Leadership Insights for Military Operations in Cold Weather and at High Altitudes
Russell W. Schumacher, Jr.1
Soldiers, scholars, and military historians have always marveled at Hannibal overwhelming the Italian Peninsula by way of the Alps. This classic historical feat was successful primarily because he planned his campaign in detail and was prepared for any known eventuality. This early military operation, which was conducted in the cold at high altitude, is one of many that lends credibility to the need to know how to operate in these areas of the world.
Cold and high altitude have always been enemies of military planners as well as their troops, and most large armies of the world have training centers where they maintain an expertise in cold-weather operations. The human body, which functions normally at 98.6°F (37°C), faces difficulty when the temperature ranges from –30°F to 30°F (–34°F to –1°C). The question is, how
can the military operate in this environment? Is it clothing, equipment, state of mind, leadership, physical condition, medical knowledge, or proper nutrition that allows soldiers to function in a cold, high place? The truth of the matter is, it can be all of these factors or just a few, depending on the individual and the circumstances. However, when dealing with large military forces, the initial planning must include all of the above factors, and probably more, and they must be consistently addressed throughout an operation.
THE MIND AND LEADERSHIP
The single most important factor for successful military operations in cold and at high altitudes is the development of a state of mind that allows soldiers to survive and actually thrive, if they are familiarized, oriented, and led properly. The philosophy of simply "surviving the cold" has no place in U.S. military operations. Troops must be convinced that the cold is manageable, and that it is not something to be intimidated by, but rather something to respect and conquer. This task is not easy to accomplish. Consider the young Marine who declared that he could not ski or adapt to the cold because he was from Oklahoma. To follow that logic, the great Carthaginian Hannibal should never have crossed the Alps because he was from sunny North Africa. Many people believe that they are not capable of dealing with the cold or that they should not have to. Therefore, cold is a daily challenge to field commanders, and military leaders must be masterful psychologists with regard to planning for cold and high-altitude operations. They must be aware that exceptional physical fitness and proper equipment and its proper use contribute much to building the soldiers' confidence in a cold environment. The expectations of soldiers' performance must also be reexamined. This issue can cause difficulties for leaders. How a unit performs at sea level on a 75°F (24°C) day has no relationship to what the same unit can do at 9,000 ft (2,745 m) when the temperature is 20°F (-7°C), when it is snowing and the wind is blowing off and on at 20 knots, or even when the sun is shining. High altitude is a major hindrance, and if leaders do not recognize this fact and adjust their expectations for their troops and mission accordingly, they are in for a long day and probably eventual disaster. Simply put, the best equipment and physical condition will not in itself create success. The commander, as well as each small-unit leader and the individual, is responsible for developing a positive attitude toward the situation. If possible, this training must take place weeks and months in advance of any military operation. If not, then the commander and all the subordinate leadership must work daily to maintain a positive attitude among the troops. Adaptation and flexibility are key to success in cold and high-altitude environments.
The diet of an average soldier is much like that of an average American. It is not always the best. However, one cannot function for long on a poor diet in the cold and certainly not above 6,000 or 7,000 ft (1,830 or 2,135 m) for any extended period of time. The caloric intake required in this environment, as well as the kind of food received from those calories, is very important. Soldiers can survive on Snickers bars and Top Ramen soup for a few days (which is often the case in short-term military exercises), but for long campaigns troops need to eat a proper diet to avoid early casualties. The rations provided by the U.S. Department of Defense are most adequate, as long as variation for troop morale and the proper daily intake of calories are maintained.
A commander must be aware of the potential medical problems that soldiers face in the cold and at higher elevations. These problems are not hypothetical; they are real casualty producers and killers. History reveals that the cold and high altitude (above 7,000 ft [2,135 m]) produce far more casualties than bullets or any other single cause. Acute mountain sickness, high-altitude cerebral edema, high-altitude pulmonary edema, and frostbite are all potential casualties that are the price of doing business in cold, high places. All medical personnel need to be trained to deal with them, and battalion, regimental, and division surgeons must know how to treat these ailments and conditions. Small-unit leaders and personnel need to know the proper way to recognize symptoms and to react so that they can assist their fellow soldiers and prevent death. Excellent leadership, clothing, equipment, and diet do not in themselves prevent these medically related problems. Specific awareness and treatment of potential medical problems must be maintained by all personnel and planned for well in advance of an operation.
Just as troops can be trained to attack a fortified position (which logic warns against), troops can be trained to become acclimatized and to operate in the cold. However, such training requires masterful and consistent leadership and education. Of the many battalions that have come through the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, the good ones all had strong, knowledgeable, flexible commanders who had plenty of common sense. These
commanders took a deliberate, planned approach to unit training. The took care of their personnel and did not exhaust them early in the training cycle. To train troops to operate in cold and high-altitude environments, military leaders must provide specific training and reemphasize all aspects of it on a daily basis.
PHYSICAL CONDITION OF TROOPS
Peak physical condition of soldiers is critical for operations in cold and high-altitude environments. Some of the physical challenges in cold, high places include the weight of the pack, size of the lungs, and natural fatigue caused by the cold. Soldiers must be in superb physical condition to compensate for these challenges. Generally, the body will adjust to a higher altitude over a period of time (80+ percent in 90 days) and physical performance levels will return to approximately 80 percent of sea-level performance levels within 90 days. However, even though the body adapts, the soldier must also deal with fatigue, the much heavier pack (more clothing and equipment), and less oxygen in the alpine environment. This combination of challenges is devastating to soldiers who are in poor physical condition and who then become a burden to their units. Of the many kinds of units that have trained in the mountains, those that focused part of their training on exceptional physical conditioning for the most part had a great advantage over those who did not.
CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT
Probably nothing has affected cold-weather military operations more positively in recent years than the public's exploding interest in challenging outdoor activities and the necessary clothing and equipment to pursue them. Clothing and equipment manufacturers have responded by creating superb lightweight clothing and equipment, and the U.S. military has taken advantage of this trend by obtaining an entirely new inventory of cold-weather clothing and equipment. However, much of this equipment is complex and sophisticated. Soldiers must know its proper use; otherwise, they are better off in the old wool and cotton used at the Bastogne in World War II. For example, with the old gear, there was only one way to wear a heavy, olive-drab wool sock. With the new synthetic and wool three-sock system, there are many combinations, and soldiers can freeze their feet if the socks are not worn properly. Training and small-unit leadership, if consistent, can address these problems.
The effects of cold and high altitude on the U.S. soldier are, by nature, negative. Military leadership must take into consideration the specific elements discussed above to compensate for the challenges presented by this unique environment. Soldiering generally is not difficult as long as individuals can adjust to the situation presented. Cold, high environments require great adaptation and knowledge by all personnel involved. A failure to recognize this fact can spell disaster. Unlike Hannibal, who did not have GoreTex, the U.S. military has a broad range of equipment and knowledge of how to operate effectively in the cold and at high altitudes. Military leaders must make sure that it is used with all the skill and energy required.
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