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Special Briefing on Cold Weather Training

Special Briefing on Cold Weather Training and Capabilities

NEWS TRANSCRIPT from the United States Department of Defense

DoD News Briefing Col. Gary Varney, Vermont Army National Guard Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2001 - 2 p.m. EST

(Special briefing on cold weather training and capabilities. Participants: Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs; Col. Gary Varney, deputy chief of staff for operations, Vermont Army National Guard; Col. Tom Begines, U.S. Army Public Affairs; and Lt. Col. Terry Lambert, commandant, Army National Guard Mountain Warfare School. Slides shown in this briefing are on the Web at )

Clarke: We have had a lot of questions about what's the impact, what's the effects of cold weather on our military operations and capabilities. So this afternoon's briefing, I think, should answer a lot of those questions, and it will be presented by Colonel Gary Varney, who is the plans and training officer for the Vermont Army National Guard, and former commandant of the Army National Guard Mountain Warfare School, and Lieutenant Colonel Terry Lambert, the school's current commandant. And the equipment display here, which I'm sure you'll see lots of, was provided by the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab.


Lambert: Good afternoon. I'm Lieutenant Colonel Terry Lambert. I am the present commander of the Mountain Warfare School. We are located in Jericho, Vermont. This afternoon we'll go through a few slides, give you an introduction to the Mountain Warfare School, and then we'll show you a short video specifically about our winter ops.

Again, I am joined by our deputy chief of staff for Operations today, Colonel Gary Varney.

As far as our mission here, we train soldiers to -- and that's across the Army -- National Guard, Reserves, and the active component -- for basic military mountaineering. And that's what we're really about.

We teach soldiers to operate in all climatic conditions, Special Ops to operate in cold weather and mountainous environments. We do that under all climatic conditions, both night and day.

The history of the Mountain Warfare School. The senior leaders many years ago analyzed this through staff studies, and determined there is a valid need for training on mountainous and cold weather environments. Hence, the Mountain Warfare School was established in 1983. Our program of instruction was approved by the Department of the Army. And I would like to emphasize that we are the Department of the Army's sole producer of the basic military mountaineer, and that was established in 1994 by the chief of staff of the Army.

Our summer school and our winter are two weeks each. It's a grueling two-week period, very physically and mentally demanding, average of 15 hours a day, 14 days straight. There's no telling often between day and night training. So it's quite a grueling course.

The hour breakdown is up here on the slide for you, and I'm sure you'll -- especially looking at the number of hours in the winter - see a great deal of time on those winter-specific tasks.

On this next slide here, we are going to look at the tasks that are conducted. These tasks here are conducted in both the summer and the winter. So one of your questions may be, why do we conduct them in the summer and the winter? Well, these tasks -- and I'll take anchors as an example. The anchors that you will use in the summer are quite different, or certainly could be quite different from those in the winter -- snow anchors, ice anchors, versus natural trees and other types of anchors that could be used.

The next slide here highlights the tasks that are taught just specifically in either the summer or the winter course of instruction. I'll give you a chance to glance over those.

What I'd like to leave with you today as far as the slides -- and then we'll go into our video -- these are the strengths of the Mountain Warfare School. We have been in existence since 1983. We have the best cadre out there when it comes to basic military mountaineering instruction. I've got folks that are on my staff that have been instructing in this arena at the Mountain Warfare School for in excess of 15 and 16 years. This is definitely a specialty of ours. Other schools sometimes, especially in the active component, they PCS [military moves called Permanent Change of Station] -- they move on to different jobs every three or four years. Our folks continue to enhance their skills. So they are the experts. That's why they have been designated as the sole producer of the basic military mountaineer.

We'll come to questions in a moment, sir, if you would, after we do the video. Thank you.

We also conduct mobile training teams, and we do this throughout the year, as special requests come from across the force structure. So we can tailor our courses to the needs of the force structure and our senior commanders out there.

Who do we train? We train light infantry, mountain infantry -- of which there is one mountain infantry battalion out there that exists in the National Guard, the 3rd of the 172nd Mountain Infantry, the Special Forces community and the Rangers. Those are the highlights of the folks that we train at the Mountain Warfare School.

