Central War Gaming Blog

Central War Gaming Blog


Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Real World Experience From Cold Weather Operations

Today, a guest post from Tyler Jackson, on his experiences operating in very cold climates

I have spent several winters in the Baltics near and on the Russian border as a light infantryman. I completed a muilti-day 50 mile forced march in very cold weather with C Polar Company, Estonian Scouts Battalion. Patrolled for weeks, and have sat static while conducting area defenses for the better part of a week in those same climates.

My last stint was as a Section leader (yes, Section) for a month-long exercise. I was responsible for 16 paratroopers total. My section was comprised of my organic rifle squad, a 3 man MG team and a 5 man engineer team as an attachment. So my perspective now is based on managing a team during cold weather tactical operations.

The last part of the month long exercise was a 5 day area defense. This is were the hardship began as sitting still while trying to stay concealed was rather difficult.

The first rule with any combat operation is surviving nature

You cannot take the fight to the enemy if you are dead or dying from exposure, hypothermia, or are dehydrated. First we beat nature, then the enemy.

Environmental conditions matter

The first thing you need to think about is what type of cold weather environment you’re going to be operating in. Is it dry cold or wet cold? Many discussions of cold weather operations touch on this, but then go on to discuss their experiences specifically, so I want to reinforce this point: they are not the same thing.

You clothing and equipment selection will change based on your need to stay dry. My experience was all in “wet cold” climates. In Estonia, on the Russian border, we were just about in tru sub-artic conditions, meaning that we were in a wet and cold environment.

The danger is not the lower end of the scale in terms of temps in this region, but the just around freezing ambient temps, with low wind chills that will kill you if you get wet.

Don't get me wrong, it still dropped down into the –20° F range, with wind chills dropping to —30- 35° F from the arctic wind coming off the Baltic sea. But at those lower temps things started to dry out, much like sub-artic conditions.

In those harsher environments you need a shit ton of dead space between you and every inch of skin. Even things like your eyeballs freezing (yes, literally) will become a challenge that doesn’t exist in the wet and cold environment. Fabrics like Gore-Tex in these climates are counterproductive.

Varying temps and humidity conditions was a huge challenge, and clothing requirements would frequently change, sometime within hours.

For Wet cold environments staying dry is the biggest concern

Gore-Tex outer shells are a must, and is not negotiable in cold wet climates. Gaiters are also important in order to limit the amount of snow, ice, and other moisture that gets between your pants and boots.

We can't carry two of everything, so at some point you need to make it a priority not to get your waterpoof layer submerged in water. Understand that it cannot breathe, but in transitioning cold I need to stay dry first and balance air exchange with workload.

You must have a heat source

And by this I mean literal fire. Not hand warmers, not your grandmother’s electric blanket, but an actual fire. The local Estonian light Infantry (Eesti Scouts) made it very clear that you must have a secure assembly area to rotate troops back to that has shelter and heat, if you are to sustain operations indefinitely. We found out they were right the hard way.

This is one of the only ways to dry out your clothing, because at some point they will get waterlogged. It's not a matter of if you will get wet, but when. You also need a local small, tactical heat source. 

I know, the modern wisdom is that we never build fires in a tactical environment. But this is 100% bullshit. A dangerous lie. I will admit it is only a small window in which you can do this tactically, but in these cold environments you need to have a small local stove or fire pit dug out that you can boil water in, along with general warming and drying of clothing. 

People also need hot liquid to perform in the lower end of wet cold environments. Water intake will be low, as people are not as thirsty. On top of that it is actually bad for you do drink cold water in a cold environment. Your body will burn energy to warm up the water for use. Therefore, warming up the water in the form of soup or broth not only physically warms you up, but reduces your body's work by saving calories.

Stews and soups can also help replace salt loss. Like hot liquids, don't eat cold meals; you need to heat up any meal that you eat. Regular MREs will fuck you down over time in the cold, as many soldiers will simply give up and eat them cold. Freeze-dried or dehydrated MRE’s like the cold weather MRE’s are what you need, so it forces you to heat them up. Squad level rations like stews and soups are also really good because they double as water intake. I cannot stress water enough as it is also how your body regulates its heat.

You must have shelter

Insulation from the ground and protection from wind are also absolute musts. Do not neglect this, or you will pay with cold weather casualties. Bring a hatchet, or your pioneer tool kit axe for this job.

Static vs. moving

The best thing that I can say is that when you are planning on moving, try to wear as little as possible without exposing skin. Silk weights are what we used to good effect. Have a polypro top or jacket ready for when you stop for extended periods (not security halts.) 

It really comes down to comfort and if guys are either too hot or cold, you need to let them adjust to their own liking. It's their body that is trying to compensate, so if they are cold, or hot, believe it.

Additionally as a leader you need to plan in periods to stop during long patrols or marches, not just for resting but just to acclimatize. After a mile in, stop to let guys downgrade clothing, re-shift their gear, and so forth.

