U.S. Troops Hunted for Mock Satellite in Arctic War Game
Training session highlighted concerns about space, as well as the region
When U.S. Army paratroopers jumped from their plane near Dead Horse, Alaska on Feb. 22, 2017, the sub-zero weather was reason enough for the practice session. Parachute jumps are complicated and dangerous in the best weather.
But the exercise planners had already added another unique element to the war game. When they reached the ground, the soldiers from 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment and 1st Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment went hunting for a mock satellite.
“It’s a real eye opener for them,” U.S. Army Maj. Isaac Henderson, 1–40th Cavalry’s executive officer, told the service’s reporters. “Our biggest concern is contact frostbite as they strap on their skis and equipment.”
With an ambient temperature of minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit and a wind chill nearly twice that cold, pieces of cold gear could cause potentially serious injuries if they touched any exposed skin. On top of that, the frigid conditions played havoc with equipment and vehicles.
Between the objectives and the environment, the exercise — nicknamed Spartan Pegasus 2017 — highlighted concerns about the situation in space and the Arctic region down below.
To be sure, it is important for American troops to practice military operations in extreme cold weather. For years already, climate change has had an especially pronounced impact near the earth’s poles.
As the ice continues to melt above the Arctic Circle, previously inaccessible trade routes and natural riches have become potential international flashpoints. Arctic nations, particularly the United States and Russia, have looked to expand their military capabilities near the North Pole to bolster claims to these pathways and resources.
“According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Arctic is warming more rapidly than the rest of the planet,” the Pentagon reported to Congress in December 2016. “Economic and security concerns may increase the risk of disputes between Arctic and non-Arctic nations over access to Arctic shipping lanes and natural resources.”
Above and below — paratroopers on the ground in snow shoes and skies during Spartan Pegasus 2017. U.S. Army photos
In February 2014, officials in Moscow announced it would set up a dedicated headquarters for operations in the Arctic, which followed existing plans to establish bases in the region to host troops, warplanes and warships. The Pentagon response to the increased Russian activity was an updated strategy for the area and increased cold-weather training sessions.
Also in February 2014, the 1-40th Cavalry Regiment conducted the first Spartan Pegasus exercise. According to the Army, this was the first time the unit had jumped into an area above the Arctic Circle.
Two months earlier, the soldiers had descended with full ski gear into the Malemute Drop Zone at Fort Richardson in Alaska, further south. On May 1, 2014, Army airborne engineers performed their own parachute jump over Dead Horse, dubbed Arctic Pegasus.
In the 2017 practice session, the weather was apparently particularly brutal. Batteries in 1-40th’s tracked Small Unit Support Vehicles — aka SUSVs — couldn’t hold a charge and helicopters ended up grounded for parts of the mission.
The Swedish-made personnel carriers are the U.S. Army’s only combat vehicles dedicated to getting around snowy environments. After getting the first SUSVs in the 1980s, the ground combat branch also bought ambulance and mobile command center variants.
It was so cold, sweat would freeze if exposed to elements. At least one soldier had to evacuate the area before the practice session was over because of frostbite.
Oh, and don’t forget the bears. Select soldiers carried live ammunition during the operation just in case Alaska’s wildlife became a threat.
All of these hazards clearly took center stage during the war game. However, the search for the downed spacecraft pointed to an entirely different set of concerns.
Often filled with toxic materials that are perfectly fine for unmanned space flight, satellites and other space debris can pose serious hazards back on earth. In January 1978, the Soviet Union’s Kosmos 954 fell out of orbit, scattering material from its nuclear power plant across northern Canada.
U.S. Army soldiers move a frostbite casualty to a waiting CH-47 helicopter during Spartan Pegasus 2017. Army photo
Over the course of a nearly 10-month operation, a team of Americans and Canadians recovered 12 sections of the satellite, 10 of which were still radioactive. The Kremlin ultimately paid Ottawa a sum of $3 million Canadian dollars over the incident.
Five years earlier, another atomic-powered Soviet satellites had crashed into the Pacific Ocean and a third came down in the South Atlantic in 1983. It’s not hard to imagine future accidents involving falling spacecraft, nuclear or otherwise.
In addition, with the United States planning future manned space missions, there is always the possibility American troops may need to rescue astronauts. In 1966, the Pentagon sent a special team to what was then called Aden, part of present-day Yemen, in case a Mercury space capsule slammed into the small Middle Eastern country.
Even more worrisome is the possibility the Pentagon might need to recover satellites or other space objects in a war. In 2007, China blasted an obsolete orbiting weather system with a missile, sparking concerns about what that country might do in an actual conflict.
More than six years later, a Chinese rocket put three small satellites into orbit that might be able to repair or destroy other equipment in space remotely. Experts are concerned that these tools could be a threat to America’s intelligence gathering abilities and nuclear deterrent.
Unfortunately, formal definitions and laws have yet to catch up with the possibility of conflict in space. The Pentagon is still working on figuring out what would constitute an attack and how to respond.
“It’s really difficult to go ahead and justify how you might attack somebody’s homeland if they’ve taken out a satellite that you don’t even admit exists,” Douglas Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for space policy at the time, said in October 2016. “Probably people are going to die on the ground where nobody’s going to die in space.”
Regardless, if the systems are as highly classified as Loverro suggested, they’d be sensitive even on the ground, in pieces. In an real fight, troops such as those from 1-40th may have to battle the enemy and the elements to reach the spacecraft and whatever is left of its secret equipment.
With war games such as Spartan Pegasus, there’s a better chance they’ll be prepared for whatever crises or accidents come their way.