Pinning on new arm patches bearing a historic emblem, 11,000 soldiers split between two Alaska-based units officially became the first members of the 11th Airborne Division Monday.
“A common unit identity is a source of pride,” said Army Chief of Staff James C. McConville, who was in Alaska for ceremonies activating the Army’s newest division. “The history of a unit [reflected] in the patch matters because this is what they do and this is who they are. We expect them to be masters of their craft in the Arctic war-fighting, in extreme cold weather, in mountainous and high-altitude terrain, and we expect them to develop innovative ways of operating in this environment.”
The 11th Airborne pulls together two Alaska-based units that previously fell under the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. Now, say Army leaders, the two can focus specifically on fighting in Arctic-like environments. Part of that, said officials, will include phasing out a unit of Strykers at Fort Wainwright to instead focus on equipment and tactics designed specifically for cold weather, and, eventually, air assault tactics.
Ceremonies at both Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage and at Fort Wainwright officially activated the 11th Airborne Monday, June 6. The new division becomes the Army’s third major unit of paratroopers along with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg and the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy.
Under the 11th Airborne, paratroopers of the 25th ID’s 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), which is assigned to JBER, will remain focused on parachute operations. The 11th will also absorb the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team from the 25th that has operated the Stryker armored vehicle at Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks for two decades. However, officials said the unit will soon phase out the Strykers in favor of light infantry tactics.
The division is also likely to stand up an air assault capability, which may require moving new helicopters into the state, said Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, the 11th Airborne’s new commander. “We have aircraft here, but is that the best [airframe mix] for a potential air assault-capable brigade,” Eifler said.
Eifler also said his troops will be charged with developing new equipment and techniques for cold-weather warfare. Troops assigned to the 11th, he said, can expect to see training on snow machines and tracked personnel carriers known as Cold-Weather All Terrain Vehicles, or CAT-Vs. “They’ll be doing sustained operations, testing and proving concepts, just like the 11th Airborne did for the airborne division.”
Indeed, the original 11th Airborne fought in the Pacific in World War II, but is perhaps most relevant in Army history as a testing unit that ushered in many of the large-unit rapid deployment tactics used in the Army today. The unit helped develop and test early parachute infantry tactics later used in the invasion of Europe during WWII. In the 1960s, the 11th developed many of the helicopter-borne tactics that make up the Army’s air assault doctrine, practiced by the 101st Airborne today.
Alaska’s Sen. Dan Sullivan, who attended the ceremony at JBER, said the activation of the 11th Airborne, along with the arrival in Alaska of advanced fighter planes and plans for new Navy icebreakers, represents a shift in US interest in the Arctic and other northern, cold-weather theaters.
“Wasn’t too long ago the focus on the Arctic was nonexistent,” said Sullivan. “We now have a strategically located, tough unit that can deploy anywhere in the world. Look at a map, in Alaska we’re within a few hours of Korea, China, Russia, you name it. We just put one hundred fifth-generation fighters and this airborne division in their rear and their flanks.”