Training in Norway: Long-range reconnaissance forces practise operations in the Arctic

Slowly, carefully, keeping a watchful eye, they move through the snow. They carry around 50 kilogrammes of equipment on their shoulders. A long-range reconnaissance ski patrol is returning after 36 hours of training in the Arctic desert of Norway. In a few days, the Cold Response 2020 exercise will begin. The long-range reconnaissance forces of the Bundeswehr are ready.

A soldier carrying a backpack moves on skis through a snowy landscape with sparse tree cover.

Eyes of the Army

The long-range reconnaissance forces call themselves the eyes of the Army, as their mission is to observe the adversary and collect information. These specialised forces operate far behind enemy lines. They can be deployed around the world and must thus be prepared for any set of extreme conditions or eventuality – including operations in the Arctic.

That is why the long-range reconnaissance forces have a particularly diverse range of capabilities. They must be able to move in small teams and on their own within the theatre of operations. At times, that requires lightning-fast reactions to unforeseeable circumstances and events. Their behaviour is always in line with the situation and the mission.

Practising Arctic operations

With Cold Response, Norway provides a first-rate exercise scenario. For the long-range reconnaissance troops, winter combat entails moving quietly through the adversary’s hinterland, establishing an observation post and conducting reconnaissance. However, it also means enduring temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius and slogging through masses of snow. Operations in Arctic climes require the utmost vigilance, professionalism, teamwork, and self-discipline.

Snow-covered mountains in northern Norway.

Breathtakingly beautiful, but can quickly turn perilous on operations: The icy Arctic landscape of Norway is challenging for the long-range reconnaissance forces.

Bundeswehr/Jana Neumann

The long-range reconnaissance forces spent the days prior to the beginning of the free-play large-scale exercise getting used to the Arctic conditions and the climate challenges. Separate teams are involved in the training scenario: long-range reconnaissance patrols on skis and long-range reconnaissance patrols on snowmobiles. Over the course of the training module, they have to report in regularly to the tactical operations centre (TOCTactical operation cell).

Loui, Long-range reconnaissance soldier and instructor
As a long-range scout, you need to enjoy being out of doors. On a real operation, long-range scouts are outside the entire time and sometimes have to deal with the most adverse of weather conditions.

Extreme cold

There is one challenge that all three teams need to overcome: the biting cold. It affects both the bodies of the soldiers as well as the technology they use. By adapting their equipment to the climate and keeping an eye on each other’s clothing to avoid patches of bare skin, the long-range scouts do their best to avoid frostbite. The long-range reconnaissance forces of the Bundeswehr use their initial training in Norway and their subsequent participation in Cold Response to ensure that they remain mission ready and mission capable even under the extreme conditions of the Arctic.

Loui, Long-range reconnaissance soldier and instructor.
In these climate conditions, dealing with the cold is the biggest challenge of all.

GPSGlobal Positioning System and camera technology are not only required for the mission, but can also be essential for navigation and survival and must be kept on the body. In ambient temperatures such as these, batteries lose their charges a lot quicker than usual. This is something that smartphone users who have spent time in very chilly areas may be familiar with. Should all of the team’s batteries fail due to the cold, the consequences could be devastating: In a worst-case scenario, the mission may need to be aborted, as an essential component for observation, information collection and data collection would be lost.

A soldier operates a tablet computer in a snowy landscape.

Digital transmission technology is essential for the accomplishment of long-range reconnaissance missions. The soldiers must protect their equipment from the effects of the extreme weather conditions.

Bundeswehr/Jana Neumann

Not all activities of the long-range reconnaissance forces rely on digital technology. In the Arctic desert, which seems almost featureless to the untrained eye, the soldiers mainly use prominent terrain features such as rock formations, trees or mountain huts to orient themselves, in addition to GPSGlobal Positioning System technology. The sun is not of much help here, the long-range scouts say. It moves too quickly across the sky. The troops also carry paper maps to serve as backup if technology fails. Analogue navigation tools are timeless and indispensable despite all of the Bundeswehr’s digitalisation efforts, the scouts say.

A soldier adjusts a radio antenna.

