There is no end of written and visual content to digest on the topic of cold-weather warfare. Winter warfare, polar warfare, or whatever you’re preferred term may be, the domain of cold weather presents unique challenges for any military force. Land warfare in cold weather often takes centerstage in the literature on this topic, with naval concerns following in a close second. Arctic air power and cold weather, however, is an under explored intersection.
As polar icecaps melt and the high north becomes ever warmer, major military powers are moving into the arctic and opening new theaters of operation which were previously considered uninhabitable or even irrelevant. The Russian Federation recently re-activated a large number of Arctic installations across its gigantic northern coastline. In other words, the Russians are investing in the future of their own arctic air power.
Meanwhile, the Chinese are displaying an increased interest in Russia’s northern energy infrastructure, and have recently become the chief financier of Russian LNG projects in the Arctic. Russia is the owner of the world’s largest icebreaker. China is rapidly developing its own icebreaker fleet and has invested in an extensive submarine fleet [source]. The Pentagon believes that Chinese submarines could utilize the Arctic sea lanes to act as a deterrent against a nuclear strike once the necessary technical obstacles are addressed [source].
The United States and it’s NATO allies are increasingly aware of a gap between the geo-strategic realities of the Arctic and the arrayed capabilities currently available. Arctic air power will become and indispensable feature of any major military powers combat doctrine. It is possible that there will be highly specialized arctic aircraft in the long term future as global powers continue to exploit the region of commercial gain.
1. So What?:
There is no telling how the Arctic geography will evolve in the next 10 to 15 years or so. Climate models are an ever evolving science and, as the experience of the Trump administration demonstrated, subject to domestic political catfights. Even so, it is largely evident that the Arctic will be far more accessible than before. Policy planners in both the West and the East will need to seriously consider the challenges associated with operating an effective military machine in polar environments. As a significant portion of global commerce passes through these geographies, major military powers will inevitably seek to project power and protection to commercial assets traversing new polar waterways.
2. Challenges and Dangers of Cold Weather Air Operations:
The story of combat in cold weather is an ancient story as much as it is a story fraught with failure, hardship and exceptional stories of human endurance. The story of military aviation in cold weather, however, is still comparatively in its early chapters. In order to illuminate the challenges posed by the biting cold to aircraft, it is helpful to focus on several individual stories, a series of vignettes of sort, about the dangers posed by polar conditions to flying machines.
2.1 Air Florida Flight 90
In January or 1982, the Washington DC area was beset by a great snowstorm which left flights delayed or canceled and a healthy layer of snow across the America’s national monuments. Then Washington National Airport (now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) briefly shut down following heavy snowfall which left over a foot of snow on the tarmac. As the day progressed, the snowfall began to taper off and the airport was able to resume flight operations, albeit under marginal conditions [source].
Still sat at the gate, Air Florida Flight 90 had already been delayed by over an hour and a half. Attempts to depart from the gate were frustrated by the level of ice which accumulated on the ground, preventing the pushback vehicles from gaining enough traction on the asphalt. The aircraft, a Boeing 737-222, finally managed to queue up behind other aircraft awaiting departure. The aircraft was de-iced prior to taxiing with a mixture of hot water and monopropylene glycol [source].
As the 737 began it’s roll down the runway, the first officer, Roger A. Pettit, became concerned that the instrument readings did not reflect the external conditions visible outside the aircraft. He vocalized these concerns to the Captain, Larry M. Wheaton. With only a matter of seconds before disaster, Wheaton ignored the concerns of his colleague and powered down the runway. The following is an excerpt from the cockpit voice recorder (CVR):
15:59:51 Wheaton: It’s spooled. Really cold here, real cold.
15:59:58 Pettit: God, look at that thing. That don’t seem right, does it? Ah, that’s not right.
16:00:09 Wheaton: Yes it is, there’s eighty.
16:00:10 Pettit: Naw, I don’t think that’s right. Ah, maybe it is.
16:00:21 Wheaton: Hundred and twenty.
16:00:23 Pettit: I don’t know.
(Note: A stick shaker is a device which vibrates the control stick of an aircraft to warn the pilot that an aerodynamic stall is imminent)
16:00:39 [SOUND OF STICKSHAKER STARTS AND CONTINUES UNTIL IMPACT]
16:00:41 TWR: Palm 90 contact departure control.
16:00:45 Wheaton: Forward, forward, easy. We only want five hundred.
16:00:48 Wheaton: Come on forward….forward, just barely climb.
16:00:59 Pettit: Stalling, we’re falling!
16:01:00 Pettit: Larry, we’re going down, Larry….
16:01:01 Wheaton: I know!
16:01:01 [SOUND OF IMPACT]
The 737 just managed to attain an altitude of 107 meters. The aircraft’s tail struck the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River, sheering across vehicles and killing 4 while injuring 4 more. The aircraft plunged into the icy filled waters of the river, killing the cabin crew instantly, 2 additional crew members, and 70 total passengers. According to forensic reports, 19 passages survived the impact, but drowned in the river, as they were unable to escape the fuselage of the aircraft. 6 people managed to escape the aircraft and swim to safety, one of whom later drowned or expired from hypothermia while awaiting rescue from shore crews [source].
5 total people managed to survive the ordeal. The survivors were rescued in one of the most iconic, if not most daring helicopter rescue operations in history. A US Park Police Bell 206 known as Eagle 1, piloted by Donald W. Usher and Melvin E. Windsor exposed themselves to great personal risk by airlifting the survivors from the water and dragging them to shore.
At one point, the Bell 206 was operating so close to the water that the skids were briefly submerged. Kelly Duncan, the only member of the cabin crew to survive the impact, gave the last lifejacket to a passenger floating besides her. The stretch of bridge where Flight 90 crashed is now named the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge, after the passenger who repeatedly passed the helicopter lifeline to his fellow survivors, thereby dooming himself to drowning [source].
The investigation into the causes of the crash uncovered a variety of questionable choices. The cause of the accident was declared pilot error by the NTSB. Yet for our purposes, we will examine the the role the winter weather played in bringing down Air Florida Flight 90. First and foremost, as illustrated by the CVR transcript, at least on pilot recognized that there was a problem well over 30 seconds before take off.
