May 19

By Zachariah Hughes

The Army is reorganizing its Alaska assets. In June, the units under the command umbrella of U.S. Army Alaska, including the 1st and 4th brigade combat teams based at Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson respectively, will be rebranded as the 11th Airborne Division.

“I’ve been calling it a reckoning,” said Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commander for USARAK. “It’s long overdue.”

The move will not change the overall Army troop level in Alaska. But it is likely to bring more resources into the state, including military trainings and infrastructure to support a division-level command. That includes upgrading USARAK’s current headquarters at JBER.

“It’s not all gonna happen overnight,” Eifler cautioned.

The 11th Airborne Division is a revival of an airborne unit started during World War II that worked in the Pacific Theater toward the end of the campaign, primarily in the liberation of the Philippines and later the military occupation of Japan. Nicknamed the “angels,” the division was inactivated in the 1960s. Under the rebranding, Alaska soldiers will sport an updated version of the vintage insignia, an “11″ with white wings.

Alaska hosts an unusual mix of military units and missions relative to other states, a conglomeration of Air Force, Army, Navy and Coast Guard personnel carrying out everything from missile defense and remote radar monitoring to mountaineering and advanced search and rescue missions. In the hodgepodge there are inefficiencies and inconsistencies.

The 25th Infantry Division, to which the Army’s Alaska units are technically attached, is headquartered in Hawaii. The red and gold thunderbolt insignia Alaska soldiers wear is nicknamed “Tropic Lightning.”

“This is a unique division. But just having a new division in the Army, that is not common. This is a very rare event and should not be lost on everybody in Alaska,” Eifler said.

He noted that the unconventional structure has at times hindered the Army in Alaska.

“We don’t seem to get the same resources and attention as other divisions,” Eifler said. “We’re gonna make it work, and act like a division. And we’ve been doing largely without. So it’s hampered our ability to coordinate and execute over the years, and now we’re making it more efficient and more effective with what we have.”

That’s a sentiment shared by the Army’s top brass.

“Some of the soldiers (in Alaska) don’t feel they have a sense of identity or purpose around why they’re stationed there,” said Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth at a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing this month.

The move comes as the Army and Defense Department are increasingly interested in the Arctic. A year before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reignited global focus on potential armed conflicts in the high north, the Army released a new strategy for its role in the Arctic built around more training, better equipment and improvements in the quality of life for soldiers stationed at its Alaska bases.

“We kinda wanna train where we’re gonna fight. Historically, Alaska’s been more of a basing place,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville during the Senate hearing. “What we learned was, conducting exercises in the winter in a combat training center-like environment is extremely important.”

The reorganization also likely portends the end of the armored vehicles used by the Stryker brigade combat team based at Fort Wainwright in the Interior. Eifler said it is possible that unit will convert to light infantry, though an ultimate decision has not yet been released.

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