The failure soon came to turn the tide of German success in the war and can be derived from a combination of factors.

Even though initially prepared, German strategists overestimated the Soviet infrastructure and its poor road network. Hence, Germany’s logistical challenges in supplying its troops became an impossible task, the equipment prepared for winter conditions could not be moved to the frontlines. As a result, soldiers lacked winter clothing when temperatures dropped below −40 °C. Furthermore, the German tanks were largely inefficient due to their narrow tracks, lack of antifreeze, and fuel shortages. Also, the horses proved to cope very badly with the winter landscape. Compared to the wide tracks of the Soviet T-34 tanks and their small horses adapted to winter climate, German mobility was severely limited. Moreover, the German equipment, primarily their weapons, malfunctioned as the temperatures dropped.

A combination of these factors led to the Soviet counteroffensive in December 1941. Using Siberian troops trained for harsh Arctic warfare, the Germans were efficiently pushed back into the beginning of the end of German military superiority [source].

German troops crossing the Soviet border in Summer 1941. Note the light uniforms. Image: Johannes Hähle.

4.0. TTPs of Arctic Warfare

4.1. Survival

4.1.1 Shelter

Organising and building an adequate shelter is critical for survival in freezing weather. Hence, efficient troops need to be inventive. Using whatever materials are accessible, such as branches, twigs, and cords, above-snow shelters will let troops live to fight another day. Apart from its structure, it is imperative to find the right balance of enough space to protect troops and their equipment but to be small enough to retain heat.

When temperatures drop below 0° C, the snow will change its characteristics and become so powdery that it cannot be compressed enough to build below-snow shelters or igloos. Hence, innovative and improvising skills allow well-trained units to find ways to protect themselves. And again, adequate training is essential [source].

4.1.2. Navigation

During normal conditions, prominent terrain features are primarily used to navigate the landscape. However, when everything looks the same and operating units face the unique properties of the Arctic battlefield mentioned above, no such tools are available. Hence, soldiers use the number of steps taken and their stride length to calculate their travelled distance. Using compasses is a standard tool, but with the awareness of its different behaviour up north. For example, the compass’s magnetic deviation from pointing north is particularly noticeable in the high-up Arctic regions [source].

4.1.3. Ice plunge

To efficiently move across the Arctic landscape, military units need to be able to identify and analyse the characteristics of the ice on frozen lakes and rivers. However, even with adequate training, the flat landscape does sometimes not allow one to see the ground under the snow. Hence, sufficient techniques are vital to evade an accident falling through the ice. To use ski poles or other available equipment to get out of the freezing water, to properly dry the wet clothes and to retain heat using simple tools such as a magnesium bar are crucial skill sets [source].

4.2. Medicine

When the body is exposed to the extremes of the cold Arctic climate, mainly three medical issues are prevalent. These are hypothermia, trench foot, and frostbite [source].

Hypothermia – occurs when the body temperature drops below 35 °C. Symptoms ranging from mild to severe conditions can include shivering, mental confusion, or heart-stopping. Appropriate treatment ranges from increasing warmth to extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Trench foot – occurs by prolonged exposure of the feet to cold and unsanitary conditions. Such exposure causes deterioration and morbidity of the flesh. As a result of decreased blood supply, tissue death sets in with the potential of swelling, blisters, and infections. Amputation may be required if left untreated.

Frostbite – occurs by freezing or exposure to high winds as the body’s protection shunts blood away from the extremities. Frostbite may result in severely low blood flow to some parts of the body following the death of skin tissue and potential death.

4.3. Offence

The Arctic battlefield limits the usual advantages of speed, flexibility, and surprise. Hence, it is difficult for larger units to conduct hasty attacks targeting fortified positions. Deliberate planning is critical to coordinate fire support, route selection, command, control, and logistics. Moreover, as lowered temperatures limit mobility, terrain-oriented objectives are often more in offensive operations targeting support facilities to inflict harm on an opponent’s sustainability [source].