Radio communications are to a long-range reconnaissance patrol as ice is to the Arctic. Long-range scouts depend on their equipment.

Bundeswehr/Jana Neumann

How do the long-range reconnaissance forces conduct Arctic operations?

  • A masked soldier carrying a heavy pack and a rifle moves through a wintry landscape.

    Silent, unobserved and without engaging in combat

    The long-range reconnaissance soldiers move as silently as possible through the winter landscape, ideally in single file. At crossroads, before crossing open terrain and in any other situation in which there is an increased probability of being observed, they halt for a moment, one after the other. They proceed onwards only once they have analysed the situation and deemed it safe. In the field, the team communicates almost exclusively by means of hand signals. That is why it is important to trust and understand one another and to act effectively as a team. Long-range reconnaissance forces are equipped with various weapons. Their standard weapon, however, is the G36 rifle, more specifically the G36KA4. They are trained to withdraw while fighting, even in critical situations. Firing the first shot must be avoided until the last possible moment, as engaging in a firefight with the adversary will draw even more attention to the long-range reconnaissance forces. They resort to their full combat power only if they have no other choice or are already under fire. Alone behind enemy lines, every firefight presents a grave danger to life and limb. Another essential method for remaining undetected is to deceive the adversary by laying false trails leading away from the place of the operation.

  • Bundeswehr soldiers move on skis through a snow-covered forest.

    Infiltration routes

    For the long-range reconnaissance forces, who have to cover long distances in the enemy’s hinterland, being trained to use methods of conveyance suited to the job is essential for survival. In other words, they practice using various means of transportation to reach their destination. “Generally, we distinguish between vertical insertion – in other words, free-fall parachute jumps – and insertions by land or water using boats or kayaks. Here in the Arctic regions, we also employ vehicles, in this case our Hägglunds or snowmobiles. Skis and snow shoes are also used,” says Loui*, a member of the Bundeswehr’s long-range reconnaissance forces. This time, the long-range scouts participating in Cold Response 2020 have left their Hägglunds vehicles at home.

  • Two soldiers ride a snowmobile towing a cargo sled down a snowy slope.

    At up to 120 kilometres per hour

    The snowmobiles of the long-range reconnaissance patrol speed through the Arctic landscape, whirling up snow that glitters in the sun. The growl of their engines reverberates through the valley, echoing off the mountains. These vehicles are definitely not suited for moving quietly and stealthily. Insofar as they can, the long-range scouts thus have to take care to follow in existing tracks made by the locals and to never ride their vehicles into close proximity of their own hideout. They have to control a piece of equipment that requires the active participation of the driver. Often, drivers have to lean into the turns, sometimes also standing up and mobilising the vehicle using their entire body weight. When two people ride double, the passenger also has to help out.

    Because of the noise, the long-range reconnaissance snowmobile patrol has to move quickly and always be alert. Otherwise, they run the risk of being discovered and identified. With top speeds of up to 120°kilometres per hour, that is generally ensured, but driver training is absolutely essential. Especially dangerous, particularly when travelling at speed, are deep crevasses and steep drop-offs, which may be hidden behind snow hillocks or under deep snow. An additional and latent danger is that of sudden avalanches. The point man always drives ahead, leading the column to provide early warning about danger areas.

  • Several soldiers mounted on snowmobiles towing cargo sleds move through a landscape completely blanketed in snow.

    Teamwork required

    Two of the snowmobiles each tow a sled carrying the necessary equipment, material and supplies. These additional loads make the snowmobiles even harder to handle than they already are. Terrain with many sections of steep slopes is especially challenging. Frequently, obstacles can be overcome only by teamwork: Freeing a stuck vehicle sometimes requires everybody to pitch in.

    The long-range reconnaissance forces purposefully seek out rough terrain. If not steep slopes covered in deep snow, then preferably routes with lots of trees and branches that constantly require evasive manoeuvres – they need to be ready for the worst-case scenario. That is why helmets and ski goggles to protect the head and eyes from injury are must-have essentials. Barrelling down a mountainside at those speeds sometimes means crashing through undergrowth or knocking down small trees.

