The Army’s command in Alaska has a new name now, to reflect its new focus on fighting in the Arctic and helping develop tactics and equipment for the region. U.S. Army Alaska officially became the 11th Airborne Division Monday after ceremonies at Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson.
Monday morning’s ceremony at Fort Wainwright began with helicopters, including a half-dozen carrying the Army brass and dignitaries invited to the event.
“You know, I love the sound of helicopters in the morning,” said Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff, “because it sounds like victory and that’s what this division is about — it’s about victory!”
McConville flew in for the occasion to officiate in the ceremony. The Army’s top officer observed that the event was being held on the anniversary of D-Day, when U.S. and Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy 78 years ago to liberate the continent from the Nazis.
“And on this June 6th, we’re also making history,” he said. “We’re passing you the colors and the patch of the storied 11th Airborne Division.”
McConville noted that the 11th Airborne wasn’t fighting in Europe at that time. But he says it developed tactics in the Asian theater that made airborne assault a crucial element of the D-Day invasion.
Former U.S. Army Alaska commander Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, who now commands the division, says it will build on that expertise, both in Asia and the Arctic.
“Our mission is to deter the threats and be ready to fight and win both in the Indo-Pacific and the Arctic,” he said. “And yes, that’s a unique and difficult mission.”
The 11th Airborne will be the Army’s second based in the United States, the first being the 82nd Airborne out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Eifler says activating the new division will enable the Army to reorganize the 12,000 Alaska-based soldiers who’ve been pulled in many directions over the years to focus their mission on the Arctic and Indo-Pacific.
“We were a brigade and we had an airborne battalion, then it was going away,” he said, recounting U.S. Army Alaska’s frequently shifting missions over the past couple of decades. “Then we had the Strykers. Then were we deploying to Iraq. You know, all over the years, we were all over the place.”
Eifler said in a news conference before Monday’s ceremony that military leaders realized that all those conflicting missions diminished U.S. Army Alaska’s capabilities. He said that and an evolving geopolitical landscape, driven by increased interest in the Arctic, convinced leadership to make some changes.
“We sort of lost the Arctic ethos that we had,” he said, “being an Arctic force and cold-weather capable, because we were all focused on Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Eifler said in a recent interview that the Army will continue reorganizing the 11th Airborne. He says initially, the public may not notice much more than the new patch on soldiers’ sleeves.
He said many of those changes will be related to a much greater focus on soldier mobility — on foot, on skis, or on new equipment like smaller snow-capable tracked vehicles. And he says the iconic multi-wheeled vehicles the Fort Wainwright-based Stryker brigade uses likely will eventually be phased-out.
“You’ll see a lot less Strykers,” he said. “Maybe a little bit more airborne operations up here because, again, the only Arctic airborne capability is in this unit.”
McConville and Eifler both said the 11th Airborne will begin hosting big training exercises like those conducted on ranges at Fort Irwin, California, and Fort Rucker, Alabama. And they expect more training with soldiers from allied nations that want their troops to gain experience in operating in cold weather and on mountainous terrain.