4.3.1. Planning Offensive Operations

When planning and conducting offensive operations, commanders must analyse the terrain to determine how the enemy will organise its defensive positions and how the landscape might contribute to potential counterattacks. Due to mobility restrictions, the concentration of forces may prove problematic in snow-covered terrain. Moreover, the limited time of daylight limits the opportunities for surprise. Therefore, efficiently operating with concealed movement and little to no visibility may be a key factor for an operation’s success. Such requirements highlight the importance of small unit operations [source].

4.3.2. Raid and Ambush

The restrictive terrain in the Arctic battlefield may offer increased opportunities to conduct raids and ambushes. Being able to take advantage of limited visibility and terrain that is impassable is a powerful capability. Hence, specially trained units may be used to efficiently manoeuvre the terrain and inflict substantial harm on an unprepared opponent [source].

4.3.3. Exploitation and Pursuit

In cold environments, exploitation and pursuit operations must be conducted discriminately. Restrictions imposed by terrain and weather conditions must be compensated for, highlighting the efficiency of small-unit operations. Hence, it is paramount that an attacker is careful to prevent overextending attacking forces and their supporting logistics. To efficiently reach and strike against enemy positions in cold environments may have a combined effect of physical force and the force of nature itself [source].

A US Navy Seal during an exercise in the Arctic.

4.4. Defence

Defence operations aim to increase the conditions to regain the initiative. Hence, the immediate objective is to deny the enemy access to critical terrains crucial for continued operations. Hence, it is vital to utilise the properties of the landscape to enjoy cover, concealment, and camouflage. Therefore, the defender must know the terrain, fortify positions, and prepare routes that allow for mobility [source].

Organising efficient fighting positions in snow requires specific skill sets that any commander operating in frigid environments must possess. Further on, as the restrictive terrain interferes with and canalises an opponent’s movements, it may serve as a primary advantage if utilised correctly. Moreover, as illustrated above, a crucial factor in extreme cold is the ability to maintain and increase sustainability. Finally, as the climate constitutes a third enemy, supplies must be dispersed and redundant, favourably located on high ground with good observation opportunities [source]. 

Defensive operations can be divided into 2 main categories: mobile defence and area defence.

4.4.1. Mobile Defence

Mobile defences require enough depth to allow an opponent to advance into a position exposed to counterattack. Defence operations then target the opponent’s support functions and force it to extend into a position of lost momentum before striking units cut off from their command and control. Such operations heavily rely on developing and maintaining a mobility advantage. Hence, it is crucial to identify and understand nature’s potential opportunities [source].

4.4.2. Area Defence

Area defence involves absorbing an opponent into interlocking, mutually supporting positions and retaining terrain. The mobility restrictions in the Arctic terrain often favour area defence operations. The terrain feature canalises the opponent’s movements from static defensive positions. The main objective for any commander going this way is to prevent the enemy from concentrating overwhelming combat power against isolated sections of the defence perimeter [source].

4.5. Clothing

As the harsh Arctic climate requires a significant degree of adaptability from each operating unit, this reflects the choice of clothing. Any actor aspiring to successfully conduct any Arctic warfare operation must emphasise adequate clothing. Lacking winter clothing among personnel has repeatedly been disastrous throughout history.

A necessary condition for operating efficiently in any environment is the individual’s ability to maintain a normal body temperature. In freezing temperatures, the body will attempt to adjust its temperature depending on external conditions. Hence, proper clothing is not enough but the knowledge of correctly applying the assigned clothing. Balancing heat and moisture is thus crucial knowledge which, of course, is affected by the materials and design of the clothing system itself [source].

4.5.1. Balancing body temperature

The heat flow from or to the body occurs at variable rates. When operating in freezing temperatures, it is crucial to balance the inflow to the outflow, as the body will rapidly use up the heat stored in its tissues when the loss exceeds production. Excessive heat loss is the common cause of shivering, which produces heat. However, although shivering will slow the dropping body temperature, adding proper clothing will be the most reliable method of balancing the body’s temperature. On the other hand, excessive clothing must obviously be removed when the body is overheating.