  • A Bundeswehr soldier carrying a heavy pack moves on skis through a snowy landscape.

    A heavy load

    The long-range scouts equipped with skis carry particularly heavy loads: Every soldier is weighted down with between 40 and 50 kilogrammes of equipment and kit. Most people toting that amount of weight would not be able to remain upright for long, let alone walk, but the long-range reconnaissance forces sometimes have to move for days that way, on skis or snowshoes through a freezing landscape. Climbing skins are attached to the bottom of the skis to increase traction and avoid slipping on icy surfaces. Falling should be avoided if at all possible – once a soldier is on the ground and burdened with the backpack, it is almost impossible for them to get back on their feet by themselves.

    Compared to operations in desert areas, however, the long-range scouts can minimise their loads, as they do not need to carry a lot of water. Instead, they can use their equipment to purify and melt snow into water for boiling. Protective clothing and gear accounts for the largest portion of the packing volume – from sleeping bags to observation and photographic equipment and cold-weather protective clothing. Camouflage material used for building concealed positions, for instance, adds even more weight. The team members make sure that everybody carries about the same amount and that the total load is evenly distributed.

  • Only a white hillock indicates that a concealed position has been dug into the snow.

    Masters of concealment

    Once the long-range scouts have reached their destination, they need to construct an observation post. They accordingly choose a location that is well hidden among tree branches atop a mountain and that provides an unobstructed view of the town they are to observe in the framework of the training scenario. To protect themselves against the weather and remain undetected, the soldiers dig down deep into the snow. Then, they set up their tents in the positions they have dug and cover them with camouflage material. The long-range scouts must be able to set up camp practically blindfolded, as the observation posts should be constructed only at night.

    Afterwards, they work in shifts – while one person sleeps or at least rests, the other continues to work, preparing food or replacing camouflage material displaced after a stormy night. A small, oblong tent oriented toward town is placed in the forward area. In it, the observer lies prone, observing the adversary and surveilling the terrain forward of the position. Camera equipment is set up to document key information. The data are collated as text and images and transmitted to the tactical operations centre, or TOCTactical operation cell.

Returning from the area of operations

Mission accomplished. So how do the long-range scouts get home? “On the one hand, we can do a planned recovery, which means that the long-range scouts are extracted from the area of operations by means of helicopters, boats or land vehicles. Another option is an unplanned recovery, meaning that the teams have to get themselves out. That can well take several days,” Loui explains. What happens if the reconnaissance patrol is detected while on a mission? “If we’re detected, we abort. That’s a mission failure. The team will then evade back to friendly lines,” he elaborates.

“Being a long-range scout is all about attitude”

Long-range reconnaissance soldiers belong to an operationally and tactically specialised unit of the Army and, as their Arctic training shows, have to be able to cope with extreme levels of strain and stress while on operations. Long-range reconnaissance operations can mean months-long absences far from home and family. There is no space for personal items in a soldier’s pack. Additionally, the enemy threat is constant. The fatigue caused by the climate conditions is further exacerbated by an immense psychological pressure.

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The long-range reconnaissance forces have flown to Norway to train in icy terrain. Three days of training in the use of skis and snowmobiles and how to move in this type of terrain. These are only some of the capabilities that are trained in the …

So why would somebody want to join the long-range reconnaissance forces? When asked, the soldiers in Norway agree: Anybody who chooses this career path feels called, in a way. “Being a long-range scout is all about attitude,” Loui explains. It is something that a person really needs to want. The capacity to endure suffering is a learned skill, not a selection prerequisite. But willpower, says Loui, is essential. The lure of adventure and operating in wilderness areas also play an important role in the world of these specialised forces.

Additionally, long-range scouts are not all the same. Their capability profiles and task ranges are diverse. “Whether as a medic, JTACJoint Terminal Attack Controller, sniper, camera specialist or maybe team leader at some point – there are many different career tracks you can choose,” Loui says, “and the force also needs radio operators.” The Army is always on the lookout for motivated personnel interested in going the extra mile and serving as the eyes of the Army. According to Loui, one thing is essential above all else: strength of character.

by Jenna Cressida  Parker Eatough