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Article – Human Performance: What the ADF Can Learn from Operating in Extreme Environments

In the last two Antarctic expedition seasons, personnel from the UK Defence Force have completed three major expeditions – SPEAR17, Expedition Ice Maidens and Antarctic Gurkha. SPEAR 17 –  South Pole Expedition Army Reserve 2017 – became the first all-British military team to complete a full, unsupported traverse of Antarctica. The Ice Maidens were a UK Army team that became the first all-female team to use muscle power to ski coast-to-coast across Antarctica. Lieutenant Scott Sears, from the Royal Gurkha Rifles, became the youngest person to reach the South Pole solo and unsupported – a journey of 1100km completed in 38 days. These achievements parallel the Gurkha Everest Expedition 2017 which saw 13 members of the Brigade of Gurkhas summit Mount Everest, the first serving Gurkhas to achieve such a feat and an overall 100% summit success rate.

On the surface, these expeditions sound like great adventures in the pursuit of personal goals. However, delving deeper into the teams, their achievements and expedition research outcomes provides an opportunity for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to learn from these activities in terms of leadership, team building, risk appreciation, planning and executing complex missions, and women in combat roles. Activities of this nature are considered to most closely mirror operational environments and, arguably, are critical for personal growth in high-performing individuals. This piece focuses on how knowledge and experience from expeditions in extreme environments can be applied to achieve operational outcomes.

Extreme Environments

Extreme environments are typically extreme cold (below 5˚C either persistently or with regular frequency) or extreme heat (in excess of 40˚C either persistently or with regular frequency), however there are other forms of extreme environments. Antarctica, the Arctic, Norway, Greenland, and Everest are immediate examples that come to mind. Extreme environments are characterised by exposure to physical and psychological pressures, including uncertainty, danger, hardship, interpersonal pressure, sleep deprivation and monotony. It is for this reason that these environments provide the same conditions as combat and operational environments. As such, research on activities in extreme environments can provide the ADF with insights into team building, fatigue management, monitoring and empowering individuals in adverse situations, and go/no-go criteria to mitigate fatigue-induced indecision.

Leadership & Team Building

Captain Chris Boote was part of the Gurkha Everest Expedition and he reflected on the ‘never flat … but flexible’ leadership hierarchy that was adopted. A key takeaway was how members moved from roles of leadership to followership and back, depending on the situation. There are many occasions in the ADF where ‘leadership on paper’ differs from ‘leadership in practice’ and being confident and flexible enough to recognise and make this transition is considered a valuable trait in a leader.

As with every ADF activity or operation, an expedition is never just execution or physical achievement. As Boote notes ‘financing, equipping and training a team to climb Everest requires a different approach to leading a team of mountaineers to the summit’. Delegating tasks based on strengths and areas of expertise can build trust in teams. Insights from operations reflect that ‘many soldiers and junior leaders perceived that their superiors needed to show more trust in subordinates’ and this is a consistent theme identified by the Centre of Army Lessons – at all levels, personnel are tightly monitored. An essential part of professional development is being given freedom of action within remit and area of expertise based on trust from superiors. As the Gurkha Expedition demonstrates, delegating and placing trust in others’ expertise enables a team to achieve significant outcomes.

Routine

Critical to operating in extreme environments is preparation, including psychological preparation. A routine is considered to be a key method that is essential to ensure life-saving measures are completed when energy is depleted, fatigue is setting in, and physical and psychological functioning is impaired. An ingrained routine is especially essential in extreme environments because it provides a level of certainty – jackets are always in a specific corner and boots are always left in a dry place.

In her book My Polar Dream, Jade Hameister stated it took around three hours each evening to melt enough ice to rehydrate dinner, have a cup of Milo and prepare drinking water for the next day. Each morning, her routine took two hours –  breakfast, reheating the water for thermoses (from ice melted the night before), making a hot drink, brushing teeth without water, packing up everything inside the tent, ‘toilet’ stop, taking down the camp and packing everything into the sled. Then skiing from 0800 to 1800, before the nightly routine and bed at 2200. While having a routine enables people to manage being in demanding environments, as Jade’s routine shows, it also provides an effective basis for fatigue management. Dedicated times for movement and sleep means that individuals have timings to mentally work towards, and they reduce the need for daily decision making under increasingly fatigued situations.

Personal Growth

Military personnel are driven, committed and perform with high levels of physical fitness. Operating in extreme environments provide opportunities for high-performing individuals to grow through extending comfort zones and providing the foundations for an enduring ‘fighting spirit.’ Furthermore, the magnitude of an extreme environment ‘encourages individuals to continue setting personal challenges and develop a goal-orientated mentality.’  Peter Hillary captures this perspective best:

“Most of us will never climb Mount Everest, cross Antarctica, or land on the moon, but we know we can. The truth is we are all liberated by the success of others because they show it can be done.”