What I would like to do, we have some video clips from our winter course here and some of the promotional stuff here about the Mountain Warfare School. After you view that, we'll be happy to answer any questions that you have. We could roll the video.

(Video clips are shown.)

Begines: I'm Colonel Tom Begines, chief media relations, division of Army Public Affairs, and I'll be joined by Colonel Gary Varney, who is plans and training officer for the Vermont Army National Guard, and collectively they'll answer your questions about the Mountain Warfare School and cold weather training, and I'll just help them out.

Q: I wonder if you could tell us what sort of lessons you have taken from the old 10th Mountain Division, and what sort of work do you with the folks at Fort Drum?

Varney: Considerable lessons from the old 10th Mountain Division. As you know, they were the heroes in Italy in World War II. The 10th Mountain Division Association is alive and well, and the gentlemen join us at a lot of our graduations to make sure that we haven't forgotten all the lessons that they learned during World War II. Probably a couple of the key things are mountain operations are really conducted at the small unit level, squad special forces, operational detachment level, and that's, you know, definitely key for mountain operations.

Q: Do you do much work with the people at Fort Drum?

Varney: We do. Historically we have had a fantastic relationship with the 10th Mountain Division. While I was commander of the Mountain Battalion, I used to get a company from the 10th attached to me for our annual training periods. They would do annual training with us, doing mountain skill operations -- (inaudible) -- on fire range. And we also took them to Valcartier, Canada, for cold weather operations up there.

When we started the school back in '82-'83, most of our first students came from 10th Mountain Division. So we have had a fantastic ongoing relationship.

Q: About how many students a year do you train, and do you have a sense of how many people in the Army are trained with this skill?

Lambert: We train several hundred in a given year. That's at our normal operating course load. We do have a surge capacity. And the Army has done a staff study on that, so there are capacities out there that do that without problem.

I'm sorry, your second question, sir?

Q: Do you have a sense of how widespread this skill is within the Army?

Lambert: I would say very widespread. Again, we train folks from the Ranger community, the Special Forces community -- from every group. There are Special Forces groups in the Guard, the active component. So we have a wide spectrum there.

Q: So it's not a narrow specialty?

Varney: No. Well, it is a narrow specialty. The Army TRADOC [Training and Doctrine Command], you know, in the force structure, they have coded all the infantry organizations from ranges to light infantry with what they call SQY-Echo -- scale of qualification, identifier Echo, the military mountaineer. They've seeded the force with those soldiers. Those soldiers are really the ones that come to the mountain school. And it's a train-the-trainer concept. We train those echoes; they go back home -- like NBC NCOs [Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Non-commissioned Officers] -- they train the critical skills within their units back home.

Q: How many females attend? Do you have any females -- (inaudible) --

Lambert: Yes, ma'am. We have had females through the years. The number -- I will tell you that the number of females that actually come through the course are small, but they are certainly eligible to come through the course. It is physically demanding. They train and accomplish the same task as the male students.

Varney: The school itself is not restricted to combat arms. As you know, women aren't in combat arms. The women are not restricted to combat arms. Therefore, women can attend.

Q: Have you done any specific trainings, sirs, trainings related to efforts in Afghanistan?

Varney: We have not. Undoubtedly the Army hasn't determined that that is required at this time. We have trained lots of soldiers over the years. They are out there. Those Echoes have seeded the force. I am sure there's been a lot of unit training going on. In the Army, as Colonel Lambert noted, there was a '95 TRADOC study which identified a surge capability if required.

Begines: I think the important thing to recognize is that these skills already exist widely in the Army. So it's not as if there is a shortfall that needs to be met. It's a matter of maintenance and assuring that they continue to train the trainers on a recurring basis. And I am sure that unit by unit they adjust the requirements as they see necessary.

Q: Do the Marines use the school?

Varney: Originally, back in the days of General Gray, we had a lot of Marines come to the Mountain Warfare School. And, as you probably know, the Marines developed their own Mountain Warfare School in Pickel Meadows, California.

Q: Could you elaborate a little bit on the effects of extreme cold on weapons systems?

