When the Weather becomes another enemy

Throughout history‭, ‬the weather has been an important and often decisive factor in military operations‭. ‬Many military leaders made the mistake of ignoring the potential impact of weather on their operations and paid a dear price‭. ‬Recent geostrategic‭, ‬military and environmental trends have brought an increased focus on the Arctic region‭, ‬where military operations must contend with extreme cold weather conditions‭. ‬

One of the most comprehensive historical surveys of weather and warfare was published in 1907‭ ‬by Lord Richard Bentley in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society titled‭ “‬Weather in War Time‭”, ‬documenting hundreds of military campaigns and‭ ‬battles where weather played a key and often decisive role in determining the outcome‭. ‬During World War I‭, ‬the impacts of weather on military operations became even more significant for two main reasons‭ ‬–‭ ‬the development and use of new weapons systems and the frequent occurrence of severe weather in Europe which affected these systems‭. ‬Moreover‭, ‬weather was critical to aerial and ground operations on the Western Front‭.‬

During the numerous wars between Sweden and Denmark in the 16th and 17th centuries‭, ‬Denmark’s geography of islands often protected it from invasion‭. ‬But in January 1658‭, ‬most Danish waters froze over‭. ‬Charles X Gustav of Sweden led his army across the ice‭ ‬belts to besiege Copenhagen‭, ‬ending the war with the Treaty of Roskilde in Sweden’s favour‭. ‬

Napoleon’s 1812‭ ‬invasion of Russia ended in retreat in the face of winter‭, ‬with most of the French army surrendering to frostbite and starvation rather than battle injuries‭.‬

On World War I’s Western Front‭, ‬soldiers endured freezing trench conditions resulting in trench foot injuries‭, ‬frostbite and the‭ ‬spread of diseases‭. ‬

The winter of 1916-1917‭ ‬was exceptionally cold‭, ‬causing great hardship and fatalities‭. ‬Vehicles and equipment were also inadequate for freezing conditions‭. ‬Doctors recognised the dangers of trench foot injuries caused by prolonged exposure to cold‭, ‬wet conditions which led to severe consequences‭. ‬

On the Italian Front‭, ‬trench warfare stalled‭, ‬but thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed in icy mountain avalanches in‭ ‬the Dolomites‭. ‬In the Sino-Japanese War‭, ‬the Japanese learned the importance of foot care‭, ‬keeping feet dry and warm and changing socks frequently‭.‬

History teaches us that the more complex and expensive weapons systems become‭, ‬the more accurate climatic data on weather observations and forecasts become valuable for weapons‭’ ‬effectiveness and efficiency‭.‬

‭ ‬While most contemporary commanders intuitively appreciated the importance of weather information‭, ‬studies have only recently been conducted to quantify the value of military weather services‭. ‬Their results strongly demonstrate that the present and potential benefits to military operations of a responsive‭, ‬sustainable weather service far outweigh the costs of providing it‭.‬

Cold Weather Operations

Military operations in extremely cold weather are known as cold weather warfare or Arctic warfare‭. ‬NATO defines cold weather operations as a set of expected force operations occurring at temperatures of‭ +‬8‭ ‬degrees Celsius and below‭. ‬Nevertheless‭, ‬armies are sometimes required to conduct continuous combat operations in temperatures as low as‭ -‬40‭ ‬degrees Celsius‭. ‬

When conducting military operations in cold weather environments‭, ‬leaders and soldiers must plan to face two adversaries‭: ‬the opposing force and the harsh cold weather conditions‭.‬

Under these circumstances‭, ‬soldiers experience decreased efficiency and are susceptible to cold injuries‭. ‬Equipment becomes prone to malfunctions‭, ‬ammunition is at risk of damage‭, ‬supply problems increase‭, ‬and operations are hampered and complicated due to‭ ‬the cold environment‭. ‬

The Soviet military doctrine set the snow depth threshold that hampers the movement of forces‭, ‬cavalry‭, ‬and vehicles at 30‭ ‬cm‭ (‬12‭ ‬inches‭), ‬excluding tanks with a threshold of 50‭ ‬cm‭ (‬20‭ ‬inches‭).‬

The inherent characteristics of the battlefield in cold weather pose challenges that necessitate appropriate measures for feeding‭, ‬clothing‭, ‬sheltering‭, ‬transporting‭, ‬and manoeuvring an army operating in such a climate‭. ‬The success of any military operation in temperatures below freezing relies on specialized adaptations‭. ‬Efficient manoeuvring in harsh weather conditions and unforgiving terrains places one factor at the forefront‭: ‬time‭. ‬Any activity in such climates consumes more time‭, ‬affecting tactics‭, ‬equipment‭, ‬and gear‭. ‬Weaknesses become apparent in terms of injuries caused by nature and morale‭.‬

Cold Weather and NATO

Warfare in the Arctic region involves military operations on land and sea under extreme conditions of snow‭, ‬ice‭, ‬and extreme cold‭. ‬The term‭ “‬Arctic warfare‭” ‬is often used interchangeably with winter warfare‭, ‬but Arctic warfare specifically refers to operations in an environment with extreme temperatures‭. ‬

