By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2023
“11th Airborne Division executes expeditionary operations within the Indo-Pacific theater, conducts Multi-Domain Operations in the Arctic, defends critical infrastructure in homeland defense, and on order is capable of decisively defeating any adversary in extreme cold weather, mountainous, high-latitude, and high-altitude environments through large-scale, combat operations.”
— Official mission of the 11th Airborne Division, 2022.
In addition to its February 24, 2022, totally unwarranted invasion of Ukraine, and the brutal, year-long war that has ensued, the belligerent Russian Federation has recently embarked upon an extensive militarization of the Arctic region by reopening 50 previously-closed, Soviet military bases in the far north. This includes the refurbishment of 13 former air bases, 10 radar stations, 20 border outposts, and 10 emergency rescue stations, with Russian special forces units integrated into an Arctic Brigade, and deploying to the remote region for exercises and training. The Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) is essential to Russia’s future economic and military vitality.
Satellite imagery of these refurbished, Russian bases very clearly shows improved runways at airfields, five advanced, Rezonans-N radar systems allegedly capable of detecting stealth aircraft, Sopka-2 radar stations, nuclear weapons storage areas, SA-21B Growler (S-400 Triumf) ultra-long-range (250 miles!), surface-to-air missile batteries, SA-22B/C Greyhound (Pantsir-S1) short-range (11 miles) missiles for defending the SA-21s from enemy attack, naval bases for the Northern Fleet, submarine bases, electronic warfare stations, and SSC-5 Stooge (K-300P Bastion-P) ramjet-powered, anti-ship, cruise missiles, creating complex, layered defenses that threaten military and civilian air traffic in the contentious region, as well as local shipping lanes.
The overly-ambitious, Vostok-18 Arctic exercise was conducted in September 2018 in eastern Russia and partially in the Bering Sea, involving a total of 300,000 troops, and was the largest military exercise conducted by Russia since the Cold War.
In December 2022, the Russians deployed all 12 of their relatively-new (2018), SA-15 Gauntlet (Tor-M2DT variants) snow-camouflaged, Arctic-warfare, short-range (7.5 miles), surface-to-air missile systems from the far north to Ukraine, due to the staggering losses of over 100 air defense vehicles there. Since then, Ukrainian artillery forces have destroyed at least two of them with 155mm Excalibur GPS-guided rounds.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has openly stated that, “The shortest way from Russia to North America is over the Arctic North Pole. So, the strategic importance of these areas has not changed because of the war in Ukraine. We see Russia reopening old, Soviet bases, military sites, (and) testing novel weapons in the Arctic and the high north.
“Since the (Russian) sabotage (of the Nord Stream pipeline in September 2022) in the Baltic Sea, we have doubled our presence, with ships, with submarines, with maritime patrol aircraft in the Baltic and North Seas, partly to monitor, to have better situational awareness, but also to send a message of deterrence and readiness to protect this critical infrastructure.”
The Arctic is also vital to Russia because its melting ice is rapidly opening up new shipping routes from Asia’s southeast to Europe, using a much shorter path along the Russian coast. The Northern Sea Route could cut as much as two weeks off the current journey time across the Suez Canal.
Accordingly, on June 6, 2022, the 78th anniversary of the famous, “D-Day” invasion of Normandy, France, during World War Two, the United States Army officially reactivated the 11th Airborne Division (“Arctic Angels”) at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), near Anchorage, Alaska. This is truly significant, because the U.S. currently has only three airborne/paratrooper divisions, one of which is no longer jump-qualified.
The fabled 82nd Airborne Division (“All-American”) was first formed in 1942 as a paratrooper unit, as has fought valiantly in many wars since then, but in April 2014, the Obama-Biden administration desperately tried, and thankfully failed, to remove its hallowed, airborne status, and cease all paratrooper operations. However, the liberal Biden administration has apparently succeeded in forcing the renaming of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne, to Fort Liberty in the near future, at a cost to taxpayers of millions of dollars, to permanently rid the world of Confederate names, such as that of General Braxton Bragg, a North Carolina native. It’s called “cancel culture,” or revisionist history.
The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) (“Screaming Eagles”) was a World War Two, paratrooper unit, but has since transitioned strictly to air-assault duties, involving helicopter rappelling, fast-roping, and landing. They are no longer paratroopers. So, the freshly-reactivated, 11th Airborne Division in Alaska is really America’s second true, paratrooper division (12,000 troops) at present. There is also the 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Vicenza, Italy, but it’s not division-strength.
Their primary mission is Arctic warfare, as taught at the Northern Warfare Training Center (NWTC), now part of the 11th Airborne Division, at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, and all graduates are awarded the “Arctic” shoulder tab, as shown above. The division commander is Major General Brian Eifler, a veteran, Army Ranger officer, with vital experience in the 82nd Airborne Division and 10th Mountain Division, as well. Eifler has stated that, “Over-snow, mountain, and high-altitude maneuvering capabilities will be key for the Arctic Angels. This will include airborne and air-assault tactics, along with more Arctic-unique tactics, techniques, and procedures.”
Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth recently noted that, “There are places in the world where we need our soldiers to be able to fight in negative 30-degree weather. And the Arctic is becoming a more competitive arena…there are more countries interested in that region…and certainly Russia has absolutely militarized places where they can…It is important that we have a presence there.”
U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) announced that it, “Wasn’t too long ago the focus on the Arctic was nonexistent. We now have a strategically located, tough unit that can deploy anywhere in the world. Look at a map: In Alaska, we’re within a few hours of Korea, China, Russia, you name it. We just put 100 fifth-generation fighters (F-22A Raptors) and this (11th) airborne division in their rear and their flanks.”
