Lt. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere is the commander, Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, North American Aerospace Defense Command; commander, Alaskan Command, U.S. Northern Command; commander, Eleventh Air Force, Pacific Air Forces, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
He is the senior military officer in Alaska, responsible for the integration of all military activities in the Alaskan joint operations area, synchronizing the activities of more than 22,000 active duty and reserve forces from all services.
As commander of NORAD’s Alaskan Region, Bussiere directs operations to ensure effective surveillance, monitoring and defense of the region’s airspace. He is also responsible for the planning and execution of all homeland defense operations within the area of responsibility, including security and civil support actions. The general also commands 11th Air Force, overseeing the training and readiness of five wings and Air Force installations located in Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.
NORAD is a binational United States and Canadian
organization charged with the missions of aerospace warning and aerospace
control for North America. Aerospace warning includes the monitoring of manmade
objects in space, and the detection, validation and warning of attack against
North America whether by aircraft, missiles or space vehicles, utilizing mutual
support arrangements with other commands. Aerospace control includes ensuring
air sovereignty and air defense of the airspace of Canada and the United
To accomplish these critically important missions, NORAD continually adjusts its structure to meet the demands of a changing world. The commander is appointed by, and is responsible to, both the president of the United States and the prime minister of Canada.
Alaskan NORAD Region is responsible for completing the NORAD mission within the state of Alaska and the surrounding waters.
During an interview with Airman magazine, Bussiere discussed the roles of partnerships, technology and innovation in increasing Air Force readiness in the Arctic.
Airman magazine: What are the problems we face as an Air Force in the Arctic concerning readiness and the environment?
Gen. Bussiere: I wouldn’t characterize the situation in the Arctic as necessarily a problem, as much as opportunities and challenges. The Arctic presents opportunities because of the decreasing sea ice and there’s increased activity in the Arctic because of that. The challenges are the fact potential near peer adversaries of Russia and China are taking advantage of that decreasing sea ice and presenting challenges in national security, environmental as well as economic concerns in the Arctic.
Airman magazine: Can you tell me about partnerships and the growing threat in the Arctic?
Gen. Bussiere: Partnerships in the Arctic are important based on the fact that the United States of America is an Arctic nation. That’s not necessarily a well-known fact, but as a member of the Arctic council, the United States has a leadership role in making sure that the concerns and issues in the Arctic are accounted for, both with the international law and with treaties. Our partnership with the other Arctic nations is important going forward to address both challenges and opportunities.
Airman magazine: How do you see our partnerships evolving to meet these new demands?
Gen. Bussiere: So, the increased activity in the Arctic is providing an opportunity for the United States with our partners in Canada and in Europe to posture for the future. That is a partnership that goes back many decades and it’s one that is continuing to be developed through the Arctic council and with the leadership of U.S. Northern Command. We are making great strides with building relationships with our fellow nations and with our fellow services as well as partnerships with both industry and the Alaska native community here.
Airman magazine: With so much strategy revolving around the Arctic, where should our focus be?
Gen. Bussiere: The Arctic in Alaska presents the United States a very strategic location. It’s always been a very strategic location; it just depends on what the focus of our nation has been on a global scale. I think there’s a reemergence of the significance of Alaska. You can reach just about anywhere on the planet from Alaska in short order, in less than nine hours. Alaska provides an opportunity to defend North American air space from the approaches through and in the Arctic.
The (environmental) challenges are many and the development of training opportunities in the Arctic with all our services is something that we’re working on for the future.
Airman magazine: What would it mean if we lost control of the Arctic?
Gen. Bussiere: Well, I think that there’s great realization with the increased human activity in the Arctic, that there’s an importance that our services, all of our services, Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines, (have) the ability to operate in the austere Arctic environment. Alaska provides an opportunity to train in that environment and I’m a firm believer that the way to preserve peace is to have a strong military and present deterrence in the Arctic. There’s no better place in my mind to train to that environment than Alaska.
Airman magazine: How is the Air Force being utilized in this extreme cold environment to support our joint partners and as an operational force?
Gen. Bussiere: I think the Arctic presents an opportunity to posture. It’s always been important, but it presents an opportunity to posture the forces to make a very clear statement, whether it’s to Russia or China, that the United States has the ability to defend land, maritime and in the air over and around the joint operating area of Alaska.
Airman magazine: What are some of the challenges of this environment and how is the Air Force being utilized?