Had the Captain listened to the first officer, this would have provided ample time to abort the take off. Arrogance, in other words, heavily contributed to the deaths of over 70 people. Both of the pilots had little to no experience flying in cold weather and both did not appreciate how the sequence of actions taken prior to take off placed them and their passengers in enormous danger.
- Prior to departing the gate, the pilots failed to activate the 737’s deicing system, despite the outside temperature falling below freezing. As a result, critical sensors aboard the aircraft froze and resulted in inaccurate and misleading readings on the instrumentation [source].
- Specifically, this resulted in false engine pressure ratio (EPR) thrust readings. In other words, the aircraft was underpowered and the Captain was unaware of this [source].
- The pilots then deliberately positioned the 737 behind a waiting DC-9. The pilots falsely believed that the heat from the DC-9’s engines would melt the ice accumulated on the wings of the aircraft. This is well known myth among pilots, and is specifically prohibited by the flight manual. This, in fact, resulted in worse ice accumulation on the aircraft’s wings. While the engine heat from the DC-9 did in fact melt the ice into a slush, the slush did not fall off, but merely refroze as the 737 rolled down the runway [source].
- The slush froze along the leading edges of the aircraft, effectively ruining the aerofoil shape of the wing and increasing the likelihood of an aerodynamic stall. This essentially added unnecessary depth and weight to the wings. In effect, this reduced the degree of lift and increased the amount of drag generated by the wings [source].
- All of these issues were further compounded by improper de-icing procedures by American Airlines ground crews. The two vehicles used by the group operators covered the aircraft with vastly different mixtures of Monopropylene glycol and hot water, with one side receiving far more than the other [source].
- This was due to the fact that one of the ground crew members had replaced the standard nozzle which regulates the dispersal of the glycol with a commercial, store bought nozzle. This store-bought nozzle was not calibrated properly and did not de-ice the aircraft adequately [source].
The unacceptable amount of ice and snow on the airfoils and control surfaces eventually brought Air Florida Flight 90 down, even before it could get into the air. This is a perfect example of when pilot and ground crew error can mix with the cold weather and have fatal consequences [source].
2.2 Mount Erebus Disaster (Air New Zealand Flight 901)
On the 28th of November, 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 departed Auckland bound for Antartica. It was meant to be a routine sightseeing tour. At 7:21 AM, the crew put the flight plan into the onboard computer. Without their knowledge, the flight path had been changed the night before. Instead of flying down the length of McMurdo Sound, the path was diverted 27 miles due east, directly over Mt. Erebus, an ancient yet active volcano located on Ross Island in the Ross Dependency. And so, at 8:00 AM, the DC-10 took off bound for tragedy.
The first several hours of the flight were uneventful. At 12:18 PM, Captain Jim Collins contacted the station at McMurdo and informed them that he would be taking the aircraft down to 2,000 feet. Bear in mind, Mt. Erebus is 12,488 feet tall. This decision, made in good faith by the pilot, would prove fatal. The CVR transcript demonstrates that Collins and his crew were unaware of their surroundings and believed themselves to be nowhere near Mt. Erebus. At 12:46 PM, the CVR registered the following conversation [source]:
Flight Engineer: Where’s Erebus in relation to us at the moment.
Mulgrew (Guide): Left, about 20 or 25 miles.
First Officer: Yep, Yep.
Flight Engineer: I’m just thinking of any high ground in the area, that’s all.
Mulgrew: I think it’ll be left.
Flight Engineer: Yes, I reckon about here.
Mulgrew: Yes … no, no, I don’t really know. That’s the edge.
Captain: Yes, OK. Probably see further anyway.
First Officer: It’s not too bad.
Mulgrew: I reckon Bird’s through here and Ross Island there. Erebus should be there.
Captain: Actually, these conditions don’t look very good at all, do they?
Mulgrew: No they don’t. That look like the edge of Ross Island there.
Flight Engineer: I don’t like this.
Captain: Have you got anything from him?
Flight Officer: No.
Captain: We’re 26 miles north. We’ll have to climb out of this.
Mulgrew: You can see Ross Island? Fine.
First Officer: You’re clear to turn right. There’s no high ground if you do a one eighty.
(Note: at this point it is evident that the crew believes they are over McMurdo Sound, when in reality they are over Lewis Bay, directly facing Mt. Erebus.
Captain: No … negative.
(At this time, the Ground Proximity Warning System activates)
GPWS: [Whoop whoop. Pull Up. Whoop Whoop]
Flight Engineer: 500 feet.
GPWS: [Pull Up]
Flight Engineer: 400 feet.
GPWS: [Whoop Whoop. Pull Up. Whoop Whoop. Pull Up]
Captain: Go around power, please.
GPWS: [Whoop Whoop. Pull – SOUND OF IMPACT]
At 12:50 PM, the DC-10 collided with the north face of Mt. Erebus, instantly killing all 257 people on board. Flight 901 exemplifies a tragic case of “controlled flight into terrain” (CFIT), a phenomenon usually the result of pilot error. Air New Zealand attempted to pin the blame on Collins, but after a series of government investigations and judicial review, Collins has been absolved of any blame for the incident. Despite contestations which went all the way to the Privy Council in London, the fact remains that had Air New Zealand simply informed Collins of the flight plan change, the accident would never have happened.
Photos recovered from the personal cameras of passengers show that the people on board were equally unaware of the impeding danger, having taken photos practically up until the minute of impact [source]. However, the question still remains. How is it that a cockpit of 4 highly trained individuals were unable to see the looming face of a mountain fast approaching?
Sector whiteout is an awful deception of light and snow, fooling even the most experienced pilots and polar explorers. During a sector whiteout, the ice crystals in the air can block or scatter incoming light. Cloud formations greatly reduce the available light as well. The lack of shadows along terrain features makes it impossible to distinguish, say for example, the length of a bay from the face of mountain. Even more deadly, flat-light occurs when sunlight is diffused results in multiple angles of light casting shadows. The overlapping shadows cancel each other out and create a dull, visually disorientating milky background.
