Supply or Die: Sustaining Marines in the High North so They Can Fight and Win a Future War

Marine hops onto a Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement
Marine Cpl. Kayla Julow hops onto a Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement, or MTVR, to assess its radiator. ( photo by Drew F. Lawrence)

ALTA, Norway -- Coolant dripped into a pan from a seven-ton truck as Cpl. Kayla Julow jumped up on its chassis to fix it with a fellow Marine -- both with grimy hands and wearing splotches of mechanical fluids on their uniforms.

A Vermonter who previously deployed to Finland, the 21-year-old Julow is in the Arctic Circle where she and thousands of other Marines in Norway stand only about the length of her home state from Russia.

She was working on a vehicle from the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway, or MCPP-N, a network of caves in central Norway that have held stockpiles of the Corps' ammunition, vehicles and weapons since the 1980s. Those stockpiles are taken out for training during what Marines call "cave draws" -- and they are also a reminder to Russia of the Marine Corps' presence in the region.

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"It's working really well," 1st Lt. Dan Bannister, the distribution officer in charge for CLB-6, told "Most of the equipment from MCPP-N is much newer and better maintained than what we usually work with in the fleet, so our Marines definitely enjoy working with the lesser-used gear set."

Narrow roads and heavy snow make recovery of broken-down vehicles a major headache in this remote part of Norway, and below-freezing temperatures turn wrench-pulling and bolt-tightening into potentially dangerous tasks. That's why Marines out here are issued several pairs of gloves. And if you forgot to pack something important in your tool container, you might as well forget about it.

"It's difficult to get something shipped out to the Arctic Circle," Julow said. "It's really difficult, and you could just end up having to work without it."

Much of the equipment the Marines are using is kept in climate-controlled facilities across Norway, with most of the stores maintained by Norwegian government civilians. That's a testament to the trust the service places in a partner country to keep its stocks ready to move if it or other NATO countries need defending from adversaries.

Cave draws are just one part of supplying Marines if they have to fight in the Arctic. The maintenance bay where Julow and her fellow Marines in Combat Logistics Battalion-6 work is one of the last stops before equipment would reach the front. It's a system that often gets little credit, but without it, there would be no ability to fight.

"How far do they go without you? Can they sleep? Can they chow? Can they road-march?" Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Christopher Mahoney rhetorically asked the Marines of CLB-6 on Monday. "They can't, because it stops and starts with ... sustainment."

Sgt. Maj. Carlos Ruiz, the top enlisted leader in the Marine Corps, recalled to that growing up in the Corps as a warehouse clerk in the Global War on Terror, he could build up sustainment in relative security, but new environments mean new priorities.

"I look at that and I think, those were different times ... that's not going to happen anymore," he said. "No one will ever allow that to happen, to have a buildup."

Now, out here in the contested, frigid north practicing against a simulated near-peer enemy, U.S. troops are learning just how important these new lessons are.

Marines break down consumable sustainment needs into "classes" of supply. For example, Class 1 is food and water. Class 3 is petroleum, oil and lubricants, as well as fuel. In the Arctic, each is affected by the conditions, and Marines have to adapt their planning.

Bannister, the distribution officer in charge for CLB-6, told that in Norway, Marines use special cold-weather meals ready-to-eat that require potable water to activate, meaning insulated jerry cans filled with water borrowed from the Norwegians have to be sent to the front.

"It's one of those things where you wouldn't necessarily think that people would get thirsty and would consume a lot of water in these conditions, but when you're moving around, especially with all the warming layers on, it's very easy to start sweating," he said. "So water consumption is high."

Fuel is also a challenge. Moving troops and vehicles takes longer out in the Arctic due to the snowy conditions, so higher fuel rates are expected. Different types of fuel are required, too, for snowmobiles that take "mo-gas," to regular JP-8 commonly found at Marine Corps bases across the U.S. Those fuels have to be mixed with special solvents to help prevent their temperatures from getting too low, but kept separate so that they aren't mistakenly poured into the wrong vehicles.

These supplies are transported to the front via pre-planned, link-up points where infantry or reconnaissance units, for example, pick them up to distribute them further. Platoon sergeants who receive supplies such as food, water, fuel and ammunition often go by the axiom "beans, bullets and band-aids" when describing what they dole out to their troops.

Executive officers at the company level work with platoon leadership to measure how much and how quickly their troops are consuming these supplies. For leaders, especially here in the Arctic, that raises several questions: For food, how much energy are Marines expelling? For fuel, how far are they moving? For ammunition, what type of enemy are they encountering?

Marines have to rely on nimble snowmobiles to deliver small packages of ammunition to the front. It's much less ammo per package, compared to giant pallets of munitions the Marines are accustomed to distributing via their heavy trucks, which can get stuck deep in the snow.

"If a truck goes down, you're gonna see if you can fix it, but nine times out of 10, you know you can't," Julow said of recovery operations here in the Arctic.

While the Marine Corps has been operating alongside the Norwegians for years, many of the troops are new to the environment. They work alongside their Norwegian counterparts who know the roads, the mountains, the cold to better understand the challenges.

That collaboration is crucial for Marines. The Norwegians have a machine shop here, so when Julow didn't have a bolt for the truck she was working on, they made it themselves. Fixing vehicles also results in a lot of toxic waste, so they rely on the Norwegians to dispose of it properly. Single-use items such as gasket paper for the radiator, Julow said, also come from their counterparts, and getting to work in their heated bays is a godsend to cold wrench-turners.

That relationship is not one-sided for the sustainers. Norwegian Lt. Col. Kristian Cohen told that his reservists also benefit from working with the Marines who, as active-duty troops, are full time. His troops work as soldiers every other year or every fourth year.

"We get a reminder of what it is to operate tactically like soldiers," he said. "My reserves, they are very skilled at their different jobs ... [but] they will come in and can be a bit rusty."

For Marines like Julow, the cold is just part of the job. It makes it harder, but it needs to be done to keep the infantry Marines at the front operating and ready.

"I think that it's just important for people to know that this is a huge part of what goes on in the military," Julow said of the behind-the-scenes work. "And it's not a very visible one ... When a truck goes down, it comes back here, it comes to us and we just fix it real quick, and we send it back out."

Related: Above the Arctic Circle, Infantry Marines Are Improvising to Battle Harsh Conditions as Part of NATO Force

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