U.S. special operations builds up Arctic muscle


With the Arctic emerging again as a domain for great power competition, U.S. Special Operations Command North (SOCNORTH) is tasked with providing quick-response deterrence to potential threats to North America.

Brig. Gen. Shawn R. Satterfield, commander of SOCNORTH, outlined the challenges of that mission in a July 21, 2021, discussion on Arctic special operations. The presentation was part of a series of distinguished speakers co-hosted by the Royal United Services Institute of Nova Scotia, The Watch magazine and U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). SOCNORTH is the special operations component of USNORTHCOM.

Satterfield said Canada is a critical mission partner, especially in the Arctic, where an assertive Russia and even the People’s Republic of China are emerging as strategic competitors.

“From a military perspective, our alliances are strong and critical to U.S. and North American security,” Satterfield said. He emphasized that special operations forces (SOF) from the U.S., Canada and European allies such as Norway and Denmark enhance their already formidable capabilities by participating in joint Arctic training.

Such cooperation has a long history: Satterfield told of how the storied Devils Brigade, a World War II U.S.-Canadian commando unit trained to operate in mountain and winter environments, scaled Monte la Difensa and overcame the German forces during the Italian Campaign.

Satterfield said joint exercises remain vital as the U.S. military “rebalances from two decades of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency toward strategic competition.”

In the Arctic, competition is growing as climate change melts polar ice, opening sea routes and making resources such as oil and natural gas accessible. There is also the military buildup by potential adversaries in the region.

To that end, the U.S. Army recently released a strategy to ensure its Arctic supremacy. To support that mission, Satterfield said SOCNORTH will use three vectors for Arctic success:

Advance capabilities: Subzero temperatures, harsh terrain and long distances pose daunting challenges, and SOF must not only survive but thrive in such conditions. “It is paramount that forces operate and train in the environment they will potentially fight in,” Satterfield said. “The Arctic represents one of the most challenging environments on the planet.” (Pictured: U.S. Army paratroopers jump into a drop zone from a Royal Canadian Air Force C-130 as part of Arctic Edge 2020.)

During exercise Vigilant Shield in April 2020, for example, U.S. Army Green Berets conducted operations in Deadhorse, Alaska, including an airborne infiltration from a C-17 while temperatures were minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The team also conducted underwater operations and cut through 7 feet of ice for the dive. “These training opportunities allow SOF to identify equipment and training gaps … ensuring they are prepared for any potential conflict or crisis,” Satterfield said.

Enhance readiness: Conduct realistic joint, combined and service-component exercises such as the multilateral Arctic Edge 22 in Alaska in 2022.

Understand the environment: Satterfield said our “knowledge and subject-matter expertise has atrophied since the Cold War, a shortfall we are working hard to rectify in partnership with our allies and partners.” SOF must conduct activities in likely or potential operational areas.

Finally, Satterfield said, there is a maxim in special operations that is especially important for the Arctic: “Competent SOF,” he said, “cannot be created after emergencies occur.”