Lambert: The primary effect that we are really concerned with is when you get into that type of environment, especially out there in the cold, wet, you have got to keep your weapon dry and keep it cold, because once you start to bring it in from the cold, to the war, cold to warm, you get condensation, condensation will freeze. Then your weapon becomes non-functional. So that's your major concern: When you get it cold, keep it cold, keep it dry.

Varney: Probably the other impact on weapons is bursting munitions -- like hand grenades, mortar rounds, artillery rounds -- when you have got four feet of snow on the ground they are less effective. Now, if the ground is dry, and these bursting munitions are breaking up on rocks, you have got a lot of additional projectiles, very effective. But in the snow, the effectiveness is diminished.

Q: Vermont is mountainous, but it's not very high by world standards. Does the Army go and do further -- does the Army go anywhere -- and if so, where? -- to do high altitude mountain training?

Varney: I will tell you that Vermont is not extremely high. Our highest mountains are just a smidgen under 5,000 feet. But New England has probably got some of the worst weather on the face of the Earth. Every weather front that comes across the United States goes out through New England. Mount Washington in New Hampshire has got the highest wind velocity recorded on the face of the Earth. It's very difficult weather. It's a great place for soldiers to train.

Q: I was wondering about the altitude problem.

Varney: The altitude -- you probably read the regulations -- any manual. When you get above 10,000 feet you really have to start working on acclimatizing soldiers. And --

Q: And do we do that? If so, where?

Varney: I can't speak operationally, but I am sure that those forces that are in Afghanistan were properly acclimatized.

Q: I'm just curious about your altimeter navigation. Are you using the altimeter to navigate along the altitude lines of mountains, or --

Lambert: Yes, sir. That's a specialty of our course. Because we're -- we have one block of instruction that is called MITAC -- math interpretation terrain analysis course. We really teach the soldier to rely on the map and the contour and to use the terrain, because the terrain is there to aid you in your navigation. With the altimeter it becomes far more important actually even than a compass in that type of environment, using the contours -- because if you're familiar with navigating, with a compass you would do dead reckoning and pace count. That's very difficult to do in mountainous terrain. But the altimeter is extremely accurate. When you get to new known point you reset it again. And it's also used for weather forecasting -- once you get to a known point.

Q: That's GPS. I mean, it's less fun, but more accurate.

Varney: Well, GPS is a fantastic piece of equipment. But when you get in a shadow of the mountain -- you know, the mountain is here, you're down here -- the satellite is in the wrong place -- you know, they don't always work. It's a fantastic piece of equipment, but the altimeter is really key for mountain navigation. Once you get to high altitude and extreme cold, you have got batteries that come into play there. So you have always got to have a backup. So we don't want to put all our eggs in one basket.

Q: What would be the differences between mountain operations in a place like Jericho, Vermont and a more sort of open environment like Afghanistan?

Lambert: Well, actually, Afghanistan is not all that open. When you look at the center of the center of the country to the east, it starts at 2,000 feet and goes to 21,000 feet. So that's not that open. Extremely significant terrain. They get a large amount of snow. Avalanches can be a problem. So you really are talking a significant amount of terrain here and significantly difficult terrain there.

Varney: When you say open you're probably referring to a lack of tree cover? Okay -- it's easy to navigate -- if you can learn to navigate in the mountains of Vermont where you can't see very far due to the tree cover, you can clearly navigate in other regions of the world where you can see, because it's comparison of the terrain features, and you can look at the terrain features.

Q: Are certain percentage of the forces in Uzbekistan or whatever they are mountain-certified? And is that one of the requirements you looked at before deploying?

Lambert: Sir, we can't -- quite honestly, we really can't measure that, for one, not knowing which soldiers are actually deployed there. We can't measure that to give you a good answer for that.

Q: Is it possible then that the soldiers out there really aren't mountain-trained?

Begines: What he is saying is that their responsibility is to train soldiers at the school -- it's not a responsibility of the school to monitor the percentage of school-trained soldiers in a particular deployment. Okay, so --

Q: Isn't that something the Army would know and would want to know before deploying those forces?

Varney: We're really the Army's trainers.