4.5.2. Balancing moisture

The body is in a continuous process of secretion of fluids. As a result, excessive body heat increases moisture which may have troubling effects. In addition, the moisture will freeze when operating in freezing temperatures, which calls for clothing adjustment. To prevent excessive overheating, removing clothing is crucial, and when heat loss is prevalent, adding extra layers will be essential.

An organised system between unit members is desirable for periodic checks and prevention of injuries in specifically exposed areas such as the face.

4.5.3. Design and use

Certain principles are involved in the design of adequate cold-weather clothing to control heat loss from the body, facilitate moisture loss, and protect the body.

Very simplified, when preparing for any operation in Arctic climates, the COLD Clothing guidelines apply. These are:

  • Keep it Clean
  • Avoid Overheating
  • Wear clothes Loose and layered
  • Keep clothing Dry

Insulating materials are any materials that resist the flow of heat. Hence, the best insulators are those materials capable of preserving quantities of motionless air between the body and the clothing. Among natural materials, wool is an example of a good insulator.


When the body is overheating, moisture reduces insulating capabilities. Hence, the design of desirable clothing must provide adjustable ventilation opportunities. Being able to allow for the circulation of fresh air is a crucial balancing property of any Cold weather clothing system.

The layer principle

The purpose of the layer principle is to enhance the ability to balance the body’s temperature and moisture and maintain operational efficiency. The advantages of the layer principle are many, but to name a few:

  • Several layers of medium-weight clothing will provide more warmth than one heavy garment as thick as the combined layers. The air trapped between the layers of clothing will be warmed by the body’s heat and serves as a force multiplier.
  • The different layers’ designs provide additional properties. When properly combined, the inner and the outer garments enable capabilities that a single material cannot offer. Moreover, such combinations permit rapid adjustment, crucial mobility and balancing opportunities.

Most armed forces operating in the Arctic environment have a specific system used to maintain operational capabilities in freezing temperatures. Further on, particular units may be mandated to select clothing specific to their requirements, such as specific layers provided by Taiga or Arc’teryx LEAF. Even though not exclusively developed for the Arctic environment, the Generation III of the US Extended Cold Weather Clothing System (ECWCS) is a good illustrative example of a layered system integrated into a military organisation operating in Arctic environments.

4.5.4. The ECWCS

The Generation III system, called the Extended Climate Warfighter Clothing System, is built for insulation, ventilation, and layering [source; source]. Generation III is the most sophisticated version of the system. It stands out for its lightweight and slim design compared to its precursors. The system includes twelve garments integrated into 7 layers. Drawing from the United States Army Alaska (USARAK) Pamphlet 600-2, a detailed description of each layer is provided below.

  • Layer 1: The base layer next to the skin consists of a 100% polyester undershirt, drawers, and a balaclava. The layer is designed to keep the skin dry and to transfer moisture from the skin to the outside layers.
  • Layer 2: Layer 2 is a 93% polyester and 7% spandex combination base of shirt and drawers. The layer may be applied directly to the skin or over layer 1 for added insulation and moisture transfer.
  • Layer 3: The 3rd layer is a Polartec Thermal Pro fleece jacket. The layer is never used as an outer garment since the material does not block wind or rain. However, it is an excellent insulator combined with inner and outer layers.
  • Layer 4: The 4th layer is a 98% nylon and 2% spandex wind jacket. Its primary protection is to protect from wind and water. It does not provide any protection from external temperature.
  • Layer 5: Layer 5 consists of a Soft Shell Cold Weather Jacket and Trousers made on a water-resistant nylon/spandex mix. Compared to the Generation I & II systems, this layer is less bulky than before.
  • Layer 6: Layer 6 consists of GORE-TEX Paclite pants and a jacket. The material offers excellent weather protection and balancing capabilities.
  • Layer 7: The 7th layer is a Primaloft Extreme Cold Weather Parka and Trousers. This layer is worn in extremely cold conditions, i.e. Arctic warfare environments. Maximum insulation and weather protection are offered when worn with a suitable combination of the other layers.
Generation III ECWCS levels 7 (left) and 5 (right). Image: Program Executive Office Soldier. License: CC BY 2.0.