These first two examples touched upon civilian aircraft flying into tragically fatal conditions. Even so, the dangers posed by cold weather to civilian or military aircraft are exactly similar. It has perfect bearing on the study of arctic AirPower. The ice and snow are a terrifying equalizer. The conditions which destroyed Flight 90 and Flight 901 are endemic to every aircraft flying in a polar environment, civilian or military. The following two examples, however, will specifically focus on military air operations in cold weather and arctic aircraft from the perspective of logistical and strategic challenges.
2.3 Ice and Fire: The Luftwaffe at Stalingrad
On the morning of 19 November 1942, the Romanian 3d Army awoke to a horrific sound. At exactly 7:30 AM, Soviet Katyusha rockets and heavy artillery, numbering somewhere around 3,500 units, pounded the Romanian trenches and pillboxes. Operation Uranus began with this 90 minute bombardment. Surprisingly, the Romanian line held, despite persistent Soviet offensives. By the afternoon however, the Romanians were in a rout [source]. Hitler was informed of the Romanian rout while at his Eagle’s Nest retreat in Berchtesgaden. He immediately called Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek, Chief of Staff of the Luftwaffe. The Romanian defensive lines in the south and north had only just fallen, but it was painfully obvious, even to a strategically incompetent fool such as Hitler, that the German 6th Army was about to be encircled. Hitler wanted something that Jeschonnek simply could not provide.
2.3.1 An Impossible Task:
Hitler wanted to know if Jeschonnek was able to guarantee the ability of the Luftwaffe to supply the 6th Army until von Manstein was able to break the encirclement. In classic Hitlerian fashion, the Führer‘s question was more of a statement, if not even a thinly veiled demand. In the Third Reich, saying no to Hitler did not get one very far. Jeschonnek relented. He confirmed that his Air Force was able to conduct the supply missions, under the impending winter conditions, despite knowing full well that the majority of the Luftwaffe officer corp had little to no faith in the plan. Most believed that the best avenue for survival was for the 6th Army to break the encirclement and retreat as far west as possible.
When asked by Hitler for his opinion, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring enthusiastically agreed with Jeschonnek. Göring later wrote in his private diary:
“He had me firmly by the sword knot. I could do nothing but agree, otherwise the air force and I would be left with the blame for the loss of the army. So I had to reply: ‘Mein Führer, we’ll do the job!’”.
It seems as if both Jeschonnek and Göring knew, at least suspected, that the air resupply operation was foolish at best, a waste of time and resources in any event, and at worst, the beginning of the end for Wehrmacht operations in the Soviet Union.
2.3.2 A Logistical Nightmare:
Along the entire Eastern Front, the Luftwaffe had only 500 transport aircraft. At best, the Luftwaffe was able to muster 200 aircraft for the Stalingrad mission. This was the first of many problems. It was estimated that it would require a minimum of 300 tons of supplies to keep the 6th Army a competent fighting force while remaining encircled. Allowing for fuel and the maximum take off weight of 23,146 lbs, the Ju-52 was able to airlift anywhere from 1-3 tons worth of supplies to Stalingrad.
The Ju-52 was a reliable aircraft which has a long and eventful service history, most notably as the airlift vehicle of choice for the Luftwaffe. And yet, this durable and exceptionally resilient airframe was simply not enough. Even if every available transport aircraft was tasked with carrying a median average of 2 tons of supplies a day, it would require over 120 round trips to airlift the necessary 300 tons a day [source]. These logistical difficulties were not even the tip of the iceberg.
There was another major problem as well. On 8 November, some 11 days before Soviet troops broke the defensive lines around Stalingrad, the United States and the United Kingdom landed a force of 107,000 Anglo-American troops under the command of Dwight D Eisenhower on the beaches of Morocco. The Vichy French garrison stationed at Casablanca was overrun on 10 November and that very same day, the Vichy High Commissioner for North Africa, Admiral Jean Francois Darlan, declared French North Africa to be lost to the Allies. Vichy troops were ordered to surrender to the advancing Allied troops [source].
The commanding officer of the Nazi air forces in the Stalingrad sector, Lt. General Martin Fiebig, made a panicked phone call to Generalleutnant Arthur Schmidt, the 6th Army’s Chief of Staff, along with Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus, the overall commander of the 6th Army. General Fiebig was reportedly well aware of the impossibility of Hitler’s mad, impossible plan. Fiebig later wrote:
“Supplying an army by air was impossible, particularly when our transport aircraft were already heavily committed in North Africa…I warned him against exaggerated expectations….I stressed to him again that, based on my experience and knowledge of the means available, supplying Sixth Army by air was simply not feasible.”
This view was held by every single member of the Luftwaffe’s officer corp who was initially informed of the airlift plan. The only people who were able to tell Hitler himself or to convince Hitler otherwise, were trapped in the 15 square km pocket of German resistance at Stalingrad known as ‘Der Kessel‘ (the cauldron) [source].
Ice and Snow Takes it’s Toll:
As November became December, a brutal winter began to settle over the breadth of the Russian steppeland. The steppeland of Russia receive an average between 10-25 inches of rain annually. In this arid landscape, large shrubbery or trees do not have the necessary moisture to grow. Even more so, a deluge of cold wind from the east rushes across the flatland every Winter, unimpeded by any natural obstacle.
The harsh and dry climate create a biting cold. The coldest recorded temperature during the Battle of Stalingrad reached –40°C [source]. Arctic aircraft and air power must contend with these conditions regardless. It was so cold that year, that the Red Army was able to impale railroad tracks into the frozen ice of the Volga River [source]. The logistical demands on the Luftwaffe were already beyond the realm of possibility, but it was the unrelenting cold which broke the might and potency of the Wehrmacht war machine.
Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, the infamous First World War ‘Flying Ace’ turned Luftwaffe commander in Southern Russia, labeled the mission “sheer madness”. Von Richthofen did not keep this assessment to himself. We know the von Richthofen was in close communication with both Jeschonnek and Göring. He adamantly implored both men to see the infeasabilmty of the operation [source]. It is not known if Jeschonnek and Göring ever informed Hitler of the very real concerns raised by high ranking Luftwaffe officers. On the 24th of November, 2 days after the operational details were made known the general staff of the 6th Army and the Luftwaffe, Hitler attended a briefing in which he was finally made aware of the serious concerns raised by a vast majority of the Luftwaffe officer corp. Hitler merely responded:
No one at the briefing appears to have told Hitler 100 Ju-52s were nowhere near the needed amount, even in the most favorable of summer conditions in which all aircraft were able to fly continuously, to supply the 6th Army until February.
2.3.4 Stalin’s Not So Secret Weapon:
Within the German controlled areas of Stalingrad, there were a total of three airfields available for airlift. Only two of these airfields had the equipment to allow for non-visual landings. During the Second World War this was accomplished with radio beacons and instrumentation in the cockpit. The remaining airfield did not have functioning radio beacon equipment, but had night time operational capability and the necessary facilities for the sort of logistical demand needed by the 6th Army’s daily consumption [source].
The Ju-52s did not fair well in the –13°C average temperatures. The previously highlighted windchill further dropped the temperature well into the –20°C range, much to the frustration and misery of Luftwaffe ground crews. At least 3 days out of the week, most if not all of the airfields were closed by the snowfall and icy conditions. The Tatsinskaya, Morozovskaya and Pitomnik airfields were subjected to equally punishing levels of snowfall.
2.3.5 Technical Obstacles:
The German ground crews did not have any form of heavy machinery to clear the runways of the accumulated powder, so manual labor was used to shovel the buildup, a slow and torturous process which exhausted and froze the ground personnel. During the Second World War, de-icing an aircraft was still a process which needed to be undertaken by ground crews.
The German’s in fact, devised a clever solution to this issue early on in the war. Known as Kärcher-Heizgeräte (Kärcher Ovens), these devices used hot air from the engines to circulate the heat in the internal structure of the aircraft. This in turn would de-ice the wings. These ovens were mostly fixed onto the Junkers Ju-88 G1 variant and even so, only a number of aircraft were equipped with such mechanisms [source]. It is unclear if any of the Ju-52 or He-111 aircraft at Stalingrad were equipped with this technology, but it is very likely that none of them were.
As the Luftwaffe increasingly failed to meet the consumption demands of the 6th Army, the troops and ground crews unloading the aircraft became progressively weaker and slower. This in turn further affected the waiting time for landing and unloading aircraft, which only compounded the original problem. Such is the reality of cold-weather aviation. Stalin and the Soviet Union were saved by the not so secret weapon of the Russian winter. Having learned nothing from Napoleon or Charles XII of Sweden, Hitler’s war machine bumbled into a frozen quagmire of mud and ice.
2.3.5 The Cold Weather Breaks the Luftwaffe:
The air control surfaces of the aircraft also had to be properly de-iced and cleared of hazards. As we have previously seen, improper de-icing measures, particularly on the wings of an aircraft, can destroy even an advanced modern jetliner. The Ju-52 is comparatively flimsy to a 737 in that sense. Heinkel He-111 bombers were converted into airlift transports, but did not fair any better or worse than the Ju-52s. The winter squalls would routinely flatline flight operations [source].
The hydraulic systems on the aircrafts would need to be unfrozen by specially built machines which produced hot air by burning petrol. It was difficult to start the engines of the Ju-52s and He-111s in the stark temperatures as well. The aircraft available were already unable to effectively make the round trip from the Stalingrad pocket to the rear staging ground. The necessary tonnage to feed the 6th Army gradually slipped and fell to pointless levels [source].
Consider for a moment the following numbers. Given the daily consumption of the 6th Army, by the first week, almost 1,750 tons were needed. Only 60 tons were actually every airlifted. During a heated argument between Chief of the General Staff, Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler and Göring on the 27th, Zeitzler reprimanded Göring directly in front of Hitler. Zeitzler asked Göring: “You know what tonnage has to be flown in every day?”. Zeitzler then turned to Hitler and flatly stated, in mathematically plain logistical terms, that the airlift would need to average 500 tons per day given the rate of inoperability of the available aircraft [source]. Hitler, as he was oft to do, sat in stony denial about the very real disaster which he himself engineered.
2.3.6 The Beginning of the End:
Throughout December, German troops in the Stalingrad pocket began to die of malnutrition, starvation, frostbite and the steady showers of Soviet lead. The inability of the Luftwaffe to supply the troops trapped their rendered the army underfed and lowered their efficacy in combat. Hitler repeatedly worsened the situation. When 3 of von Manstein’s Panzer divisions reached the outskirts of Stalingrad, he practically begged Paulus to attempt a breakout and link up the two army formations [source]. Hitler refused to authorize any breakout attempt. Paulus refused to disobey the Führer. Eventually, the Soviets crushed ‘Fortress Stalingrad’. The defeat at Stalingrad broke the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe simultaneously. From then onwards, Nazi Germany would be on the retreat. It was the beginning of the end for Hitler and it was due in large part to the snow and ice. In the context of arctic air power, qualified leadership cannot be underestimated.
Post Mortem Analysis:
Consider the following series of events in relation to the cold weather:
- The German High Command was unwilling to recognize the mechanical and technical limitations to aircraft operating in temperatures below freezing. Key Luftwaffe officers overestimated the ability of the Luftwaffe to meet Hitler’s demands.
- The Luftwaffe did not adequately invest in de-icing equipment to be used in the harsh Russian winter. The OKW arrogantly dismissed the possibility that the 6th Army would be encircled and in need of an airlift so early in the winter months.
- Moreover, the Luftwaffe was forced to operate from three poorly equipped airfields which were not suited for cold weather operations and vastly slowed down the rate of turnover for aircraft.
- The cold weather impacted the ground crews ability to offload cargo, limiting the number of flights the Luftwaffe was able to conduct on a daily basis. This further compounded the food shortage, which in turn further affected the ability of ground crews to unload cargo.
- Hitler’s false belief, or rather ignorance of the effect of cold weather on the airlift operation, led him to forbid General Paulus to attempt a break out. As a result, the Soviet Union crushed the spine of the Wehrmacht by utterly decimating the 6th Army.
