Enhancing military mobility through Arctic logistics

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Patrick Sullivan
  • 673d ABW/PA

Units across Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson came together in a joint effort to coordinate rail operations for the first time to support Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center 24-2, U.S. Army Alaska’s largest annual Arctic-readiness exercise.

Two rail lines were loaded with a variety of military transport vehicles Jan. 22 and 23, 2024, to be transported from JBER to Fort Wainwright for use in the exercise, which begins Feb. 8.

In the vast expanse of Alaska, the transportation of military assets poses unique challenges and opportunities. In previous iterations of the exercise, most forces and vehicles would convoy the near 400-mile journey from JBER to Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Using rail allows for reduced risk in transiting the often-treacherous Interior.

“Using rail operations for JPMRC validated our mobilization systems and processes while confirming interoperability with our joint partners,” said U.S. Army Maj. John Gibson, support operations officer for 17th Combat Sustainment Battalion. “Rail operations are cost-effective and logistically efficient, which reduces Soldier man-hours and logistics requirements in an Arctic environment for this iteration of JPMRC.”

The U.S. Air Force’s 773rd Logistics Readiness Squadron spearheaded the effort alongside the U.S. Army’s 17th CSSB, with a number of other units across the installation collaborating in the joint effort.

Not only was the 17th CSSB’s 486th Movement Control Team instrumental to load operations, the battalion also provided the manpower to form the load teams, tie-down teams, and drivers – who all operated in temperatures approaching 20 below zero to execute the mission.

Furthermore, the Air Force’s 673d Civil Engineer Squadron and 673rd Contracting Squadron collaborated to secure a last-minute contract with local vendors to clear the rail tracks during a winter season that generated record-setting snowfall.

“Shipping military equipment via rail validates our installation’s ability to capitalize on an important logistics node commonly used within Alaska’s commercial logistics network and broadens our military logistics capabilities in the Arctic region,” said Michael Boy, director of 773d LRS Deployment Flight. “This movement has strengthened our partnership with Alaska Railroad, provided important feedback on winter track maintenance, and validated our installation’s rail loading equipment and training provided to 11th Airborne Division Soldiers.”

The logistical operation involved meticulous planning and coordination, ensuring that vehicles and equipment are not only transported safely but also arrive in a state of readiness for immediate deployment. The operation showcases the military's capability to leverage Alaska's existing rail infrastructure for strategic purposes, enhancing operational flexibility and responsiveness.

Compounding the difficulties of operating in Arctic conditions, the size of JPMRC 24-2 provides significant logistical hurdles. The exercise is focused on large-scale combat operations and the training and tactics development for deployment operations in an Arctic environment – with more than 10,000 troops taking part. Almost the entirety of the Army’s 11th Airborne Division will be participating, alongside U.S. Marines, the Alaska Army National Guard, and Canadian military.

Using rail for the first time during this JPMRC iteration allows U.S. forces to hone these important logistical capabilities to support sustained combat operations on a large scale.

The logistical lessons learned and capabilities demonstrated in Alaska can be applied to the larger Indo-Pacific theater, where geographical and environmental challenges can similarly affect military operations. The ability to mobilize and deploy forces rapidly across vast distances is a key component of the United States' strategy to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.

“Leveraging multimodal transportation operations, such as rail, provides integrated and uninterrupted distribution of personnel, equipment, and materiel within theater to meet mission requirements,” Gibson explained. “Rail operations are logistically efficient and cost-effective, given the ability to move immense personnel, equipment, and materiel across vast distances and rugged terrain. In addition, rail operations can quickly facilitate the transportation of oversized and overweight equipment from debarkation ports to critical locations close to main supply routes, key terrain, and other transportation hubs.”

By overcoming the unique challenges posed by Alaska's geography and climate, U.S. forces not only ensure their readiness for regional operations but also enhance their capability to project power and maintain stability in one of the world's most strategically important areas.