4.5.5. Footgear: Some basic principles

  • Foot hygiene: A primary rule is to maintain good foot hygiene. When the feet get wet, the socks must be changed. Failing to do so will harm the ability to move and operate in any Arctic environment. Furthermore, footgear should be kept clean. When socks get dirty, they should be changed. Moreover, socks and feet should be washed whenever possible.
  • The loose and layer principle: The loose and layer principle also applies when choosing proper footgear. The boot and a suitable combination of socks make up the layers. It is crucial to avoid lacing footgear too tightly or to use too many socks as blood circulation will be restricted. The loose principle also applies to any binding if boots are designed to be attached to snow equipment. If fixed too tight the boot, or worse, the feet will be harmed.

4.6. Camouflage

“When we see […] the alpine ptarmigan white in winter, the red-grouse the colour of heather, […] we must believe that these tints are of service to these birds and insects in preserving them from danger.” – Charles Darwin in Origin of Species

The historical examples above illustrate that the Arctic battlefield’s white landscape offers excellent camouflage and concealment opportunities. Even though not standard equipment, some military units wear a white transition of its traditional green camouflage pattern. Below are examples of the snow camouflage employed by some of the Arctic states:

  • Finland – Mainly use their M05 Snow Camouflage [source].
  • Norway – Mainly uses an all-white snowsuit first developed during World War II [source].
  • Sweden – Mainly use their all-white snowsuit “Snödräkt 90” [source].
  • Russia – Use different types of snow camouflage. The most common is their Edinaya Maskirovochnaya rascvetka (EMR) pattern [source].
  • The US – Similar to Russia, the US uses different types of snow camouflage. The Marine Corps has developed its own pattern, called Disruptive Overwhite [source].
Swedish soldiers during an exercise in Northern Sweden. Note the white combat dress. Image: Swedish Armed Forces

4.7. Maintenance of Equipment and Materiel

Cold temperatures will affect equipment and material maintenance, functioning, and employment. Hence, it is crucial to handle these with great care and know-how low temperatures change the conditions. Equipment and materiel are only as good as their maintenance which has been clearly demonstrated above. Drawing from the Norwegian Armed Forces’ Centre of Excellence – Cold Weather Operations [source], this will be further dived into in more detail below.

Cold temperatures will affect equipment and material maintenance, functioning, and employment. Hence, it is crucial to handle these with great care and know how low temperatures change the conditions. Equipment and materiel are only as good as their maintenance which has been clearly demonstrated above. Drawing from the Norwegian Armed Forces’ Centre of Excellence – Cold Weather Operations [source], this will be further dived into in more detail below.

Jegertroppen operator during winter warfare training
Jegertroppen operator during winter warfare training.

4.7.1 Skis

Correct use and maintenance of skis is crucial for preserving their properties and efficiency. Taking care of the significant transportation asset results in a greater understanding of its usability and hence a greater combat capability. The same goes for additional equipment such as snow poles, snowshoes, pulkas, and climbing skins.

4.7.2 Stoves

A stove or cooking device is often mandatory to maintain combat capability in the Arctic battlefield. The design and purpose of stoves vary, but general areas of use are melting snow, preparation of food, and heat source in a bivouac. The various types of stoves can be divided into 2 main groups depending on construction and purpose. These are:

Stoves with tanks and burner heads in an integral unit, such as the Optimus 111, Optimus Hiker and Coleman. These cooking devices use liquid fuel, produce a high output, and are relatively easy to use. However, they require pre-heating with either methylated spirit or priming paste.