Radios will start to fail

For radio communications we predicted battery issue, so used our MRE heaters and commercial hand warmers to keep the batteries wrapped in. We also tried to keep them tied off around our necks and next to our bodies for warmth, but this couldn’t be done with body armor. 

It wasn't all sustainable or effective, so instead we switched over to the old TA-1 field phones, and relied on wireline communications. Of course, we didn't have any of these, but the Estonians had some U.S. military surplus field phones of ours from back in the day, because they knew this lesson already. 

They were the only ones talking to each other because field phones work in all conditions. Our radios, no matter what we did, could not keep up and eventually died.

Javelin missiles had a hard time working

Largely due to battery issues, but the gunners reported having target locking issues as well.
One of my rifleman, PFC Okinishi, engaging a tank target with a back-up AT-4 after our Javelin shit out.

Water sources needs to be in a wide mouth bottle

At some point your water will freeze, even after all efforts are exhausted to prevent it from happening. If you have a wide mouth bottle you can not only pick the ice apart within the container but you can also fill up snow to melt for water later. 

The Eesti Scouts taught us in their winter warfare course to tie our water bottle around our necks using 550 cord. This way it stayed close to our bodies. 

I know plenty of guys that have not problems with water bladders in cold weather but all of our hydration bladders failed. More or less all of them. The water expanded as it froze and actually cut the bladder material, so they were all ruined. 

Now, in Germany the conditions were fine enough to wear the bladder under our jackets and run the hose through our sleeve to prevent it freezing. But when it gets cold enough, even this won't work.  

Do not use face paint below freezing

It's not only hard to wash off when you need to clean yourself but it can actually damage your skin during sub freezing temps. 

Vaseline is critical for skin care

It provides a vapor barrier for your skin, and prevents chafing for the bigger guys legs. It also helps with your lips and face. 

Wind burn in a very real threat in wet cold environments, and you don’t want your guys getting face injuries that can in most cases be prevented very easily. 

Do not wear waterproof socks

Products like the  Darn Tough waterproof socks are great for three seasons, but not four. We had so many injuries from waterproof socks, mostly due to their tight fitting nature 

And it was inevitable that your feet will get wet anyway. Give it enough time and they will get wet. The idea is to have the ability to dry them out soonish, least immersion foot form. 

Stick with waterproof boots for your water protection layer, and allow big fluffy socks to insulate your feet. Boot inserts are also important for when you are static and need to pull security.

Cover your tracks

Russians are really getting good with their use of tactical level UAV’s. Not only for recon, but for use as forward observers for artillery. 

Make sure that you think about what your positions look like from above. Do not cut trees down near your positions, as this will give them away. Do use the same routes in and out to reduce the visible tracks, and then make sure you cover those paths up. 

I know this is not what we do in three out of the four seasons, but with snow, we want to only use a few lanes to reduce your foot traffic paths from aerial observation. We used a cut pine tree switch to sweep away the tracks. The same things also apply for defensive fighting positions as any other time regarding removing, distributing, or concealing spoil as you dig or otherwise clear your fighting positions. 

One of our sister sections positions

Do not bring your weapons into a warming area

We had just been issued the M240L, the lightweight version of the 240B. The receiver body is slightly thinner, and we had major issues with the bolt guide rails cracking from moisture condensing on the weapon, and then expanding at night due to water freezing. 

We didn’t even bring them in the tents, and just had them in fighting positions, but this was enough temperature change to cause water to apparently get into the pores of the receivers, and then expand at night when temps dropped. 

Note that in this environment, the ambient temperature was always still below freezing. It's not just a hard cutoff at freezing, but any sufficient temperature swing has to be accounted for.

To prevent a lot of this we should have simply left the weapons out of the fighting holes, at the ready, in the cold air. Make sure you also have winter lubricant like LAW, otherwise your weapon will seize if it’s too cold in these temps.

Bleeding is faster in the cold

We had some minor injuries, and we noticed that the blood flow was way faster than normal. Having hypothermia kits for trauma patients is the only way to save them after treatment.

If we did it again we would have brought more hypothermia kits in case of combat casualties. Look into IV and blood warmers as well. It was something we ordered after the fact.  

Scout everything out ahead of a main body’s movement

This should be a rule regardless of the weather, but in the Baltics it's mostly swampy. The bogs would barley freeze over enough for snow to hide them. Then, many a patrol would fall into bogs.

Eventually we used 2 man scout teams as pathfinders to avoid this. We cross-loaded most of their equipment so they could go ahead light of the main body. This allowed them to poke and prod their way forward searching for dry routes. 

It also allowed them to self-recover more easily, to push through snow banks, and so forth. But note that blazing trails to make it easier for the rest of the guys is hard work, and they will cover more ground as well. Every so many km, we would switch them out. 

© 2015-2016 Central War Gaming | Contact Us | Facebook | Twitter