With Russia working to expand its military foothold in the Arctic, it stands to reason that warfare of the future may indeed spill over in to the frigid North, where climate change has made travel in the region more viable. Currently, the Arctic accounts for some ten percent of Russia’s total GDP, and its president seems to think that trend will continue to climb.
“Climate change brings in more favorable conditions and improves the economic potential of this region,” Vladimir Putin said of the Arctic in March. “Today, Russia’s GDP is the result of the economic activity of this region.”
In order to protect what Putin claims is as much $30 trillion worth of natural resources waiting to be pulled from beneath the Arctic ice, Russia has been building new military installations and supply lines throughout the region. Their presence also serves to reaffirm Russian claims to Arctic territory. This poses a number of concerns for those in the West, not the least of which being the potential for Russian ICBM’s being launched from the Arctic Circle – as current missile defense strategies were not designed to defend from such a strike.
It’s with these sorts of threats in mind that the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing has been using its fleet of ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft to conduct training missions on the Greenland Ice Cap, with their sights set on honing their ability to conduct flight operations into treacherous arctic territory, as well as the ability to survive while they’re there.
Even for experienced C-130 pilots, flying the huge airplanes through Arctic winds, and then landing them on skis, takes some getting used to.
“There’s a level of nervousness,” Air Force Maj. Dia Ham, a ski mission co-pilot student with the 139th Airlift Squadron, explained. She already has ten years of experience piloting the C-130 while on active duty. “There’s no way to change the steps that we follow or the procedures or the sequence of events — but you can’t prepare for landing on skis,” she said.
Over 50 training missions have already been conducted by the “Kool School,” which includes spending three days in the field to practice cold weather training and survival techniques.
“We’ll get them out to that snowfield, and we’ll work on our takeoffs and landing,” said Air Force Maj. Justin Garren, 139th Airlift Squadron’s Greenland Operations chief. “We’ll work on special procedures on the ground for the loadmasters to load and unload on the snow.”
With 10 of the massive air craft equipped with skis, the 109th Airlift Wing has one of the larger arctic capable fleets in the world. The LC-130s are used to conduct not only flight training, but also combat offloads in a hazardous environment. These offloads usually entail opening the bay doors and unloading the LC-130 while the aircraft is still moving, and with the ramps sitting 18 inches above the snowy surface.
“There’s a lot you have to learn really quickly,” said Air Force Airman 1st Class Taylor Richards, a student loadmaster who is on his second trip to Greenland this season. “The stuff that we do, they can’t teach you in loadmaster school because it’s only stuff that we do [in this unit]. There are only about 60 loadmasters in the unit, and we’re the only ones in the world who do this, so there’s a little bit of a learning curve.”
Currently, the 109th Airlift Wing is tasked with supporting the National Science Foundation in expeditions throughout Greenland and Antarctica, but it stands to reason that the skills they develop and hone in the process could prove invaluable in a future, arctic conflict.
With tensions on the rise with Russia, and the entire world clamoring for areas rich in natural resources, it seems likely that the Arctic could one day be just as contested as areas like the South China Sea. Although Russia may be getting the jump on the United States in terms of installations in the region, at least we know our air crews and loadmasters will already have the expertise they need to conduct operations north of the Arctic Circle, if conflict ever were to arise.
Images courtesy of the Department of Defense