2.4 The Ardennes Offensive: Hard Lessons Learned
The Nazis learned a hard lesson at Stalingrad, namely that preparation for cold weather air operations is vital for success in the combat environment. In June of 1944, the Allies landed a massive amphibious invasion force on the beaches of Normandy and began gradually pushing the Germans back to the Rhine. The Germans attempted to regroup and mount a large counter-offensive to retake the lost territory. A year prior, Hitler had experienced the worst defeat in military history at Stalingrad and the Soviet Red Army was slowly advancing westward. He desperately needed to close at least one front of the war and turn the full attention of the Wehrmacht towards the Soviets.
2.4.1 The Weather over Bastogne:
The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) knew that it was outmatched in terms of air power [source]. The United States alone had over 1,500 fighter planes plus an additional 1,111 bombers. The British brought to bear several hundred more. Combined with other US Air Forces, the total available aircraft came to just under 10,000 [source]. The Luftwaffe could not even field a fraction of that force. Having experienced first hand the effects of the winter weather on flight operations, the Germans sought to use the same conditions which destroyed them at Stalingrad to their advantage over the Ardennes.
The Germans launched a massive meteorological operation to predict the weather during the week they intended to launch their attack. From Konrad Jaskulski’s study about the role of atmospheric conditions in battle:
German meteorologists were correct in their predictions. The early days of December, 1944 brought snow and cloud cover the Belgian-French border areas, in which the 3 Panzer divisions of Army Group B sat waiting for the signal to strike the advancing allied troops. They were, however, incorrect in predicting how long it would last.
2.4.2 Relative Advantage, Relative Disadvantage:
The snow and fog prevented Allied reconnaissance aircraft from accurately assessing the degree of German armor which was packed into the Ardennes forest. Naturally, this was to the German advantage. The information asymmetry presented by the cover of fog frustrated Allied reconnaissance efforts well into late December. The Wehrmacht began it’s offensive on the morning of 16 December, with great success. Although the muddy and wet conditions presented by the slush and snow generally slowed the onslaught of German tanks and armored units, the lack of Allied air cover proved to be far more problematic [source].
For once, the weather was working in the favor of the Germans. The lack of air cover meant that Allied troops, mostly Americans, soon became encircled at the Belgian town of Bastogne. Sensing the desperate position of the Americans, General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz sent a message to the US commander in Bastogne, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, demanding that he order his men to surrender. McAuliffe read the demands and audibly exclaimed: “Ah, nuts!”. Those exact words were written down and transmitted to the German interpreters. The Germans were perplexed as to what exactly it meant but the message was clear, the Americans would not be surrendering. Almost immediately the Luftwaffe conducted daily raids on the American positions. They were totally unchallenged by the grounded Allied aircraft. The Germans had the advantage of launching the raids from the rear [source].
2.4.3 Patton’s Prayer:
The Wehrmacht continued to besiege American forces in Bastogne and pushed forward with offensive operations along the Western Front for over a week. The famed American General, George S Patton, requested that his army chaplain implore God for good weather. The Germans had successfully pressured the American positions and nearly forced a retreat. The snowstorm simply would not let up [source].
The very next day, December 23d, General Samuel Anderson was awoken by an excited phone call from the Ninth Air Forces weather station. A rise in barometric pressure had been detected, inbound from the east in the form of a “Russian high” which would break through the fog and open up an opportunity for US air crews to get airborne. Anderson immediately called General Hoyt Vandenberg, the Ninth Air Force chief [source]. General Patton, in his typical gritty and gory mannerism, offered a prayer for clear skies, for good measure:
“Sir, I have never been an unreasonable man, I am not going to ask you for the impossible … all I request is four days of clear weather … so that my fighter-bombers can bomb and strafe, so that my reconnaissance may pick out targets for my magnificent artillery. Give me four days of sunshine to dry this blasted mud…. I need these four days to send von Rundstedt and his godless army to their Valhalla. I am sick of this unnecessary butchery of American youth, and in exchange for four days of fighting weather, I will deliver You enough Krauts to keep Your bookkeepers months behind in their work. Amen.”
That morning of the 23d, the skies turned blue. Patton reportedly looked up at the sunrise and exclaimed: “What a glorious day for killing Germans!”. The tide of the battle very rapidly changed. The Luftwaffe was aware of the changing weather and attempted to warn the available air assets of the 2nd Fighter Corps. Fighter aircraft were specifically directed to target and bring down any “four engine bombers” [source].
2.4.4 Turning the Tide:
The US Army Air Forces and RAF made short work of the German offensive. Allied aircraft struck the Luftwaffe bases at Bonn-Hangelar and Wahn. The Germans had no time to get their planes into the air, most were sitting ducks on the runway. The ones that did make it up to challenge the Allied planes were left with no where to land as bombers took out runways and support buildings [source].
Squadrons of American B-26s and P-38s were alerted by reconnaissance aircraft to German supply convoys using rail bridges over the Rhine to re-supply the Panzer divisions. The B-26 bombers cut off the supply routes in a single day. The P-38’s managed to find the 2nd Panzer Divisions only remaining fuel truck. Some 3,400 liters of gasoline were instantly incinerated and the 2nd Panzer Division ground to a halt. P-47s utilized a new invention, Napalm, to saturate the frontlines with fire and provide effective CAS to American troops. Allied air power met with small yet stiff German resistance. Despite their best efforts, the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht was pulverized into the snowy fields of Belgium [source].
American ground crews reportedly worked well in the icy conditions, despite being exposed to the elements day in and day out. Napalm was reportedly used to quickly start and maintain fires which heated mud huts for the ground and aircrews. Moreover, Allied forces were equipped with the necessary equipment to clear the runways of ice and slush. Heaters were provided to warm up the engines of the P-38. The P-38 was a horribly complex plane to service, particularly so in the cold. Yet with proper equipment, US ground crews were able to place the P-38 into the air, to great effect for the Allied war effort [source]. More importantly, US transport aircraft were able to paradrop supplies to troops. This has special bearing on the study of arctic air power. In the arctic, where infrastructure is scarce and runways are difficult to construct, paradrops are a far better option.
