More than 60 Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the Portsmouth-based 2nd Squadron, 183rd Cavalry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, traveled to Finland to participate in Arctic Forge 23 Feb. 15 – March 7, 2023, on Sodankylä Garrison, Finland.
Training with more than 500 Finnish forces and alongside elements of the 11th Airborne Division and the 10th Mountain Division, the Saber Soldiers conducted Defense Exercise North, part of the Arctic Forge exercise, focused on building arctic military capabilities and cooperation. During the exercise, the VNG Soldiers learned the basics of operating in an Arctic environment, including how to ski, drawing on the Finnish forces’ cold climate expertise.
Maj. Sidney Leslie, commander of the 2-183rd, said his team performed admirably despite the shock of moving from Virginia’s climate into frigid and snowy northern Finland.
“They did absolutely fabulous,” said Leslie. “It was extremely challenging deploying from a temperate climate to the deep cold of an arctic environment, learning basic skills, including cross-country skiing, ski-towing, sled towing, survival and conducting basic military tasks in an arctic environment. Our Finnish partners often commended how lethal we were, our ability to maneuver in this environment, and our ability to integrate indirect fires and CAS to lethal effect.”
The VNG contingent on the exercise consisted of one dismounted reconnaissance troop, including a headquarters element and two scout platoons, and a small squadron headquarters element. The cavalry elements were supported by enablers from across the 116th IBCT, including a fire support team from the Norfolk-based 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery Regiment.
The shock of operating in more than a meter of snow and in temperatures significantly below zero were not the only challenges the VNG Soldiers needed to overcome to execute their mission successfully.
“Obviously, there is a language barrier. However, we were able to work through that and were able to overcome the command and control challenges associated with that,” said Leslie. “Forces that routinely operate in an arctic environment have certain organic assets such as Small Unit Support Vehicles and Skidoos. We didn’t. Our only organic maneuver capability was dismounted on skis. These were all challenges we overcame by collaborating with our Finnish partners. We were stronger when we worked together!”
The highlight of the trip proved to be a five-day field training exercise, during which the Saber Soldiers had to execute the new skills they learned to integrate in to a tactical field environment.
“We were integrated into a task force of Finnish home defense forces,” said Leslie. “We conducted field tactical exercises where we provided reconnaissance and security tasks for our partners against a very capable battalion of opposing forces.”
Overall, the trip was successful, and made the unit and its Soldiers more capable and ready for future missions in arctic environments.
“Arctic Forge 23 was a great experience to train and participate in a multinational NATO exercise with our Finnish partners,” said Leslie. “We validated the concept that a M-Day force could deploy on short notice to an OCONUS base in the high north, receive specialized theater-specific training, and be capable of conducting tactical operations in an arctic environment.”
Leslie said that success wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of the DRT’s leadership team of Capt. Chase Thresher, commander, 1st Lt. Joe Kriz, the executive officer, and 1st Sgt. Lawrence Smithson, the senior noncommissioned officer.
“These are tough, professional tactical leaders,” he said. “They led from the front and were in the trenches with their troopers the whole time.”
While the Saber Soldiers were participating in the northern half of Arctic Forge 23, Soldiers and Marines were conducting Joint Viking in Norway, in collaboration with forces from Norway, Denmark, German, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
“Whether we are campaigning, competing, responding to crisis or in conflict, winning matters,” said U.S. Army Europe and Africa Commanding General, Gen. Darryl A. Williams. “And we must win in any engagement, including and especially the Arctic, where over-the-pole exercises like this with the Total Army and with our Allies and partners not only protect U.S. national security interests, but ensure a safe and secure region.”
The Virginia National Guard enjoys an enduring relationship with Finland that includes military training exchanges between Finnish Defense Forces and VNG Soldiers and Airmen.
Finnish troops served with Virginia’s 29th Infantry Division during the Stabilization Force 10 rotation in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2001-2002, sparking enduring friendships, and VNG personnel have trained shoulder-to-shoulder with their Finnish counterparts for many years, building deep professional and personal bonds.
In recent years, Soldiers and Airmen conducted cyber training with their Finnish counterparts, competed in a Finnish sniper competition, and learned from Finland’s expertise operating and thriving in Arctic conditions, among other exchanges. VNG Army and Air cyber warriors were also recently in Finland taking part in the Elements of Cyber exercise.
Finland and the United States have a shared commitment to peace and stability, and security cooperation efforts have broadened over almost 30 years. National Guard leaders believe they will only be strengthened in the years ahead.