There is also a growing body of literature that supports the conclusion that exposure to stressors associated with extreme environments can result in adaptive psychological responses and post-traumatic growth (PTG)[1]. PTG includes personal strength, appreciation of life and possibilities for the future. More specifically, expedition participants felt ‘more capable of overcoming future challenges and had a different perspective of their life.'[2] They also reported higher scores on conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and openness, with lower scores reported on neuroticism when compared with the general population. These outcomes, being a high sense of adventure, drive to achieve and low susceptibility to anxiety, can be considered essential qualities for military personnel for both performance and adjustment.

Women in Combat Roles

A succinct headline captures recent expedition research findings: ‘Army Women Endured Polar Expedition Better Than Men, Study Finds.’ Results from the Ice Maidens reflect that they maintained more body mass during their expedition when compared to males and civilian women from previous expeditions. This research can now be used to inform how the female body responds to operating in similarly harsh military environments.

Another learning opportunity stemming from extreme environments is how women are integrated into diverse military teams. In extreme conditions, it is agreed that women are key in ‘achieving a cognitive advantage’ and ‘protecting team dynamics’ as they demonstrate a ‘high tolerance for pain and willingness to burden share’. Women are not seen as dependent on other team members due to physical differences, instead the competitive edge they offer is recognised and maximised. Arguably, the ADF has much to learn about the effective integration of women into small teams as evidenced by the ‘actual percentage of women in the force … likely to decline’ despite ongoing and concentrated effort in both recruitment and retention.

Incomplete Missions     

Ben Saunders’ mission during his Trans-Antarctic Solo Expedition was to ‘make the first solo, unsupported and unassisted crossing of Antarctica.’ The Expedition route was a west-to-east traverse from Berkner Island to the Ross Ice Shelf via the South Pole in honour of Lt Col Worsley who had lost his life after almost completing the route in January 2016. The route remains an unfinished journey after Saunders decided to end his expedition at the South Pole after travelling over 1000km in 52 days.

On day 50 of his expedition, Saunders reflected that the  crossing was a ‘theoretical possibility‘ based on distances he had previously completed, his reality however was travelling 622km with 13 days of food in extremely poor conditions. Saunders set himself a Decision Point – when he reached the South Pole, it would be decision time on whether to continue or not. As noted above, Saunders did not complete his mission. Electing instead, in a very public manner and with high-profile sponsors, to not ‘push on’ in a high-stake and high-consequence environment.

Military personnel take great pride in completing their missions, often with a hardwired ‘can-do’ attitude that sees them persist. We have much to learn from Saunders’ experience, first in understanding and tolerating risk in extreme environments. Second, and arguably more important, is gaining an appreciation of the impact of not achieving a mission after years of planning and extensive effort. How to respond and mange setbacks remains an integral part of leader development and growth, at all levels within the ADF.

Inspiration   

Heath Jamieson joined the Australian Army in 2006, posting to 2nd Commando Regiment (then 4th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (Commando)) in 2017. Working with Tactical Assault Group East, Heath deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, 2010 and 2011. During his 2011 deployment, he was wounded in an engagement with insurgents, sustaining a gunshot wound to the neck. Barely able to walk and with limited use of his left arm, Heath commenced rehabilitation immediately and resumed work in February 2012.

In 2013, Heath completed The Walking with The Wounded Antarctic Expedition, skiing 335km to the South Pole as part of Team Commonwealth. Along with Seamus Donaghue, the other Australian Army team member, Heath was awarded the Australian Geographic ‘Spirit of Adventure’ in 2014 for ‘strength, determination and the ability to overcome obstacles.’ Since leaving the Army, he has completed an expedition to the North Pole in 2015, a Greenland Expedition, and was part of the all-Australian Team that pioneered a new route to the South Pole with Jade Hameister in 2017/2018.

Heath’s accomplishments are inspirational and motivational – he has used the experience provided by the Australian Army in an extreme environment to lay the foundations for subsequent polar expeditions and post-service life.  His experiences provide insight into the personal development that can occur in extreme environments.

In Conclusion

On the surface, expeditions appear to be small teams of highly-trained and specialist personnel that pursue personal goals. However, it’s argued that these activities generate knowledge and experience that can be applied to achieve positive outcomes for the ADF. A direct operational application is Afghanistan where winter temperatures can drop to -25ºC and summer temperatures rise to 50ºC. The maintenance of knowledge and experience in extreme environments will assist the ADF to rapidly procure clothing and equipment for use, as well has have the corporate knowledge to effectively operate in extremely adverse conditions.


[1] Smith, N., Kinnafick, F., Cooley, S.J., Sandal, G.M. (2016). Reported Growth Following Mountaineering Expeditions: The Role of Personality and Perceived Stress. Environment and Behavior, 49, 933-955.

Thank you to Brigadier Fegan for sharing his experiences in extreme cold weather.


About the Author: Emily Chapman is a Reserve Royal Australian Air Force Operations Officer. She was previously an Operations Analyst embedded within the Adaptive Warfare Branch, Headquarters 1st Division before returning to complete her PhD fulltime on civil-military interaction during disaster relief operations. Emily is co-leading the planning and preparation of the The Spirit Lives Expedition to traverse Antarctica in 2019.

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