- The Luftwaffe based its entire combat strategy around the prevalence of poor winter conditions. When those conditions changed, as they inevitably will, the strategy fell apart quickly. Reliance on the polar/winter weather cannot substitute for adequate preparation and logistics.
- Moreover, the German war strategy highlights the need for accurate and timely weather forecasting. For all of its massive investment in Atlantic weather stations, the Germans were only aware of the changing weather at the same time the Allies were. The entire weather predicating operation was essentially pointless.
- Adjacently, German combat strategy seemed to rely on the absence of American air power for its success.
- American ground crews near Belgium made creative use of Napalm to quickly start fires and keep warm during long stints near the runway. This small act greatly boosted effectively and productivity.
- Additionally, American ground crews were quipped with the necessary heating and de-icing equipment to manage snowy conditions on the runway and service the aircraft.
- The Allied forces had the privilege of operating aircraft from airfields in France and Britain, which meant that those air squadrons were not encumbered by the difficulties of operating in winter conditions.
- Instead of using bombarded airfields to land supplies to troops, the USAAF used C-47’s to drop supplies.
- To quote again from Jaskulski: “If “bad” weather had maintained longer as provided by meteorological service of the Third Reich – The Wehrmacht would have taken a large and important area, which significantly inhibits the subsequent Allied advance in 1945” [source].
3. Modern Arctic Air Power: Principles and Strategies
The above examples highlight four very crucial aspects of Arctic air power:
- Mechanical and Technical Limitations
- Environmental Conditions
- Logistical Challenges
- Strategic Decision Making
In every example, a person, or group of persons, made a drastic error which proved to be fatal. Modern military powers are in no less degree of danger. On the basis of these lessons from history, we can better understand the principles and strategies which effect a successful air campaign in the High North.
3.1 Overcoming Mechanical and Technical Limitations:
Jet fuel generally freezes at -46 °C. The average temperature in the Arctic reaches somewhere near that number. It may go lower or it may be an uncharacteristically warm winter. Control cables, used to manipulate the control surfaces on an aircraft’s wings, can expand and contract as the temperature widely fluctuates, and the polar conditions can greatly reduce tire pressure [source]. Needless to say, keeping aircraft in working order is a challenge in it of itself.
In 2018, F-35s operating out of Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska were forced to land after the battery warning system was activated. It appeared as if the battery of the aircraft was totally drained. It was soon discovered that the issue was not necessarily battery related. When the F-35 is taking off, the landing gear bay opens up to the cold air around it. This cold air is detected by the battery heater blanket around the battery itself. The temperature was evidently too much for the heater to handle, so the system preemptively set off alarms that the battery was failing [source].
The fix to the issue is rather simple. The blanket can be turned on earlier in order to accommodate the severe cold, or the F-35 can receive a software upgrade which alters the parameters for when the aircraft detects a problem with the battery. In any event, both solutions will require extensive testing, implementation plans and a load of bureaucratic approval to go along. Add on top of that the initial maintenance hours and missed flight time when the problem was first detected, the issue was relatively serious.
According to the Air Force, the battery issue “critically restricts the combat readiness” of the F-35 in Arctic environments [source]. In many ways, this is actually extremely bizarre. The F-22 Raptor, an aircraft of comparable role and sophistication, has operated without issues from northern climates for years [source]. The battery problems on the F-35 illustrate how airframes need to be manufactured with polar conditions in mind, so long as those aircraft are intended to be used in polar climates. More so, during Arctic condition testing of the F-35, major difficulties were discovered such a cockpit pressure anomalies. It was enormously expensive to test and find these flaws. The Marine Corp alone spent over $7 million [source].
3.1.1 The Snow Hog:
When the US Air Force deployed the A-10 ‘Warthog’ to Alaska for air exercises, the only aspect of the A-10 which was altered was the paint job. The so called “Snow Hogs” were simply brightly painted Warthogs. The USAF did not maintain the color scheme and the A-10 was never developed into an Arctic CAS platform. The exercises were really a way to test the Arctic camouflage paint scheme on an aircraft which had proved itself useful in other environments [source]. The Snow Hog illustrates a major technical challenge for air powers operating in the Arctic.
Adapting the camouflage scheme of aircraft from desert, jungle, woodland or otherwise into polar suited coverings is dependent on the industrial capacity of the airborne nation-state to quickly convert those aircraft. This requires intensive work on the part of ground crews and other various elements of the economy.
While an aircraft like the A-10 is a suitable candidate for polar camouflage, stealth aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 are not. Radar absorbent material (RAM) which covers the F-22, for example is difficult to produce and apply to the aircraft. It must be routinely serviced [source]. Take for example the following images of RAM degradation on the F-22:
The cost of maintaining, not to mention converting RAM, into a polar scheme is prohibitively expensive and given the nature of RAM, not a likely possibility. The F-35 has a far more durable RAM coating, but the same issue nonetheless persists [source].
3.1.2 Technical Ingenuity:
Most of the technical challenges which face aircraft are largely resolved by modern technology or by the practice of strong pre-flight maintenance standards. For example, pitot tubes can be covered by the necessary coverings to prevent them from freezing over and proving inaccurate instrumentation readings. Pitot tubes are the small metallic tubes on the nose or wings of an aircraft which measure airspeed. Blocked pitot tubes can be deadly. For a more detailed picture into the effect of ice-blocked pitot tubes, take a look at the tragedy of Air France Flight 447, and the utterly desperate confusion which took place on that flight deck.
In any event, modern ingenuity has gone a long way to deal with cold weather impacts on aircraft. Most aircraft use lithium ion batteries to power their avionics. The F-35 uses lithium ion batteries made by Saft, 2 units of 270 volts and one of 28 volts, to power the aircraft [source]. Lithium ion batteries, however, suffer from a major drawback, namely the battery anodes hold less charge in cold temperatures. As a result, the charge will drain away quicker under the same level of use. Researchers in China have potentially discovered a solution to that issue [source].