In contrast‭, ‬winter warfare encompasses various operational environments depending on temperatures and geographic location‭. ‬Highlighting these differences is crucial due to the specific requirements and subsequent measures needed by the active party waging‭ ‬war in Arctic climates‭. ‬

Freezing temperatures‭, ‬harsh weather‭, ‬and the harshness of nature serve as constant reminders to any party engaged in Arctic warfare of its challenging conditions‭.‬

Everything takes time‭, ‬whether it’s hiding or maintaining slowly deteriorating equipment‭, ‬and maintaining combat readiness‭. ‬

Moreover‭, ‬being surrounded by deep snow inevitably poses logistical nightmares‭. ‬Limited or nonexistent transportation routes and‭ ‬the white landscapes to the extent that any features diminish put improvisation and creativity to the test‭.‬

These characteristics are essential for mastering the art of Arctic warfare and efficiently confronting the wrath of nature‭. ‬Cold-to-freezing climatic zones pose a significant challenge to humans and their equipment‭. ‬

Even the simplest mistakes can have severe consequences‭, ‬as icy temperatures become life-threatening‭. ‬Anyone engaging in Arctic‭ ‬warfare must first survive the second enemy‭, ‬nature‭.‬

Furthermore‭, ‬the peculiarities of Arctic climates hinder the efficiency of conventional warfare‭. ‬Vehicles burn unusually large amounts of fuel‭, ‬weapons and ammunition get damaged‭, ‬and infantry soldiers suffer frostbite or succumb to hypothermia‭. ‬

Therefore‭, ‬combat units often deploy small groups of specially trained soldiers to face these challenges‭. ‬They rely on sleds or‭ ‬snow vehicles‭, ‬moving stealthily through the white landscapes to accomplish their objectives and allow more critical movements for the forces to advance‭.‬

New technologies increasingly work to improve battlefield performance in modern warfare‭. ‬However‭, ‬traditional forces lack sufficient training‭, ‬and many assumptions derived from technological superiority easily overshadow the basic needs of forces‭.‬

For instance‭, ‬the inability to monitor the Arctic battlefield’s terrain and specific characteristics obscures the requirements for feeding‭, ‬clothing‭, ‬sheltering‭, ‬transporting‭, ‬and manoeuvring an army operating in the Arctic‭. ‬Such neglect will undoubtedly lead to dire consequences‭. ‬However‭, ‬for planners who take into consideration the challenges of cold weather‭, ‬the rules of the game change‭, ‬giving them room to outperform even superior forces in quantity and type‭.‬

This indicates that training‭, ‬adapted clothing‭, ‬and equipment‭, ‬accompanied by appropriate logistical concepts‭, ‬allow even smaller forces to make nature an ally‭. ‬Given the importance of cold weather operations in NATO’s missions‭, ‬the NATO-affiliated Cold Weather Operations Excellence Centre was established in Norway‭. ‬

This centre serves as the primary location for developing cold weather operations for the alliance‭, ‬led by experts in cold weather‭. ‬

Moreover‭, ‬the centre draws on the collective experience of the Norwegian army‭, ‬along with similar operational experiences from allied countries to ensure readiness in all environments‭.‬

Additionally‭, ‬the centre works on exploring new operational strategies in cold weather by testing ideas‭, ‬equipment‭, ‬and concepts‭ ‬through practical training in cold weather operations‭. ‬These tasks help NATO countries maintain readiness for cold weather operations and continue to push innovation forward‭, ‬as the strategic geopolitical context emphasizes the importance of the northern‭ ‬flank for the alliance‭. ‬

One expert at the centre states‭, “‬If you can fight and survive in the extreme conditions of the Arctic‭, ‬you can fight anywhere in the world‭. ‬We have learned that one cannot challenge nature because it will not change‭, ‬but humans can adapt if they want to live in dominant natural conditions‭.”‬

Priorities for Cold Weather Operations Research

Military operations are conducted in temperatures ranging from extreme heat‭ (‬40‭ ‬degrees Celsius‭) ‬to extreme cold‭ (-‬40‭ ‬degrees Celsius‭). ‬Given the potential importance of future operations in Arctic environments and environments prone to freezing‭, ‬there is‭ ‬a need to study injuries‭, ‬increase research‭, ‬and enhance education/training to improve soldiers‭’ ‬performance sustainability in cold conditions‭. ‬

Dr‭. ‬Stefan M‭. ‬Pasiakos from the U.S‭. ‬Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine identified important research priorities‭ ‬to enhance operational effectiveness in cold weather in the following areas‭:‬

1‭. ‬Pharmaceutical‭, ‬nutritional‭, ‬and technological‭ ‬means to maintain peripheral blood flow for fighters‭.‬

2‭. ‬The development of clothing and equipment‭ ‬for use in cold weather‭.‬

3‭. ‬The creation of standardized databases‭ ‬on cold weather with identification and classification of categories suffering from increased cold weather injuries‭.‬

4‭. ‬The development of tools for reporting cold weather injuries‭,‬‭ ‬medical protocols for the first responder in treating injuries‭, ‬and the development of decision-making aids for leadership to mitigate risks during cold weather operations‭.‬

