This article will take a look at warfare during winter using the iron triangle.It will provide some insight for those unfamiliar with hurdles and possibilities that winter brings with it. Using firepower, protection and mobility as key elements we can determine, evaluate and rank how different weapons systems and TTP:s might work in arctic conditions. Iron triangle will be broken down into sub elements:
- Visibility and ability to detect
- Weapon system effectiveness in deep snow
- Mobility in snow both on vehicle and on foot
- Dynamic environment
- Protection from detection
- Engineering and shelter from elements
Foggy day in Russian Karelia
To deliver effects upon enemy one has to know their location and identify them as hostiles. More often than not this can be trickier during winter than in good conditions. Fog and blizzards are common during winter and they reduce visibility not only in the visual wavelength but also in the infrared wavelength making thermal optics less effective. It doesn’t even have to be blizzard, winds combined with loose light snow can create the same effect.
Clouds are often at a low level during winter months and this can make using UAVs very demanding and in some cases impossible.
As you can see from the video the clouds in the background are cold and this means UAVs with normal cameras and IR cameras have to be below cloud level risking detection and observing smaller area than they would be from a higher level. UAVs using radars don’t have to worry about clouds as much but even their signals might be dampened by the clouds. Thick snow on branches of pines and spruces also make observation from above trickier and can be used to camouflage even large amounts of troops and equipment.
Light fragmentation weapons suffer greatly from deep snow and during WW2 Finns concluded that guns, howitzers and mortars smaller than 75mm were useless in snow deeper than 40-50cm. Heavier weapons also suffer from smaller effects in deep snow and airburst ammunition is the best way to go when shooting into area that has deep snow. Hand grenades, 40mm grenades and rifle grenades are also rendered almost useless. It takes 1-3 meters of snow to stop a bullet from small arms so this effect on firepower is negligible. Medium and large caliber weapons don’t suffer as much from cold conditions but depending on the temperature inside the vehicle the powder inside the cartridge burns slower resulting in slower muzzle velocity and less penetration. This may also lead to larger dispersion for indirect fire weapons. If the firing values are calculated using temperature that’s outside and the cartridge is put into the warm breech it’ll warm up and shoot further than intended if it stays there for some time.
Ankle deep snow is enough to make walking much more cumbersome and knee/thigh deep will make walking extremely tedious. Even though skis and snowshoes exist to make getting around easier we can’t assault a target wearing skis or snowshoes in most cases. Advancing 200 meters by fire and maneuver in snow is extremely tiresome and assaults should be planned with approach routes in mind.
Now do the same in combat gear
In peacetime exercises we often have perfectly plowed roads before the morning paper comes but in a frozen conflict someone has to get out there and make sure roads remain operable for wheeled vehicles too. Trucks hauling tonnes upon tonnes of supplies in containers might not have the best off road mobility or even shallow snow mobility. This also means vehicles moving at the front or securing flanks need to be able to traverse roads that possibly haven’t been plowed in weeks or several days. As you can see from the video it takes many hours and much resources to get one Boxer out of the bank. In a war that Boxer would probably have been left behind for others to take care of and its crew and infantry moved to some other vehicle to continue the mission.
Tracked vehicles are obviously best at operating in snowy conditions thanks to their low track pressure that sometimes even exceeds that of a soldier on foot. Deep snow also poses some risks to tracked vehicles such as rocks and tree stumps under the snow could throw off a track although they are minor risks. Even tracked vehicles can get caught if the snow layer is thick enough to carry the vehicle from its bottom leading to tracks losing traction.
For infantry and light tracked vehicles winter opens more avenues to move along during winter. Frozen bogs, rivers and lakes enable movement where it isn’t possible for most of the year although they should be used with caution. Also areas with soft soil such as sand dunes become more accessible to wheeled vehicles. Extremely cold winter with little snowfall enables tactical mobility on a unparalleled level. Frozen rivers also have a downside; wet gap crossing might not be possible and the ice might not be thick enough to carry heavy IFVs. Solution would be exploding the ice open but this will take time and most certainly would notify the enemy. Even after opening path in the ice it is unsure whether the gap can be crossed or not because of the floating ice cubes. Amphibious vehicles might be able to cross though.