Lambert: Right, we're the trainers.

Q: I guess I'm asking you more -- more you, Colonel Begines --

Begines: I can say that I am very confident that whatever soldiers have been deployed have been very, very well trained for whatever missions and whatever environment they are encountering.

Q: You've talked about some of the equipment for navigation. Can you talk about equipment that you may be training with for search and rescue, search and destroy missions, heat detectors and things like that?

Varney: That's kind of an operational question, you know, and that's more tactical. We don't get into that. Probably the only piece of equipment we have here that falls in that line is our "peeps." It's a transceiver for search and rescue. As you noted by the film, there were a lot of soldiers that died in avalanches during World War I. Avalanche is a major concern. All the soldiers that come to the school are trained on avalanche rescue. If they go into an avalanche region, they carry a thing called the transceiver, because it transmits and receives -- soldiers that are trapped in an avalanche, their transceiver would continue to transmit -- other soldiers could turn their transceiver into receiver and track them down -- locate them under the snow.

Lambert: If I might add, really sir on the medical piece we have a good deal of mountain safety and medical training, because we really go over what's called the extreme cold weather clothing system, the ECWC system. You've seen the Goretex and the polypropylene. We teach people -- soldiers -- to dress properly -- down-dress, up-dress properly -- and to prevent the injuries. And that's really where the schoolhouse comes into play the most is preventing those injuries.

Begines: And that is a critical point, because if you look at military history up to the present, many of the casualties suffered in a conflict are not from enemy action; it's purely from the cold. So soldiers who know how to take care of themselves and prevent cold weather injuries and maintain their ability to contribute to the unit is something that's highly desirable -- something we train for -- and it's an aspect of readiness.

Varney: Up to 60 percent of the soldiers that came off the line in Korea, those casualties were caused from the cold.

Q: Do train soldiers to trigger avalanches, to use avalanches as a weapon against the enemy?

Varney: We do not specifically do that, but it is addressed in our tactical considerations class. And if a soldier knows how to avoid an avalanche, if a soldier knows when an avalanche is likely, he clearly would have the skills to trigger one with some explosives.

Q: Do you do any advanced courses? Do people come back -- if they really are going to specialize in some aspect of mountain warfare, do they come back for advanced courses?

Lambert: Yes, sir. We have -- what we talked about here today was our basic military mountaineering school. We also have our level two, which is the assault climber course, and that can be tailored to the needs of the requester, be it someone in the special forces community or the mountain infantry battalion. So we do do those as well. And, again, they are tailored to the needs of the requesting unit.

Q: What sort of stuff would the assault climber course --

Lambert: The assault climber is obviously taking it one more level. There are advanced skills for going into steeper terrain --

Varney: Conducting a lead climb.

Lambert: A lead climb, which establishes installations for lesser-trained soldiers to follow on. So they are the next level up, and we do conduct those.

Begines: You might mention the mobile training teams as well as part of the outreach.

Lambert: Right. And as a mobile team we can conduct them off-site on our training areas. We really are quite flexible in our abilities to meet the needs.

Q: So the level-two course would last how long?

Lambert: Again, sir, it's -- quite honestly, it's up to the needs -- based on the task that the requester is looking for. We have to analyze what they are looking for. We will come back to them and say, well, it's going to take X amount of days or two weeks or three weeks or whatever, based on what they are looking for.

Q: What is the navigation aspect of a transceiver? You say you can talk to each other, but --

Varney: No, you don't use them to communicate, but a "peeps" transceiver for avalanche rescue -- if you're going into an avalanche zone, it puts out a signal. It's a beeping signal. That same piece of equipment, you can turn it to the receive mode, put an ear plug in, and when you walk -- so if a soldier is buried in an avalanche 10 feet down, when you go across the top of that soldier, the frequency of the beeping increases. So you can do some triangulation and determine where the soldier is and then dig him out.

Q: You have to be close to the person.

Lambert: The newer transceivers have become far better and more advanced. They can take you out, like, I believe, between 50 and 75 yards and bring you back in. So if you get the general vicinity as to where a soldier went down, you can really hone on them rather rapidly.

Varney: It's very effective.