5‭. ‬The improvement of field nutrition‭ ‬in cold weather environments‭.‬

Snow Classification‭:‬

For military purposes‭, ‬snow is classified as light‭, ‬moderate‭, ‬or heavy‭, ‬with each classification affecting visibility and ground‭ ‬movement due to snow accumulation as follows‭:‬

1‭. ‬Light Snow‭:‬

‭- ‬Visibility exceeds 1000‭ ‬meters‭.‬

‭- ‬Snow accumulation does not exceed one inch‭ (‬2.5‭ ‬cm‭) ‬per hour‭.‬

2‭. ‬Moderate Snow‭:‬

‭- ‬Visibility ranges from 500‭ ‬to 1000‭ ‬meters‭.‬

‭- ‬Snow accumulation ranges from one to three inches‭ (‬2.5‭ ‬to 7.6‭ ‬cm‭) ‬per hour‭.‬

3‭. ‬Heavy Snow‭:‬

‭- ‬Visibility is less than 500‭ ‬meters‭.‬

‭- ‬Snow accumulation is three inches‭ (‬7.6‭ ‬cm‭) ‬or more per hour‭.‬

Cold Weather Classification‭:‬

Primarily based on temperatures‭, ‬cold weather significantly impacts a soldier’s capabilities on the battlefield‭, ‬requiring specific skills and training‭. ‬

The U.S‭. ‬Army classifies cold weather conditions using categories ranging from wet cold to hazardous cold‭. ‬Since the effects of‭ ‬temperature on humans are influenced by wind‭, ‬this is not an exhaustive list but serves as an illustrative example of challenges‭ ‬associated with decreasing temperatures‭.‬

1‭. ‬Dry Cold Weather‭:‬‭ ‬Dry cold‭ (‬from‭ -‬7°C to 20°C‭) ‬is a favourable starting point for understanding weather challenges‭. ‬Surviving a dry cold environment is easier due to lower‭ ‬humidity‭, ‬mitigating adverse effects on soldiers and equipment‭.‬

2‭. ‬Wet Cold Weather‭:‬‭ ‬Wet cold conditions‭ (‬from 4°C to‭ -‬7°C‭) ‬occur when snow and rain often accompany wet cold conditions‭. ‬This environment poses more significant dangers to forces and equipment than dry cold‭, ‬as the ground becomes muddy‭, ‬clothes and equipment stay consistently damp‭, ‬and the impact of weather is‭ ‬heightened by the wind‭. ‬Without proper equipment‭, ‬training‭, ‬and leadership‭, ‬forces become vulnerable to the effects of the weather‭. ‬Coupled with wind‭, ‬wet cold is perilous due to its impact on a soldier’s awareness‭, ‬with decreased body temperature‭, ‬frostbite‭, ‬and trench foot injuries‭. ‬Wet cold conditions are not confined to mountainous environments alone but exist in various other‭ ‬settings during seasonal transition periods‭. ‬Under wet cold conditions‭, ‬the ground alternates between freezing and thawing‭, ‬as temperatures fluctuate above and below the freezing point‭. ‬This complexity makes the planning process challenging‭, ‬particularly for mobility‭.‬

3‭. ‬Intense Cold Weather‭: ‬Intense cold‭ (‬from‭ -‬20°C to‭ -‬32°C‭) ‬leads to a deterioration in operational quality‭, ‬with reduced attention to detail due to the low temperatures‭. ‬Simple tasks require more time and effort than in warm weather‭, ‬partly due to the clothing worn‭. ‬Thus leaders must consider these factors when‭ ‬planning operations and assigning tasks‭.‬

4‭. ‬Extreme Cold Weather‭:‬‭ ‬Extreme cold‭ (‬from‭ -‬32°C to‭ -‬40°C‭) ‬causes weapons‭, ‬vehicles‭, ‬ammunition‭, ‬and other equipment to fail due to extremely low temperatures‭. ‬Survival becomes paramount‭, ‬and soldiers often resort to physical rest and self-isolation‭.‬

5‭. ‬Hazardous Cold Weather‭:‬‭ ‬Hazardous cold‭ (‬below‭ -‬40°C‭) ‬involves extremely low temperatures‭, ‬requiring intensive training before operating in such environments‭. ‬Aside from challenging temperatures‭, ‬these hazardous weather conditions may include dangerous atmospheric phenomena‭, ‬especially in polar battlegrounds when temperatures drop below‭ -‬40°C‭.‬


Cold weather significantly impacts military operations‭, ‬influencing the performance of soldiers‭, ‬and the efficiency of machinery‭, ‬weapons‭, ‬and ammunition‭. ‬When planning military operations‭, ‬leaders need to study the aspects of cold weather‭, ‬prepare for them‭, ‬train in cold weather environments‭, ‬and utilize appropriate equipment‭.‬

»‬‭ ‬By‭: ‬Retired Colonel Eng‭. ‬Khaled Al-Ananzah‭ ‬
‭(‬Advisor and Trainer in Environmental and Occupational Safety‭)‬

Al Jundi

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