ARLINGTON, Va. --- There’s no mystery – or surprise – surrounding the Arctic’s strategic importance, a vast and foreboding expanse where the United States has maintained a resolute and unblinking presence for decades.
While that reality is long-frozen in place, a host of new and emerging factors ranging from climate change to intensifying global commerce to a generation of advanced weapon systems is triggering fresh attention and activity in the region.
No organization is feeling the shift more than the U.S. Air Force.
With installations scattered across Alaska, Canada and Greenland that include large air bases, training complexes, and a constellation of more than 50 radars, early warning and missile defense stations, the Air Force has the largest U.S. defense presence in a region that is a cornerstone of the country’s defense.
As North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command’s forward operational commander in Alaska, as well as an assortment of other senior responsibilities, Lt. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere is playing a central role in knitting the assorted efforts into a cohesive whole and navigating the region’s increasingly complicated security and geo-political realities.
“Once you present the clear, objective facts, people quickly realize the strategic importance of this region,” he said. “It’s why we are taking this challenge very seriously.”
Indeed, where once the Arctic was the providence of a stable and identifiable set of countries and interests, it is suddenly far more crowded.
China, for example, is active in the region. Russia, meanwhile, is moving forward with plans to build a new generation of nuclear-powered icebreakers that are twice as powerful as the current generation. If realized, the new icebreakers would be a key part of plans to maintain year-round operations and ship 80 million tons of cargo through the North Sea Route by 2024.
A collection of smaller nations and commercial interests have migrated to the region that now has more open shipping lanes that make its once unreachable natural resources more accessible. Landlocked Kazakhstan, for example, has expressed interest in using the Ob-Irtysh river system to reach the Arctic port of Sabetta.
The Arctic’s repositories of oil, minerals and immense fish stocks are spurring “other nations seeking advantage of the diminishing ice environment,” concluded senior military and government leaders who took part in an Arctic summit in January in Washington, D.C.
The senior leaders were blunt in their analysis for what that means for the U.S. and its allies. “The rapidly changing environment in the Arctic and the increased presence of great power competitors, along with malign non-state actors challenge U.S. security interests in the region.”
The attention – and rhetoric – are broadly based. “Both a northern approach to the United States, as well as a critical location for projecting American power, its geo-strategic significance is difficult to overstate,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein wrote in a January op-ed.
Actions are also following the words. By 2022, for example, Alaska will be home to more advanced fighter jets than any place on Earth.
At the same time, an increased emphasis on joint operations will be underway across Air Force installations ranging from Thule Air Force Base in Greenland to Alaska’s two major Air Force bases Elmendorf and Eielson as well as facilities operated by the National Guard. Mixed in is the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, one of the largest instrumented air, ground and electronic combat training range in the world. That space is important for training pilots today, especially those flying 5th generation aircraft.
It means working more closely with Army and National Guard units that have expertise working in, and surviving, the Arctic’s difficult conditions. It means locking arms and even participating in joint exercises with allies, especially allies from Nordic nations that have deep experience in the Arctic.
“The strategic value of the Arctic as our first line of defense has reemerged and USNORTHCOM and NORAD are taking active measures to ensure our ability to detect, to track, and defeat potential threats in this region,” Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He is the commander of NORAD and USNORTHCOM.
As the combatant commander charged with homeland defense, O’Shaughnessy is seeing the front line of homeland defense shifting north, making it clear the Arctic can no longer be viewed as a buffer. In a recently published commentary, O’Shaughnessy stated, “The Arctic is a potential approach for our adversaries to conduct strikes on North America and is now the front line in our defense.”
Bussiere carries a distinct perspective to the job, which is a crucial part of the larger NORAD effort. A decorated pilot and experienced commander, Bussiere understands on an intellectual level the Arctic’s strategic importance in achieving his primary mission of defending the U.S. and Canada, especially along the northern approaches. Like almost everybody who’s served in the Air Force, he is familiar with Gen. Billy Mitchell’s aging but still valid quip, “Whoever holds Alaska will hold the world.”
Congress recognizes it too. The defense authorization signed into law last year requires the Secretary of Defense to submit “no later than June 1, 2019 … a report on an updated Arctic strategy to improve and enhance joint operations.” The report requires a summary of U.S. national security interests in the Arctic, including the threats and security challenges “posed by adversaries operating in the Arctic region” — especially Russia and China.
Driving all of the activity is the updated understanding about the Arctic’s strategic value.
“When we think about the high north, we think about the value that the high north represents to all of us,” Gen. Paul J. Selva, Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman, told the international audience at January’s Arctic summit.
That value, he added, spans more than simply national security. The Arctic, he said, is “valuable” to environmental security, to expanding each country’s economy and to serving as “the pathway to trade for the future. Stability and security in the high north benefits us all.”