“The researchers heated a cobalt-containing zeolite imidazolate framework (known as ZIF-67) at high temperatures. The resulting 12-sided carbon nanospheres had bumpy surfaces that demonstrated excellent electrical charge transfer capabilities. Then the team tested the material’s electrical performance as the anode, with lithium metal as the cathode, inside a coin-shaped battery. The anode demonstrated stable charging and discharging at temperatures from 77 F to -4 F and maintained 85.9% of the room temperature energy storage capacity just below freezing.”
The Chinese researcher were kind enough to share that development with the global community.
3.1.3 The Role of Helicopters in the Arctic:
Helicopters are unique aircraft for a variety of reasons, chief among them being the method generating thrust and lift. In polar conditions, helicopters can be very useful tools for deploying troops and materiel to a theater of operations. They do not need a runway to land, meaning that they are unaffected by ice covered runways. Reduced tire pressure from icy conditions is also not an issue. Moreover, helicopters can provide CAS and light attack roles for air forces from naval assets. The arctic sea conditions can be extremely rough and unfavorable, and this could potentially result in disaster for helicopters attempting to land on board a ship.
Helicopters suffer from the same issue which aircraft suffer from in the ice and snow. Ice which accumulates on the rotor blades can reduce lift and increase drag. Helicopters also must have a sufficient anti-ice and heating systems for the avionics as well. The only real advantage which helicopters have over fixed wing aircraft is their ability to land vertically and not be encumbered by the need to clear a runway of ice. Helicopters must themselves be subjected to intense arctic condition testing. The Korean LAH 002, for example, underwent 9 weeks of testing in Canada and was able to function at -32° C for an extended period of time [source].
Generally speaking, helicopters are in the same degree of technical and mechanical danger as other aircraft. Most helicopters need snow deflectors to protect the engine intake from sucking in snow. The snow will then turn into water and extinguish the external combustion process in the engine [source].
As Russia is progressively developing arctic military power and airbases on the Russian northern coastline, it discovered that helicopters and other manned aircraft were exposed to an enormous amount of risk during cold weather operations. As a result, in 2020, Russia defense manufacturer Rostec opened a contract with Aeroxo, a Latvian aerospace company to produce a new tilt-rotor drone. The eventual design will be based on the Aeroxo ERA-100 [source].
Best Technical Practices for Polar Conditions:
- Aircraft must be properly secured in event of high wind environments, preventing blow overs. Pitot tubes must be properly covered to prevent ice blockage. Where possible, the aircraft should be kept in covered areas or hangars to prevent unnecessary ice accumulation.
- Aircraft unable to be secured in a hangar should be parked on an east-west axis in order to take advantage of the rising and setting sun to keep the aircraft control surfaces de-iced.
- Prior to take-off, control cables should be inspected to assure appropriate tension and durability.
- Install special made preheating and de-icing systems for aircraft which routinely operate in polar conditions.
- Invest in more rigorous testing procedures research to catch major technical limitations prior to service introduction. As such, issues such as battery heater blankets and charge retention for lithium ion batteries can be preempted.
3.2 Overcoming Polar Conditions:
As seen by the horrific tragedy of Air Florida Flight 90, proper training could have prevented a tragedy. To make matters worse, the Captain of the aircraft disregard the concerns of his peer. Training aircrews about the dangers of polar conditions can prevent unnecessary deaths and damage to aircraft. The need for extensive training of pilots in winter conditions is admittedly a costly endeavor, yet the degree of specialization needed to be a proficient pilot in cold weather environments is not too far off from the degree of specialization needed to fly specific aircraft, like seaplanes for example or aircraft fitted with skis.
The arctic presents a very unique environment for air operations. The arctic winter regularly reaches below -40 ° C and during summers, it is rare for the temperature to reach above 10 ° C. Wind speeds can present a major issue for pilots. Yet, wind is not an equal occurrence everywhere in the arctic. In Russia, winds tend to be more violent and brutally cold compared to the Canadian arctic. This is due in part to the prevalence of major storm systems in the Russian high north, whereas Canada is typically spared those forms of gales. Largely speaking, Arctic wind are less violent than their tropical counterparts, but this does not make them any less dangerous for aircraft [source].
3.2.1 Cyclones and Anti-Cyclones:
The Aleutian Low and Icelandic Low are two prime examples of cyclonic weather conditions as a result of low pressure systems. These two areas experience the highest levels of cyclones in the Arctic. The Beaufort High and the Siberian High are two prime examples of the anti-cyclonic activity that occur every single year. The area over the Beaufort Sea and Siberia are regularly subjected to these anti-cyclonic storms. The only real difference between a cyclone and anti-cyclone is the direction in which the winds spin the storm system, clockwise or counterclockwise respectively. These storms can reach hurricane wind speeds with little warning. They develop within a matter of hours and can last for up to 2 days on average [source]. These storms can knock out an aircraft through impaired visibility and strong winds.
3.2.2 The Arctic Oscillation:
As a result of the pressure differential in the Arctic and the equatorial regions, northern air pressure tends to be in a directly opposite relation to its souther counter part. In other words, when atmospheric pressure is high in the southern regions, it will be high in Arctic, and vice a versa. This Arctic Oscillation can greatly affect the prevalent weather patterns in the northern regions. Predicating the pattern of the oscillation can help predict the occurrence and strength of storms [source].
3.2.3 Optical Illusions:
As discussed in the previous section, the Mt. Erebus disaster was the result of polar deception. Despite the fact that the flight deck of the DC-10 was occupied by trained individuals operating with sophisticated avionics, the aircraft still flew into the side of mountain, for the simple reason that the pilots believed they were observing a flat white ice shelf thousands of feet below them. Flat light and sector white our obviously dangerous, but the arctic is filled with optical illusions which range from beautiful to devastating. The most well known is the Aurora Borealis, but what is little known is water sky and ice blink. Both occur when cloud cover reflects the water or ice beneath it. They are both largely harmless to pilots [source].
Ice blink is admittedly more striking. The glare could be difficult to pilots, but glare is a problem not which is endemic to the polar regions. If anything, ice blink tells pilots that there is ice over the horizon, and it can therefore be used to navigate towards the shore or towards ice floats.