The 11th Airborne Division was initially activated at Camp Mackall (this author made two parachute jumps there in 1987, from a CASA 212 aircraft), North Carolina, in 1943, and on November 18, 1944, the division landed unopposed at Leyte, Philippines, and began combat operations. It destroyed two enemy divisions in jungle passes near Jaro, then conducted several small-scale, amphibious assaults synchronized with airborne assaults.
Participating in the January 31, 1945, assault amphibious landing on Luzon, the 11th Airborne Division spearheaded the Sixth Army’s attack, jumping into Tagaytay Ridge and fighting to liberate Manila. On February 23, 1945, the division executed a daring raid on a Japanese detention camp at Los Baños, Luzon, rescuing 2,147 Allied, civilian internees. In addition, the men of the division conducted other difficult operations by sea and by parachute, keeping the enemy off-balance with well-timed precise attacks that continued until the end of the war. Two 11th Airborne Division soldiers, Private Elmer E. Fryar, and Private First Class Manuel Perez, Jr., were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity, above and beyond the call of duty.
From 1950 to 1952, the 187th Regimental Combat Team of the 11th Airborne Division fought for two years in Korea, where it conducted two combat parachute assaults. The division was deactivated in 1958, then reactivated at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, from 1963 to 1965, as the 11th Air Assault Division (Test), to develop and refine air assault tactics and equipment for a new, helicopter-borne Army.
Two of the division’s most-notable members were Rod Serling, the former paratrooper (in WW2) and Bronze Star medal winner who created the Twilight Zone television mystery series, which ran from 1959 to 1964, and Major Lauri Törni, a.k.a. Larry Alan Thorne, who was killed in action on a covert mission in Vietnam in 1965.
Thorne was quite a fascinating character, born in Finland and serving as a captain in the Finnish Army at age 20 during the Winter War of 1939 to 1940, and the Continuation War of 1941 to 1944. Then, he joined the German Waffen SS as a captain, and fought the Russians on the Eastern Front, earing the Iron Cross, Second Class, and later returning to Finland to lead Detachment Törni, a secret, special operations unit operating deep behind enemy lines, earning the coveted Mannerheim Cross for bravery, equivalent to the U.S. Medal of Honor.
Törni eventually made his way to the United States in 1950, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1954 as a private under the Anglicized name Larry Thorne, and as a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne Division. He joined the Special Forces in 1955 as a sergeant, and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in 1957. During the Vietnam War, he deployed twice to South Vietnam as a Special Forces captain, earning the Bronze Star medal for valor, and two Purple Hearts for combat wounds.
On October 18, 1965, Captain Thorne, age 46, was actively supervising an extremely hazardous, covert, special operations mission by Reconnaissance Team Iowa (RT Iowa) along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, used by enemy forces, flying aboard a South Vietnamese CH-34C Choctaw transport helicopter. His helicopter and a U.S. Air Force O-1E Bird Dog light, forward air control aircraft both disappeared during the mission, and he was officially listed as missing in action (MIA), but presumed to have been killed.
Thorne was posthumously promoted to major, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Legion of Merit. His partial remains were located in 1999, beside rusty parts of his “Swedish-K” 9x19mm Carl Gustav m/45B submachine gun. The remains were formally identified in 2003, and he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, on June 26, 2003, together with the three South Vietnamese crew members of his downed helicopter.
Today, the 11th Airborne Division consists primarily of the 1st Infantry Brigade Combat Team (“Arctic Wolves”) at Fort Wainwright, and the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) (“Spartans”) at JBER, Alaska. They’ll be coordinating their Arctic warfare efforts with a variety of friendly nations. General Eifler has stated that, “We have Nepal, Mongolia, India, northern Japan, (South) Korea. We have these countries that have mountainous and extreme, cold-weather terrain, and we’re going to start working with them more.”
The division is actively supported by the attached 1st Battalion (Attack), 25th Aviation Regiment (“Gunfighters”) at Fort Wainwright, flying AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters, and the 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, flying UH-60L/M Black Hawks, CH-47F Chinooks, and HH-60L/M Medevac general support helicopters.
11th Airborne Division soldiers wear the standard, Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) uniform in the field, with maroon paratrooper’s beret worn in garrison. Snow camouflage uniforms in various patterns are also issued. Standard weapons include the Colt M4A1 carbine in 5.56mm NATO, and SIG M17 (or M18) service pistol in 9x19mm.
In addition, the division will soon (late 2023) be receiving the new, BAE Systems BvS10 Beowulf Cold-weather, All-Terrain Vehicle (CATV), an unarmored, tracked vehicle, holding up to 14 personnel, since the Army has issued a $278-million contract to the Swedish-based company for 110 vehicles. General Eifler has stated that, “We look forward to the CATV fielding, and the increased capabilities it will bring to America’s Arctic Airborne Division…These new vehicles will provide our Arctic Angels with capable, reliable mobility, and increase their survivability in the harshest conditions (that) Alaska and the Arctic has to offer.”
In conclusion, the recent reactivation of the 11th Airborne Division in Alaska is clearly a direct response to Russian territorial expansion in the Arctic region, and the division will provide badly-needed, Arctic warfare, airborne, and air-assault capabilities, fully supported by aircraft and specialized, ground vehicles. Working together with friendly nations such as India, Japan, Mongolia, Nepal, and South Korea, they will strive to contain the growing, territorial ambitions of Russia, China, and North Korea in the far north, as well as in the high, snow-covered mountains of Asia.
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Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations (as a paratrooper) and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author, historian, and hunter. You may visit his website at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.