Q: Out of interest, how do you stay alive in an avalanche? That's one of those useful things every boy wants to know. (Laughter.)

Varney: You get rid of your rucksack. You get rid of your skis. You swim. You do your best to swim in it, try to stay on top. And the first thing, if you can ski out of it and move out of the avalanche before it gets there, of course, would be number one.

Q: Is two weeks really enough to teach a soldier very much field proficiency in mountain warfare?

Varney: Absolutely. It's plenty of time, particularly after you teach them the skills. You know, the units go out and conduct those operations. For the basic mountaineer, two weeks on how to dress and how to move in the mountains is very, very adequate.

Begines: Basically that's all they do for two solid weeks. It's a very intensive preparation. And again, it's not the only training they get. That's reinforced at unit level as well.

Q: I'm curious as to why this is not a joint school. Back in the '60s, I remember we had a combined cold-weather survival mountain training school out in California that all the services went to. Why are we doing it -- why is this not a joint program?

Lambert: Sir, I think -- this is my estimate on it, is that because the force structure and our senior leaders realize that the need -- we've gone the full cycle here several times. And they've realized that the need for mountain and cold-weather training is required. It's necessary. And, you know, in order to keep up with the requirements of the force structure, you need several schools out there.

Begines: And I think the focus might be slightly different. For example, the Air Force, I think, might concentrate more on survival, as in downed pilots and that kind of thing.

Q: That was my exposure, but we also had our grunts going through the basic mountaineering program.

Q: How many mobile training teams do you have. And has the request increased from installations?

Lambert: We don't have a set number of mobile training teams, because I could tailor them, whether it requires, you know, 10 instructors or 15 or whatever. So I can tailor them. So, I mean, there's really no magic figure for that. I can handle whatever the request is. I analyze it with the requesting unit. And we put it together to meet their package. So whenever I receive a request, I analyze it and we can fulfill the needs of the requester.

Varney: And that reflects on the 1995 TRADOC study on the school's surge capacity, because you could take the instructors to the mountain school, supplement them with the officers and the NCOs out of the mountain battalion in Vermont, and you could conduct many, many MTTs.

Q: And has the request increased from installations for their assistance?

Varney: We have received some requests. And, of course, we're working with the chain of command to go over what those specific requests are and get the advisement on what the priorities are from senior leaders.

Q: Do you train and practice air resupply? And, if so, are there particular problems about air resupply and -- (inaudible)?

Varney: I will tell you, the mountain soldier loves helicopters, you know, because, you know, mountain cold-weather operations, the soldier's got to carry a lot of gear. It's difficult work. When we've got air superiority and we've got helicopters flying for resupply, it's fantastic.

One of the major problems with -- not a problem, it's just a consideration -- is landing a helicopter in deep snow. It's much more difficult than landing in sand, and it takes -- so you have to make sure they've got a nice landing zone packed and properly marked.

Q: You mentioned climatizing soldiers to altitude. Is that also done anywhere in the U.S. before they're trained? Are there other places?

Varney: The trainers that we've trained train those SQI- Echo soldiers that are out there. With that knowledge, they could take their unit any place in the world to altitude and conduct that climatization training. One of the key things on becoming climatized is that once you are climatized at altitude, it's best to stay up there and conduct those operations. So you would want to conduct it, you know, somewhere close to the theater of operations.

Q: I'm curious if you ever use, say, the Rocky Mountains for that kind of acclimatization to altitude?

Varney: That would really not work well for -- because you then you've got to get in an airplane to travel. It'd be best to do it in theater of operations.

Lambert: Now, our instructors are extremely well-versed in this. We've got instructors that have been on numerous climbs, climbed the highest peaks throughout the world, certainly in the U.S., et cetera. The instructors are well-versed in that and can educate on that. Again, that's where the trainer will go back and can employ that at the unit.

Q: So are there instructors now in theater sort of standing by, since it's winter in Afghanistan?

Begines: We're not going to get into operational matters.

Varney: But let me correct myself on that previous question. You could climatize in the Rocky Mountains and get on aircraft and stay -- needless to say, they stay at altitude. There's less oxygen up there, and they will be relatively climatized whenever they arrive in country, absolutely.