The truly dangerous phenomenon is called a Fata Morgana. This is essentially a mirage which stretches the shape and distance of an object in a person’s visual field. As a result, it is difficult to gauge distance. Moreover, it can seem as if objects are taller than they appear. This may force a pilot to chose an alternative route, and thereby expending valuable extra fuel. Mirages are very common in the arctic and are the result of the interplay between temperature and air density [source].
Mitigating Polar Environmental Conditions:
- Assure that every pilot is specifically trained on the dangers and hazards of cold weather flight operations.
- In particular, instruct pilots on the danger of optical illusions which occur in the Arctic and during what conditions those optical illusions occur.
- Pilots should be aware that communication between themselves can prevent disaster arising from ignorance of flight conditions.
- Major military powers should invest in sophisticated weather monitoring stations and technology such as satellites which can provide real time weather monitoring. Predicting storms and weather patterns further avoids the mistakes which the Germans made in the Ardennes.
- Defense contractors and manufacturers should be incentivized to develop new polar suited avionics and other flight systems which are specially designed for snow and ice, such as tires which are built to retain air pressure or ice and snow resistant runways.
- Aircraft should carry additional fuel when operating in the Arctic. By carrying more fuel, pilots have a greater degree of choice should they be forced to circumnavigate a large storm or are unable to land at a given area.
3.3 Logistical Solutions and Strategic Principles:
Stalingrad is a story of how better preparation, better leadership and better conditions would have resulted in a totally different outcome for the Germans. The Nazi war machine was done in by its own hubris and the child-like inability of its leader to admit he was ever wrong. Yet, adapting to a new situation is crucial for arctic weather air combat. The inflexibility of the German war plans and leadership resulted in a brittle strategy which shattered in the freezing snow and ice.
The German’s also learned at Stalingrad that logistics in cold weather is a challenge unto itself. In other words, both elements of logistics and of strategy were sorely lacking in German war plans. In respects to our modern geopolitical arena, it is unlikely that we will ever see a repeat of the battlefield conditions at Stalingrad in 1942. Yet a ‘hot war’ in the cold reaches of the Arctic is not a totally impossible scenario. Limited as it may be, the naval powers of Russia, China and the United States will be coming in ever closer proximity to one another in the Arctic Sea. Non-intentional mistakes, or even deliberate provocations could spark a major conflict which quickly balloons into a fight over reproduces and trade routes.
3.3.1 Ring of Ice:
Perhaps realizing this terrible thought sooner than the rest of us, the Russians have begun activating military airfields in the high north. To date, no comparable US, Canadian, or NATO member state has even come close to matching the sheer concentration of air power the Russian’s have thrown across the northern coastline.
The bases at Nagurskoye, Tiksi and Kotelny are still being upgraded and furnished with new radar, anti-air systems and paved runways. The strategic value of these bases must mean a lot the Russians, because those renovations are taking place whilst their military is being heavily degraded in the Ukraine [source]. Valuable military hardware is being diverted north while the very real war against Kiev is being fought thousands of miles away. Russia recently placed Mig-31BMs at the Rogachevo air base in Novaya Zemlya [source].
The United States is woefully behind in this field. There are only 3 runways in US northern territory which are longer that 3,000 ft. That is the recommendable length for a plane the size of a C-130 [source]. The real heavy lifters of the USAF, the C-5 Galaxy for example, have very little options for flying into the Arctic Circle. In reality, most logistical operations involving the USAF an Arctic setting would probably go horribly wrong. In much the same way as the Germans at Stalingrad, the United States would need to fly in an ungodly amount of tonnage on a large number of smaller flights to match the needs of a fighting force such as the US Army or Marine Corp. The smaller aircraft would need to rotated around into the air without much concern for safety or the pilots well being.
3.3.2 Arctic Search and Rescue (SAR):
As such, SAR operations in the Arctic would play a huge role in mitigating those logistical shortcomings. Arctic SAR is even more so complex than ordinary SAR. This is so for a variety of reasons. As mentioned before, the physical infrastructure of the Arctic is lacking. Facilities from which to conduct SAR are few and far, and the needed communications systems are equally sparse.
To make matters even worse, solar radiation can frustrate modern communications devices, which in turn forces the military to resort to older forms of radio transmissions. Cellular coverage does not reach into the Arctic, so simply calling 911 and waiting for a rescue is not an option. If a pilot crash lands over sea ice or into the ocean water, time is of the essence. Rapidly communicating the positions and status of the downed pilot is beyond important. Satellite phones and other forms of space based communication are constrained by the fact that satellites are always just below the hair of the horizon that far north [source].
Most USAF aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35 typically are accompanied by a KC-135 Stratotanker. This allows the fighters to extend their time spent airborne, but it also allows the aircraft to conduct the early stages of a SAR operation, and remain on site until SAR units can arrive [source].
Principles of Areal Warfare in the Arctic:
- Air strategy cannot be based on present weather conditions. The Arctic climate is to variable to accurately predict. The combat strategy must be able to operate independent of the weather conditions.
- Not every military fighter jet is capable of flying in stormy weather, which means that only a small fraction of a country’s aircraft inventory can actually be fielded in polar regions.
- Further, combat strategy must be flexible enough to adapt to the changing weather circumstances and accommodate a sudden change in the battlefield environment. As such, monitoring aircraft and modified electronic warfare aircraft must be included in any arctic air detachment.
- Any country which wishes to operate its air force permanently in the Arctic region must invest in a portfolio of Arctic infrastructure which includes radio stations, satellite receivers, airfields and power generation.
- Because transporting fuel is costly and time consuming given the extreme distances, green and renewable energy may become a lifeline for military operations in polar regions.
- Arctic air power requires a robust SAR component. The clean up operation on Mt. Erebus demonstrates the difficulties of reaching remote areas. A robust arctic infrastructure reduces the time needed to conduct SAR operations and the likelihood of disaster from over exposure on the part of downed pilots.
When all is said and done, air combat is not an easy endeavor. The ability of a country to field aircraft, especially modern jet fighters, is a testament to the incredible power of industry and the economy. Arctic conditions worsen the difficulties which already frustrate smaller, less developed nation-states. In the next 10 years, the United States, Russia and China will demonstrate how well they can overcome those challenges in order to field permanent air detachments in the Arctic Circle.