From Feb. 16-24, approximately 120 army reservists will learn the ropes of cold-weather operations as part of Exercise Arctic Bison 13, an effort to form a new Arctic Response Company Group (ARCG).
“This exercise, basically, is building winter operating capability, Arctic capability per se,” Capt. Rang Phan said.
“That’s the quick and dirty of it, I would say. We’re just refining our winter skill.”
Longtime soldiers Phan and Warrant Officer Nathan Guiboche have key command roles in Arctic Bison 13 and visited Prince Albert on Thursday to discuss their agenda for Candle Lake.
Since 2008, the Canadian Forces (CF) have devoted more and more resources to Arctic operations, alongside other northern countries such as Russia and Norway.
Multiple factors have influenced this strategic pivot. Arguably the most important are the region’s oil wealth and the transformative effects of climate change.
“There are natural resources up there … and because of the global warming, the north is becoming way more accessible,” Guiboche said.
“So we have sovereignty issues with some nations … Russia, for instance. One of the shelves that is underneath the ocean, they say that’s it’s part of their land mass and we say that it’s part of our land mass.”
Phan downplayed national rivalries and pointed to other economic factors.
“People have the perception that Russia’s the border, but they’re not our enemy,” he said.
“The CF’s role is that we want to look toward there as a more safe, secure northern environment, because right now there’s a lot of activity going in the north. The passage is opening up, there’s a more equal tourism going on up there, and the flight path, instead of just going around the two great oceans, now it’s kind of crossed the north …
“Military-wise, we have to be prepared just basically if anything ever happened.”
The reserve soldiers taking part in Arctic Bison 13 are part of 38 Canadian Brigade Group, which draws volunteers from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. They started their initial training in September and later did a dry run of the exercise in Shilo, Man.
The main goal is to ensure that soldiers can carry out operations amidst the unique challenges of winter conditions.
“Just going from point A to point B is a huge challenge, and then doing … actual military tasks on top of that, everything just happens slower in the wintertime,” Guiboche said.
This exercise, basically, is building winter operating capability, Arctic capability per se. - Capt. Rang Phan
“It’s just the nature of what we’re doing. In the summer things can happen a lot quicker, but in the winter everything slows down. So the troops have to get used to that, they have to understand that we’ve got enough skills and equipment that they can do all this … and then we develop standard operating procedures that way, and that way everyone understands when things happen, we’re all moving the same direction.”
As a location, Candle Lake offered numerous advantages for such training.
Positioned at a high latitude where urban areas start to peter off, it is an ideal simulation of the sparsely-populated Arctic region in terms of communication.
Terrain is also a key factor. Arctic operations tend to take place in two types of environments, wooded areas and open barrens. Candle Lake offers both the former around the lake and the latter on the frozen lake itself.
Among the tasks soldiers will train in are long-range patrolling, surveillance, search-and-rescue operations and community outreach.
The vast distances and harsh conditions of the Arctic tend to make these operations more difficult than normal. The CF are currently attempting to increase their capabilities in that area.
“Do we have the range to support a platoon 300 km out? 150 km out? Do we have that capability?” Phan asked.
“That’s what we’re trying to develop right now, seeing that if I send a guy (or) a group of people out … if I send them out 150 km away, can they sustain? Do I still maintain radio contact with them? If something goes wrong, can I react? So that’s what we’re testing right now.”
Community outreach is a less obvious element of winter operations, but necessary if soldiers wish to find a route through the area, land a helicopter or interact with residents in general.
The military’s attempt to promote community relations is one reason for its publicity blitz in advance of Arctic Bison 13.
“We just want to meet with the public, get out there seeing who we are, what we do, just assurance to the public that you do have an armed forces,” Phan said.
Members of the public are invited to meet the soldiers and observe the exercise on Feb. 20, which the military has billed as Visits Day. Visits will take place near Candle Lake at Sandy Bay beach.