Q: What's your school's annual budget?

Varney: We are supported, augmentation platform here, about $35,000 to $40,000 in what's called P&A, personnel and administration.

Q: Wait, but $40,000, what does that cover?

Lambert: That covers augmentee instructors that assist us in running our course.

Varney: It's hard to put a handle on what it costs. You know, I haven't sat down and crunched numbers. You've got the operational maintenance costs. You've got the pay and allowance for the extra soldiers that you bring in to help teach the course. You've got the pay and allowance for the full-time cadre. Quite frankly, I haven't added it all up.

Q: I've got an acquisition question. The Special Operations Command, as you know, has authority to order stuff off the shelf, cut through acquisition regulations and do things quickly. Have you received any orders in the last month from SOCOM [Special Operations Command] for specialized winter gear that might be used in an ongoing operation?

Varney: That's not in our chain, sir.

Begines: It would not come through the --

Varney: It's not in our chain. But I will tell you that the gear that we've got laid out here on the table -- you can take a look at it later if you care to -- most of that came from the special operational forces mountaineering equipment kit, special forces snow- and-ice traversing equipment kit. It's pretty component-standard.

Q: Are there any new products that you've bought in the last five or six months, any -- something just new on the market technology-wise?

Varney: Sir, we don't --

Q: You don't buy --

Varney: We don't buy it. We're not in the logistics community. But we do work with --

Lambert: We have a great relationship with Natick Labs; I'm not sure if you're familiar with Natick Labs -- on the individual soldier equipment. And that's where, quite honestly, many of the changes came out in the cold-weather clothing system, as a result of the tests and evaluation done at the mountain warfare school, to approve working with CRREL, the Cold Regions Research & Environmental Labs. And we're also doing that -- we are testing other pieces of equipment, such as the possible new snowshoes. We're getting feedback first for a lighter, more mobile snowshoe, et cetera. And so we a lot of test and evaluation.

Q: So this is part of an ongoing evaluation?

Lambert: Yeah.

Begines: Let's take a couple more questions and look at the equipment here, unless we've (inaudible) here.

Q: Is your equipment generally military-specific? Or it seems to me that, given the amount of money that goes into mountain climbing in the civilian world, that they would probably have a lot of good off-the-shelf materials to be used.

Lambert: The real good news story is that the equipment we have now is fantastic. And you will closely see that the -- you know, we have Goretex in the military. We have Goretex on the civilian side. So we have some of the best equipment that exists out there in the military mountaineering side of the house. And, yes, those characteristics of the vest out there on the civilian side now exist on the military side. So we are the best equipped that we've ever been to operate in mountainous and cold-weather environments.

Varney: And it's been that way for 15 years. The Army, you know, 15 years ago did a fantastic job of improving the quality of the equipment.

Begines: Yes.

Q: But given your druthers, is there one piece of equipment you'd like to improve? You say, it's a bitch, we haven't got anything better yet. Let's do something.

Varney: You know, every soldier would like to have a lighter rucksack, you know. But that's -- you get more high-speed, lightweight stuff to go in it. The soldier always just carries too much weight, and I guess there's no way around it.

Q: What sort of weight do you reckon people can carry in mountain weather conditions?

Varney: Well, you know -- what is it? The Surgeon General recommends -- what is it? -- 30 percent of your body weight. But, you know, that's not a lot. If a soldier weighs 120 pounds -- say he weighs, you know, 180 pounds. You know, that's 60 pounds. Most soldiers are carrying rucksacks that weigh close to 100 pounds. So it's just impossible to keep the rucksack light, as they learned in World War II and they learned in Korea -- it's impossible to keep the rucksack light.

Q: So very quickly, what are the basic components that go into packing a 100-pound rucksack? What does the average mountain soldier have in it?

Varney: What you -- and again, that's the beauty of having air superiority and helicopters. The soldiers -- the special-ops soldiers today, in this environment, can really cut down on their rucksack and become much more mobile, given our air mobility.

Begines: Okay, thank you very much. Those of you that care to, we've got the equipment display here and we'll answer questions about that.


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