Stoves with separate burner heads and tanks, such as the Primus Omnifuel, MSR Dragonfly/XGK, Soto Muka and Optimus Nova. These cooking devices are often designated multi-fuel stoves as they are designed to run on most types of liquid fuel, and some of the models will also run on gas. They produce a high to very high output, depending on the type of fuel being used. These are versatile and operationally safe cooking devices that work well in all conditions. However, they are often slightly more challenging to use than gas stoves. These stoves also require pre-heating. 

4.7.3 Radio Equipment

Functioning communication is often a critical resource to conduct military operations and combat. Cold climates place additional requirements on the maintenance and use of radio equipment. Moisture combined with low temperatures affects the battery life of any radio device. Wherever possible, efforts should be made to prevent water, snow or ice from penetrating connections and terminals by protecting the equipment from the effects of moisture and frost.

Finnish troops loading up during an exercise. Note the snow camouflage and radio equipment. Image: NATO.

4.7.4. Weapons and Munitions

As a weapon is one of the soldier’s most important instruments, it is crucial to keep its functionality. As illustrated above, lacking the maintenance of weaponry will have severe consequences. Even though most armed forces use countless different weapons systems, there are some standard features of maintenance that most often apply. To understand these, it is crucial to know how cold weather affects weapons.

How cold weather affects weapons
  • Snow and water will penetrate the weapon and freeze to ice.
  • Extremely low temperatures will cause lubricants to harden and impede the functioning of the weapon.
  • Snow and ice on cartridges and magazines will result in less reliable feed and reduced function.
  • Rapid temperature variations, e.g. entering or leaving tents or vehicles, cause condensation to form, which then freezes to ice.
  • At low temperatures, plastic and metal are more likely to crack.
  • Low temperatures cause the metal to contract, producing more significant wear to weapon components such as barrels.
Maintenance of weapons in cold weather
  • The weapon must be kept as much as possible from ice and snow. A small nylon brush is still a good tool for this task.
  • Cover any weapons that are not in use, for example, unit weapons on vehicles.
  • Function-test the weapon at regular intervals to ensure that the cocking handle and bolt move freely.
  • Use a muzzle cap to prevent snow and ice from penetrating the barrel.
  • Try to avoid rapid temperature fluctuations, for example resulting from entering or leaving tents, vehicles or buildings. Increasing temperatures can cause condensation, which can later freeze inside the mechanism.
  • Use sufficient oil on the weapon’s moving parts.
  • Try to protect the barrel from snow and ice, especially when it is hot.
  • Always close the dust cover if the weapon is fitted with one, even during short intervals between shots.
  • Avoid laying your weapon down directly in the snow.
  • Spirits can be used to defrost frozen weapon components, but remember to apply oil afterwards as spirits erode the browning on the weapon.
  • Do NOT use methylated spirits in weapon oil during the winter, as this will deteriorate the oil’s properties and thus damage the weapon.

Vehicles – When maintaining vehicles in the Arctic battlefield, 2 general rules mainly apply regardless of type. First, fluids expand once the vehicle warms up. Therefore, volumes must be measured once the vehicle is warm. Second, water that freezes on caterpillar tracks, wheel arches, or other moving parts can prevent these from working. The result may be that ice prevents the vehicle from moving. Illustrative examples are found in the main explanations of failed military campaigns described above.

A Leopard 2 during exercise in Northern Sweden. Image: Swedish Armed Forces.

The Arctic Region: The next big theatre of war?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is challenging the stability in Europe and beyond. Recently, NATO as well as global actors have expressed an increased interest in the Arctic region. As climate change is enabling external presence, it is likely that tensions among global actors in the region will increase in the near future. Hence, the capabilities and knowledge to operate in Arctic environments and the skills to master the art of Arctic warfare will be of great value for any security-seeking actor in the international area. Most topical are the ongoing Swedish and Finnish NATO membership applications.

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