Friday, July 10, 2009

Mountain Warfare: An American Oversight

As a superpower with global reach and concerns, our military is trained, equipped, and prepared to go anywhere anytime the need arises. Almost. While we are no doubt prepared for desert-based conflicts and have increased our urban warfare capabilities exponentially since the 1990s, we lack a particular capability that is particularly important today, given our involvement in Afghanistan: mountain warfare.

Wait, what?

Yes, you read that right. Our mountain warfare infrastructure leaves something to be desired. Simply put, we have no units that maintain an at-ready status to deploy to mountainous territories. And this is despite having a "mountain division" on active Army rolls.

Not unsurprisingly, a third-party analysis of American mountain warfare capabilities revealed a serious lack of immediacy in the United States Army and United States Marine Corps' mountain readiness. The analysis was written by an officer in the Pakistani Army back in 2004, and seems to have gone unnoticed by American military planners of then and now.

Strangely, the US military maintains three very effective "mountain warfare" schools, two run by the Army and one by the Marine Corps. Unfortunately, each of these schools maintain emphases on mountaineering, rather than the physical action of combat in mountainous terrain. Sure, the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center conducts a field exercise of sorts, but little of it entails running operations of any significant longevity, and almost completely ignores the problems of resupply and heavy logistics. Critics could even easily claim that the field exercise is barely more than a simple game of laser tag. And no combat units are stationed at the post (Pickel Meadow, California).

Of the two Army mountain warfare courses, one, the Northern Warfare Training Center at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, is more dedicated to cold weather operations (obviously) and conducts their mountaineering training near the Black Rapids Glacier. The other, the Army's formal Mountain Warfare School, is located in Jericho, Vermont, amid the foothills of the Green Mountains. Again, neither post maintains an active mountain warfare unit.

Which brings us to the Army's vaunted (sort of) 10th Mountain Division. Inactive since 1958 (when it was a simple infantry division), it was reactivated in 1985 due to Reagan's insistence on having an alpine division. Ironically, some genius in the Army think-tank decided to garrison the division at Fort Drum, New York. A nice, flat strip of acreage located a whopping 200 feet above sea level. You know, the perfect elevation to keep soldiers acclimated to fighting in high elevations. Worse still, the post is located roughly 80 miles from the highest peaks of the Adirondacks, which include Mount Marcy (approximately 5300 feet) and Algonquin Peak (approximately 5100 feet). While these peaks certainly make for excellent training, once again, no combat units are permanently stationed at those elevations.

Historically, the 10th Mountain Division formed and trained for World War II at Camp Hale, Colorado, almost 9,000 feet above sea level. Located within the Camp's borders was Copper Mountain, whose peak sits at over 12,000 feet. An ideal location to train and breed mountain soldiers, undoubtedly. Unfortunately, Hale is no longer an active military post, so the current Army lacks its option.

Still, Colorado does lay claim to another prominent Army fort, Fort Carson, which rests nicely at about 6,000 feet. Nearby are Cheyenne Mountain (about 9,500 feet) and Pike's Peak (over 14,000 feet). Yet another ideal location to train and breed mountain soldiers.

But, guess what? The division the Army maintains at Carson is not a mountain warfare division, but an armored division: the 4th Infantry Division (armored by MTOE - modified table of organization and equipment). Because, you know, tankers need to be acclimated to drive through hazardous mountain ranges.

The end result is that no unit deploying to the mountain regions of Afghanistan, or anywhere else, is pre-acclimated to the altitudes necessary to operate effectively. Yes, the men and women of our armed forces do a wonderful job of toughing things out until their lungs and muscles adjust to the lower temperatures and levels of oxygen, but why should they have to?

Honestly, does that make any logical sense to anybody? Why make things harder on our soldiers and marines than they are already are?

If someone in the Pentagon would think about for it for more than brief moment, they'd come up with the easy solution: switch the locations of the 4th ID and the 10th Mountain. Hell, other than shipping a few vehicles back and forth, all it would require are a few flag changes and soldiers switching out their uniform patches. And, let's be fair, the opening of a new mountain warfare school. But one that actually teaches the "warfare" part.

Think the Department of Defense can handle that?

10 comments:

  1. Sounds logical. Why does it then seem like it won't happen, at least any time soon?

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  2. Er... I thought I went into pretty good detail concerning the 10th.

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  3. Bill Golden at 8:00am July 10
    What about 10th Mountain Division? But your point is well taken. We need greater emphasis on extreme rough terrain. I was a Soviets in Afghanistan analyst for a number of years. They faced the same challenges -- and paid for it dearly when the Afghani drew the battle into the mountain areas.

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  4. Bill Golden at 4:05pm July 10
    I overlooked the menu tiny print of 'View Original Post' ... recommend putting a link to the blog article either in the comment text or using the link feature.

    That said, I finally made it to the original story and it is well written and thought out. And you did a great job on the 10th ... you've got a very inviting writing style (except for the occasional F-Bomb).

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  5. Gerard Rodrigue at 5:04pm July 10
    Well written I agree. While making some good points I think you can improve it a little. You made some headway on the infrastructure and T.O.&E. I think you can do better on making a case for WHY mountains are tactically different than another environment. Admittedly I did not read the study and probably won't.

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  6. I got everything except for the need for a new mountain warfare school. Couldn't your concerns be dealt with in the existing schools, especially considering the need for efficiencies in all areas of government spending?

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  7. So, having your 20,000+ students commute from Colorado to New York and/or Alaska for training would be considered efficient?

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  8. @GR: Good call. I had meant to go into a bit more historical detail, particularly about the alpines of World War II, but I guess it slipped the moment.

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  9. Makes zero sense to me why this is the case. It's just wrong... As are so many things.

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