Army Creating Second Paratrooper Division as Service Forges New Identity for Arctic Troops

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Snipers overwatch a position during training in Alaska.
U.S. Army snipers overwatch a position during training in Alaska. (Military.com photo by Steve Beynon)

Soldiers stationed in Alaska will soon ditch the 25th Infantry Division's "Tropic Lightning" patch and be redesignated the 11th Airborne Division, in what could be an important step in the Army's recent focus on Arctic warfare.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told lawmakers that the move will give units in the state a clear identity. Soldiers there currently fall under the command of U.S. Army Alaska and wear the 25th Infantry Division patch. But that division is mostly associated with units in Hawaii that train for combat in the jungle, the opposite of Alaska's mission and something leaders and junior soldiers told Military.com has been a point of confusion.

U.S. Army Alaska will be redesignated as the 11th Airborne Division this summer and issued a new patch.

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"It would be a new common sense of identity for the soldiers there," Wormuth told lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing Thursday.

Some rank-and-file troops and leaders in Alaska told Military.com they don't have the proper equipment needed to be the service's premier Arctic force. Some of that is due to its primary vehicle, the Stryker, being ineffective.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and senior leaders in Alaska have told Military.com they are skeptical of the Stryker's capabilities in Arctic climates, mostly due to the wheeled vehicles' inability to maneuver effectively off road in the snow and not being built to operate in minus-65 degree Fahrenheit weather, the benchmark commanders in Alaska say is needed.

"We're looking at the Arctic very differently. This would give the units the confidence all of this would come together," McConville told lawmakers at Thursday's Senate hearing.

But units there are starved of other critical resources, with some soldiers telling Military.com they can't even get ripped uniforms replaced. More importantly, bases in the region have struggled to tackle a growing suicide crisis. That lack of resources has been partly blamed by some on Alaskan units not having a clear identity and thus often being forgotten about by Pentagon planners, something this change is meant to address.

The move would give the active-duty Army its third named airborne combat unit and its second paratrooper division.

The two existing airborne combat units are the 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which falls under XVIII Airborne Corps, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Europe. The 101st Airborne in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, is airborne in name only; it's actually an air assault division. The Texas National Guard has the 1st Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment, the only conventional airborne element of the component.

Two Alaska brigade combat teams would be most impacted by the redesignation -- the 1st and 4th Brigade Combat Teams of the 25th infantry Division. The 4th is the region's paratrooper element, while the 1st is a mechanized Stryker brigade.

Those brigades would be redesignated the 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams of the 11th Airborne Division. It is unclear whether the move would mean the mechanized troops would convert to paratroopers in the future.

"The Army is reviewing options to convert the [Stryker] brigade combat team at Fort Wainwright from a Stryker to an infantry unit," Lt. Col. Randee Farrell, an Army spokesperson, told Military.com. "We are in the midst of consultation with our joint partners to ensure that any potential change enhances the ability of joint force commanders to achieve their mission."

The changes are yet another move the force is making since the wind-down of the post-9/11 wars, with a shift to focus on conventional fighting and outpacing China and Russia.

Airborne capabilities haven't been truly tested on a modern battlefield but are built to insert ground troops into enemy territory and to quickly seize critical terrain or infrastructure such as airfields.

Airborne units gained famed during the invasion of Nazi-occupied France with dangerous jumps that secured key terrain for the success of the allied invasion of Normandy. That legendary battle spurred paratroopers to be the Army's elite force. While still a conventional unit, airborne troops are traditionally called upon first to deploy and are often on high-paced training schedules.

Yet those tactics were seldom part of modern wars, with the last major use of airborne capabilities being the U.S. invasion of Panama, commonly referred to as Operation Just Cause in 1989. However, there were limited uses of special operations jumps in Afghanistan and Iraq. The last -- smaller -- conventional airborne assault was in Iraq in 2003 when the 173rd Airborne Brigade seized Bashur Airfield with virtually no resistance.

The 11th Airborne Division's legacy stems from its activation in 1943 during World War II. It fought in the Pacific Theater, where two of its soldiers, Pvts. Elmer Fryar and Manuel Perez Jr., earned the Medal of Honor. The formation was later used to occupy post-war Japan.

The 11th Airborne was transformed into a training formation at Fort Campbell in 1949. In the 1960s, the division was reorganized into three air assault brigades and designated the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) when the Army was in the early stages of developing tactics using helicopters on the battlefield. The unit was disbanded in 1965, transferring its equipment and personnel to the 1st Cavalry Division.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

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