In terms of protection and security winter is a double edged sword. On the other hand it provides enhanced protection from aerial observation by covering thermal radiation but also reveals troops by the marks they leave in snow. With proper TTP:s these revealing effects can be overcome and units hiding in snowy forest may live to fight another day. As stated earlier snow and fog are great at concealing troops provided they use proper gear and camouflage nets to do so. Any army or branch that plans on fighting in snow should start with the basics by having proper winter gear and right camouflage. Abrams’ with desert paint job aren’t fit for defending Baltics.
Even good personal camouflage can be ruined by having wrong coloured backpack
Digging trenches and firing position during winter is excessively hard due to frozen ground and requires much more time and special equipment. There are explosive charges that shoots EFP down into the ground to make little hole which then can be filled with explosives to make a fighting position. Digging down with excavators takes a long time and this diminished ability to dig down should be taken into consideration when allocating excavator usage times to subordinate units. Also constructing minefields will take more time and to do it effectively would require a vehicle to do the mine pits. Winter makes camouflaging fighting positions easier because all it requires is shoveling some snow over the position.
In the end winter causes engineering to take much more time due to frozen ground and water and in some cases makes certain functions impossible. Building above ground with Hescos and sandbags becomes more desirable and faster compared to building below or at ground level but they are also easier to detect. Hescos are good option as long as there is dry sand or soil available to fill them with.
Not only soldiers need protection from elements but gear and supplies also. Medical supplies need to be kept warm and same applies to water. Winterized fuel and lubricants shouldn’t have any problem in cold weather. Batteries are depleted much faster in winter and vehicles need to be pre warmed before running or be kept running which produces heat signal and increases fuel use. Cold starting vehicles is very demanding for the engine and lowers their life expectancy but in most cases vehicles that are meant to be used in arctics are specced to cope with this. Norwegian XA-vehicles have to able to start on the first try after idling 24 hours in freezing temperatures. Soldiers need more calories and water during winter and if not addressed will lower their alertness and strength but puts more strain on logistics to deliver them much needed extra food and water. Under extreme temperatures some machines seize to function entirely and this applies mostly to electronics. Futuristic radios and tablets might become nothing more than dead weight if they don’t work in the arctics.
Personal experiences about fighting in (sub)arctic environment
Your subordinates will tire much faster and leaders need to stay on their toes not to succumb to the elements. It takes absolute self discipline when you’re tired and exhausted to the point that even eating is an ordeal. This is the point when training has to kick in. Sticking to the TTPs and taking time to eat before going to sleep or melting water from snow sometimes has to be ordered because not all will do it own their own. These measures also ensure they have needed bodily strength to carry on missions but also makes leaders job much easier. Stamina, fitness and appropriate amount of body fat (12-17% of body weight) enables you to focus on mission at hand rather than physical survival. Leaders need to get their hands dirty in physically demanding tasks to conserve subordinates strength and to show example but conserving their energy is more important.
Don’t be embarrassed to notify your superior that you might not make it to some deadline and learn from it. Winter is a demanding mistress. Failing will help you appreciate time management and also forces you become better at delegating tasks downward in the chain of command.
Just moving around demands much more thought than might look to untrained eye. One has to be vigilant about the type of snow being traversed and how those footprints will look like to the enemies direction. Deceiving tracks are much more effective and required to throw anyone tailing you off of your tracks. When talking at company level making tracks is wanted and loads of them. This will make it harder to determine amount of troops that have travelled there and confuses enemy about there where they’ve been heading. If some patch of road has been mined making it look recently travelled is excessively difficult and this undermines its effectiveness. Peer enemy will scout ahead with UAVs and take notes which roads are in use and which are not.
Mistakes I’ve made so others wouldn’t make the same mistakes:
- Underestimate the time it takes to go from A to B
- Approach a target with binoculars hanging from neck, snow will stick to the lenses and they’ll be of no use
- Make sure that your subordinates can read the snow and travel along safe paths. Walking on snow that has running water underneath is a risk
- Learn to read the snow yourself
- If possible watch the weather forecast, going to sleep under a starry sky only to wake up to 20cm snowfall isn’t pleasant
Everything takes longer during winter: marching, setting up camp, foot patrols, making food, absolutely everything except dying of hypothermia. Operational tempo needs to match the conditions in the field to enable the troops sufficient resources to complete their mission. Especially recon troops need to be given enough time because their tasks can’t be accomplished properly under haste in demanding conditions. Use of supplies and spare parts will increase and running out of supplies is much more life threatening than during other seasons. In the end it’s important to make winter your friend and not the enemy, adapt and overcome.