Monday, January 23, 2017

Military operations in extremely cold climates

Milops in extremely cold climates are very challenging because of the strain they put on the troops and on the equipment. The restrictions on mobility make any kind of advance extremely slow and maneuver warfare can become frustratingly difficult.

While in conventional land battle in non-glaciated regions, a typical ratio of 3:1 (attacker-to-defender) is needed for military success, the same ratio in glaciated situations becomes much closer to the 10:1 number used for high altitude warfare.

The amount of resources needed to sustain combat effectiveness under such conditions scales roughly with the ratio of manpower. And simply put - it is extremely expensive to conduct combat operations in extremely cold climates.

In this post - I briefly discuss key elements of the costs associated with such operations. Most of this is information I have gleaned from various sources in India's terrible war on the Saltoro Ridge and the conflict sometimes called the "Kargil War of 1999".

What I have written up here applies to all manner of force projection (sea, land and air). Hopefully by reading this I can prevail on you to discuss this with your friends and improve public understanding of the costs of such misadventures. A good public grasp of simple key concepts is essential to preventing a costly and pointless war.

The cost of orientation

Any kind of combat requires knowing where you are and where you are going. This is sometimes referred to as "orientation". In extremely cold regions, the weather is unpredictable and the snow accumulation on the ground can change. Even if you have geolocation through GPS or ground based RF beacons, you still have to relate that to your instantaneous geography and that can be extremely difficult in a completely snow covered and featureless terrain. Additionally most electronics does not work well at extremely low temperatures, special features have to be incorporated to permit batteries and generators to actually work properly. As RF reception cannot be guaranteed, military forces have to use a multi-layered approach to geolocation and mapping positions. Making all that equipment work reliably in the cold is extremely expensive. In addition to installing the necessary navigational infrastructure, you have to add meteorological stations all over your line of attack or defense. Without it you have no idea what to expect in terms of mobility restrictions.

The cost of exposure 

When you expose something to the extreme cold - two things happen - firstly it loses heat to the surrounding via Newton's law of cooling and secondly as you cool an object its size changes and any reactions it relies on become slower.

In addition to this there is a psychological cost to be considered. Snow warfare soldiers can be conditioned to accept this cost but it can be brutal and severely degrade combat effectiveness. This an entire universe of issues in itself and far outside the scope of my expertise, so I leave this out of the discussion.

When discussing the effects of cold on men we deal mostly with the heat loss issue, when discussing the effects on weapons (and systems) you have to mostly think about the physical effects on reaction dynamics and of thermal contraction.

A soldier without proper insulation will suffer  frostbite within 10-15 min of exposure to extreme cold conditions. The exact effect will vary with wind chill factor and outside temperature. Proper insulation requires at least three layers of clothing -
  1. a first layer that wicks away sweat which can dramatically increase heat loss from the skin, 
  2. a second layer that will create a moisture and thermal barrier between the innermost layer and the outermost layer.
  3. a third layer which will provide water-proofing and abrasion resistance to the garment.
The soldier will also need to carry fuel to keep warm in case any of the clothing fails. All extremities will need another layer of clothing (gloves, boots etc...) and the any exposed skin will need to be covered with a wax layer to prevent direct thermal contact between the cold air and human tissue. If properly dressed the soldier will only have exposure through the cold air inhaled directly into the lungs. 

The net effect of this "proper insulation" is to increase the weight the soldier has to carry and restrict the soldier's mobility. 

As weapons go - cold temperatures will cause cold-locking - where the critical-to-function parts of the weapon contract below manufacturer spec-ed tolerances. This can usually be mitigated by using weapons designed with lower tolerances but then such weapons are also prone to accuracy and other quality issues. Additionally the low temperatures may change the burn rate of propellants by effectively increasing the activation barrier to mission-critical chemical reactions. This would contributed to a decline in exit velocities for projectiles and reduced yield in explosives. If both these happen together the weapon will most likely cease to function reliably. The only way to hedge against this is to heat up the weapons periodically. However as the enemy can easily observe this activity given its massive heat signature - this usually leads to a loss of the element of surprise. 

In order to keep weapons in working conditions and to keep themselves warm - soldiers will need fuel. The cost of shipping this fuel to forward positions can be quite high - even more so than the usual costs associated with FEBA logistics. This expensive and slender logistical thread can become the biggest vulnerability for a military expedition under extreme cold conditions.

The attrition cost

In order to keep a force combat effective under such conditions, you have to set up a large attrition reserve of acclimated soldiers and equipment. In places like the Saltoro AGPL, this cost is almost three times the resources actually deployed on the line.  Bearing in mind that the Indian posture on the Saltoro AGPL is predominantly defensive - an offensive posture along such a line would require even more resources.  In Indian Army parlance this kind of resource escalation in defensive posturing is referred to as "Siachenization". That nasty term is applicable in any similar context. 

In other contexts, any force on the FEBA will need significant reserves before engaging in operations Reserves will have to be maintained within easy reach of the FEBA and all lines of communication will have to be kept clear. 

This latter part is actually quite expensive. If your FEBA is 100 km from your reserve, you will need to keep 100 km of roads cleared of snow. If your FEBA is only accessible by ship or airplane - you will need to ensure that the shipping lane is clear of snow or the airfield is operable (no fog or accumulation). That can cost a lot of money. 

Additionally even in peacetime you will watch as soldiers come back from the FEBA with severe cold related injuries. Watching a steady stream of healthy young people go into the FEBA in *peacetime* and coming back home psychologically wrecked and physically crippled can take a huge toll on society and sap a nation's resolve to defend itself. That almost happened in the early stages of the Kargil conflict. It was a burst of celebratory patriotism in the Indian media that warded off an attack of the blues*. 

The weather-maneuver paradox

If the weather is favorable and the line of advance is clear -  your assault can surge ahead. However if the weather is clear and the line of advances is clear - the enemy can see you coming. If the weather is bad, your opponent can't see you but you can't really move either. 

Barring the odd chance that you have better weather than your opponent, the success of the maneuver rests entirely on your ability to read the weather conditions better than your opponent.  In essence you have a window in the weather that is opportune and if you miss it - the maneuver will fail. 

In a cold climate - weather can play other insidious roles in physically altering the axis of attack itself. A common example is when it is warm - you might well think all is well and an advance can proceed. However as the warm ground melts the underlying layers of ice, the ground becomes slushy and what was once a metaled road becomes a mud pit. And the axis of advance has to shift to accommodate this sudden change. 

Most military forces drill for such situations but seldom does that training translate into real world applications and the window of opportunity is often lost with disastrous consequences. 

Understanding these costs is key to correctly appraising the value of a conflict in extremely cold conditions. 

(*Blue was also the color of the trucks that brought the bodies of dead Indian soldiers back along. if you looked at National Highway - 1 Alpha - you would see lines of these blasted things packed with coffins. It was a terrible sight seldom shared with the general public in 1999. Instead the camera focused on NDTV reporter Barkha Dutt as she stood near a 155 mm Bofors Howitzer that belched fire on Pakistani positions. Without people like Burkha Dutt and Vishnu Som standing there and showing Indians what was being done to stop the tide of bodies, India would most likely have lost resolve to fight the war.) 


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