They were Canada's armoured workhorses in the dust and heat of Afghanistan, and now the military is taking its LAVs to the snowy tundra.

A massive military exercise next month in the Western Arctic will involve light armoured vehicles -- the first time in more than a generation that mechanized units will operate in the North.

"Certainly with the new light armoured vehicles, this is the first time we've ever gone up in any significant strength to test our capabilities," said Lt.-Col. Bill Fletcher, battle group commander for the Arctic Ram exercise, which runs from Feb. 14 to 26.

Arctic Ram will bring more than 1,500 soldiers from bases in the south to the Northwest Territories. Personnel will include a range of units from the reservist Canadian Rangers, the largely aboriginal eyes and ears of the military in the North, to the Kandahar-tested troops of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

"It's huge," said Fletcher, who added that the army's contribution to Arctic operations is usually between 100 and 150 soldiers.

"From an army perspective, it's one of the bigger ones."

The operation, based near the Tlicho community of Behchoko (formerly Rae-Edzo), will give the military a chance to practise living, moving and co-ordinating in an Arctic environment.

"It's hard enough to do it dismounted," Fletcher said. "It's even more so when you start trying to throw mechanized forces up."

Soldiers will manoeuvre on snowshoes. Parachutists will jump into Arctic skies. Troops will live for days in tents amidst the tiny trees, innumerable lakes and rugged rocks of the Canadian Shield.

LAVs will run around the clock to keep them going in the Arctic cold. Grease on the rifles and cannons will have to be swapped for lubricants that don't freeze up.

"If you don't use a cold-weather lubricant, it gels up and stops the action, so when you need to pull the trigger nothing happens, which is very disconcerting," Fletcher said.

The LAVs will push north about 300 kilometres on ice roads to the communities of Gameti and Wha Ti. But the equipment -- as well as Coyote reconnaissance vehicles -- isn't expected to go cross-country.

"We start pushing into that muskeg or any of the ice that hasn't been properly prepared, I don't think it could handle the weight," Fletcher said.

"(Ice roads are) about the only thing that's going to take a multi-tonne armoured vehicle. The safety concern is significant."

Other than that, Fletcher doesn't expect the LAVs will have any trouble in the Arctic.

"They're a really robust vehicle. I think they'll do quite well."

Soldiers will also test the LAV cannons against the kind of defences that could be encountered in the Arctic. Standard military procedure is to build fortifications with snow and then harden them with ice.

"It is hard as steel and will stop bullets," Fletcher said. "We need to know what our munitions will do to that."

War games or emergency scenarios aren't part of the plan.

"We're not going up there to practise fighting a war. It's really to document what we can do and what we have difficulty doing.

"If we're going to be a Canadian army, we need to be able to go anywhere in Canada. The Arctic is a very, very critical part of our land mass."