Armed with shiny new skis and with more robust packs on the way, infantry Marines may soon be making routine trips to Alaska to train in harsh cold weather conditions, a possibility that signals a major departure from the desert training environments of recent years.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller confirmed to Military.com in a December interview that the service was exploring ways to add an Alaska location to the currently limited array of options for cold weather training.
"There's a lot of good training areas in Alaska," he said. "There's actually some facilities and capabilities in Alaska we've been up to look at."
Neller declined to provide many specifics about how often Marines might travel to Alaska to train or who might be eligible for such training, but mentioned that the Army already maintained a cold weather training facility in Alaska, the Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids.
"The one thing Alaska has now is land and space," Neller said. "[The Army has] put a lot of money into their training facilities up there, so we're looking at how we can take advantage of that ... particularly in line with mountain operations and cold weather."
The Marine Corps has already taken steps to better train Marines deploying as part of a rotational force to Trondheim, Norway, where training in freezing conditions and exercises above the Arctic Circle make up a significant part of the mission set.
When Military.com visited the first rotation of the unit last May, troops complained that the Corps' stock of legacy cold-weather gear let them down in bitter and icy conditions. Some also said the training workup was lacking, leaving the Marines less than prepared to operate in weather extremes.
Staff Sgt. Troy Hauck, platoon sergeant for weapons platoon, Bravo company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, told Military.com then that, as a former instructor at the Marines' Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California, he would have liked to see the 300-man unit train there before deploying.
"It would have been pretty good for them to go, but things didn't work out in their favor, and we didn't have the time to do it," he said. "So we had to learn the hard way."
The second Marine Corps rotation, which arrived in Norway in September, did improve its training regimen. It traveled to the Mountain Warfare Training Center in January for a training exercise, taking advantage of snowy conditions.
"The exercise focused on over-the-snow mobility, cold weather survival techniques, and battalion-level offensive/defensive operations in a cold weather mountainous environment," Maj. Dennis Dunbar, the battalion operations officer for the current deployment to Europe with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, told Military.com in a statement.
During the exercise, he said, "the battalion was able to send individuals and units to a number of specialty courses, to include winter mountain leaders course, scout skiers course, mountain sniper course, mountain communications course, and mountain medicine course."
He added that the company deploying to Norway would make a second trip to Bridgeport in summer 2017 to conduct refresher training and learn new skills.
In the December interview, Neller said the service "did a better job" getting the second rotation ready, though he added work remained to issue better skis and boots that would stand up to freezing conditions.
The possibility of adding training in Alaska, possibly for a group of Marines that extends beyond the Norway rotation, reflects the way the service is anticipating future fights that may not look like the Middle Eastern wars of the last two decades.
"We've got to be able to fight in other places than the desert," Neller said. "... We've got to be able to operate across all types of terrain and all climates. We haven't been around cold weather in a long time. We've got to get back into it."