U.S. military officials and policymakers are devoting increased attention to the potential for conflict with a near-peer competitor, and they've pursued a number of operational and equipment changes to prepare for it.
Among the latest moves is the rollout of more cold-weather gear among the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, underscoring the military's growing concern about its ability to operate in extreme environments outside the Middle East.
For the last several years, the Army has been looking to update its gear for extremes, mainly jungles and the harsh cold. Included in that search was a new cold-weather boot and a cold-weather clothing system that could be adjusted for various temperatures.
In recent weeks, soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum in New York have done winter training operations with new gloves, headgear, socks, gaiters, parkas, and trousers. That new gear was focused on "face, hands, and feet," 1st Sgt. Daniel Bryan, first sergeant of the division's Light Fighters School, told Army Times.
Marines with Company C, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines, 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, conduct practical application techniques during exercise Nordic Frost at Camp Ethan Allen Training Site in Jericho, Vt., Jan. 20, 2018. The exercise allowed Marines to demonstrate their ability to operate in a cold weather mountainous environment, conducting land navigation, marksmanship training, demolitions, call for fire training and other core competencies. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Samantha Schwoch)
The unit also received new skis. Built shorter and wider, like cross-country skis, they were brought in so inexperienced soldiers could strap into them with their cold-weather boots and be able to maneuver in short order. Those new skis were also being deployed among Army units in Alaska, Vermont, and Italy.
Troops at Fort Drum have done cold-weather exercises for some time, but the base's recent designation as a Zone 7 — the same designation as Fort Wainwright in Alaska and Camp Ethan Allen in Vermont — steered millions of dollars more in funding there so soldiers could undertake more training.
The new equipment has been fielded as part of an effort to prepare troops physically and mentally for cold-weather operations.
"We don't want [the cold] to hibernate us," Bryan said. "We want to be physically and mentally prepared."
'You're going to get your skis ... so get ready'
The Marine Corps has also been reorienting itself for operations in the extreme cold.
In mid-January, the Corps issued two requests for information for a cap and gloves for intense cold. The Marines want both to be able to withstand temperatures down to 50 below zero and be fast-drying and water repellant, with the gloves able to work with touchscreen devices.
The Corps also plans to spend $12.75 million — $7 million in fiscal year 2018 — to buy 2,648 sets of the NATO ski system for scout snipers, reconnaissance Marines, and some infantrymen, with the first sets arriving at the end of the 2018 calendar year.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said in December that the Marine Corps Rotational Force Europe, based in Norway, would be the first to get the gear.
"No Marine is going to leave here unless they know how to ski," Neller said at the time, according to. "You're going to get your skis here in about a week, so get ready."
U.S. Marines have been in Norway on rotational deployments since early 2017, though they've stored equipment there for some time.
The deployments, the first of their kind, have focused on tactical training for offensive operations in cold weather (and irked Russia).
The primary reason for creating the rotational force was improving cold-weather training, one of Neller's main goals.
Some exercises, done with NATO allies and non-NATO partners, have taken place just 200 miles from Norway's border with Russia. The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit has also been conducting cold-weather training in neighboring Sweden.
The adjustment to the region hasn't been totally smooth.
Marines in Norway's Arctic region in 2016 and early 2017 reported a number of problems with their gear, which was pulled from the service's inventory of cold-weather equipment. Zippers stuck; seams ripped; backpack frames snapped, and boots repeatedly pulled loose from skis or tore on the metal bindings, according to.
The equipment problems spurred a wave of feedback from Marines, leading the Corps to start looking at upgrades and replacements — including some cold-weather gear used by the Army as well as reinforced backpack frames suitable for frigid temperatures.
Reserve Marines with Company F, 4th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division, stage their vehicles on training day five of exercise Winter Break 2018, aboard Camp Grayling, Michigan, Feb. 11, 2018. During Winter Break 18, Fox Co. took part in platoon and company operations that increased their operational capacity in single degree temperatures and snow-covered terrain. (Image from USMC)
The Marine Corps' overall plans for new gear goes beyond just outfitting a small rotational force, however, and those moves fit in with preparations for a future fight that Neller has said could be on the horizon.
"I hope I'm wrong, but there's a war coming," Neller said during a December address to Marines in Norway. Neller said he saw a "big-ass fight" in the future and told them to be ready for a variety of missions.
Neller also said he expected the force's attention to shift to new areas. "I think probably the focus, the intended focus is not on the Middle East," Neller said, according to . "The focus is more on the Pacific and Russia."
Increasing tensions with Russia and North Korea have increased the potential the U.S. military could face cold-weather fighting again — particularly in Northwest Asia.
During the Korean War, brutal cold plagued U.S. troops who lacked enough cold-weather gear and faced problems like frozen rations and gear damaged by subzero temperatures. Decades later, soldiers who recovered from frostbite and other injuries found themselves suffering from new symptoms related to their exposure.