CAMP GRAYLING, Mich. ― While active duty troops have been traveling up to the far reaches of Canada and Norway to get acclimated to fighting in deep snow and bitter cold, in January members of the National Guard tested their cold-weather skills on some home turf: northern Michigan.
The first run of Northern Strike 23, a 10-day National Guard combined arms exercise, wrapped up over the weekend. This marks the sixth year the Guard has put on the event, part of the U.S. military’s push to get ready for military confrontation in the Arctic, where, as ice melts, waterways become more navigable and countries like China and Russia increase their military presence.
“If you look at a map from the North Pole, you see how close all these countries are,” Army Gen. Dan Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told Military Times on Thursday. “And you also see the vastness of the Arctic. And as we look at the temperatures increasing and further access to the Arctic, some of these scenarios that almost nobody would operate in because they’re so difficult ― now we’re starting to see countries move into those areas. And there will be competition there.”
In addition to adversaries like Russia and China, there are NATO allies like Norway operating in the Arctic, countries that the U.S. would be obligated to support in the event of a confrontation.
“We’ve got to be able to go wherever that potential fight may be, and we need to provide presence there,” Hokanson added. “You need to be able to go there, and not just go there and survive ― go there, operate and thrive.”
As part of his visit Thursday, Hokanson took some live-fire practice on the M777 Howitzer, one of the NATO weapons making a difference in beating back Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Field artillery was the exercise’s main focus, with members of the 20th Special Forces Group working with forward observers, along with an engineer platoon that helped build makeshift fire bases and maintain roads.
Also on scene were members of the Latvian special forces, a regular participant in Northern Strike and a country deeply alerted to Russian military expansion.
“They live this day to day, they’ve lived this for generations. And in many cases, that threat is present today,” Hokanson said. “And you see the emergency and their support for Ukraine. But then also the focus ― ‘Hey, we need to be prepared if something happens along our border.’ It’s, in a way, a citizen emergency.”
Northern Strike fits neatly into larger overall plans Hokanson has for the Guard, in terms of becoming more interoperable with the Army.
During a press conference Tuesday, he told reporters that the bureau intends to not only expand its exercise and training rotation lineup, but to modernize its brigade and division structure to more closely mirror the active duty Army.
“I think the biggest thing I took from today is, we say we need to operate in the most complex environments ... and I think what we saw today is our Guardsmen realizing that ... the Arctic is an important environment,” Hokanson told Military Times. “And we need to take every opportunity to really train [in] environments [that] we may not be exposed [to] all the time — just to remember we can operate [there].”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.