Gen. Bussiere: All services are represented in the joint operations area of Alaska, but the majority of the forces are Air Force. We have fighters, tankers and surveillance aircraft. We maintain the infrastructure in Alaska and we maintain our long-range radar systems. The Air Force has a long and storied history in Alaska.
So, the challenge is just the environment itself. Making sure that our forces are trained and ready to operate in the Arctic environment. The Alaska Joint Pacific training ranges, or JPARC, as we call it, is a phenomenal opportunity for both air and ground forces to train in the Arctic environment. The Gulf of Alaska also provides a phenomenal training opportunity for our Navy brothers and sisters.
The Air Force has always had a great presence in Alaska. Now we have Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, Eielson Air Force Base as well as the training ranges. Ever since the end of World War II and the advent of (North American Aerospace Defense Command), or NORAD, the Air Force has been a permanent presence in the state of Alaska defending the sovereign airspace.
Airman magazine: How are communications in the Arctic? What have we done to improve these capabilities?
Gen. Bussiere: Communications in the Arctic present unique challenges just based on the Northern Hemisphere. It’s not necessarily unique to the Arctic as much as it is the High North presents some unique challenges based on ground and space based communications. It’s a known issue and it’s something that department’s working very aggressively to address. Just the vastness of Alaskan joint operations area presents some unique challenges for communication, but it’s one that we’ve worked very diligently on over the years and I’m confident if we need to operate in the Arctic, we’ll have the ability to command and control and communicate with air forces.
Airman magazine: Are we working with outside partners?
Gen. Bussiere: In the Arctic we work with a lot of outside partners and we work with all our service partners and our other federal partners, whether it’s NOAA or the FAA. We have great partnerships with the state and local leadership and we have a deep relationship with the Alaska native community who have been in this region for thousands of years and understand the unique dynamics and challenges of the Arctic environment.
The Alaska Federation of Natives community and the Alaska tribal community are very deep in history and traditions. We find there is great parallels between what we value in the DoD and in the Air Force and in what they value in their communities. We’ve been able to partner with the Alaska native leadership and there are great synergies between what we do and what they can teach us about the Arctic.
Airman magazine: How is melting permafrost affecting our infrastructure? How are we rising to this challenge? How are we ensuring it’s never a problem again?
Gen. Bussiere: The changing environment both in the Arctic and in Alaska based on climate change is providing the unique challenges, whether that’s coastal erosion or decreased permafrost. There will be challenges for the infrastructure that will have to be addressed, whether that’s along the coastline or with our installations, but I’m confident that the engineering professionals in the Air Force and the DoD would be able to address that.
There are unique challenges based on the increased temperatures in the Arctic and permafrost is one of them. It’s not unique to Alaska; it’s actually a high North issue that’s being addressed across the Arctic Circle. As the ground increases in temperature, the permanent structures we have built in the Arctic will need adjustments – engineering adjustments – based on the decreased permafrost. It’s not happening at a rate that is alarming in our ability to respond. Like I said, I think we have all the expertise we need in the engineering community to address this. It’s certainly something we’ll have to plan for and act on going forward.
Airman magazine: How does melting permafrost affect bedding down the F-35?
Gen. Bussiere: Alaska has a very unique construction season based on both the weather and the ground. The engineers and the professionals that build our facilities have really refined it to a unique science to manipulate the permafrost to build facilities to operate in this very cold environment.
Airman magazine: Observation plays a major role in our defense posture. Is there more demand for (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) now?
Gen. Bussiere: I think there’s always been a high demand signal for ISR in the Arctic. It’s a hot commodity or a high demand, low-density asset in the department. I would offer we compete just as well as any other region to make sure that we have the appropriate ISR platforms to do our business.
All the ISR is facilitated through USNORTHCOM and then we execute it through our Alaskan Command. The ability to for us to use all domains for ISR is just as important in the Arctic as it is in any other place on the on the planet.
Airman magazine: Are we working in a constrained budget? How and why?
Gen. Bussiere: USNORTHCOM for responsible for the Arctic and is designated as the lead for Arctic advocacy. Like every other combatant commander, USNORTHCOM relies on the services to organize, train, or equip their forces and in this case to be able to operate in and through the Arctic. I’ve seen a great advocacy both from the Department of Defense and the service level on developing Arctic strategies. So every service understands the importance of this region and just developing their own roadmaps to organize, training or equip their forces to be able to operate in it. What we do to help facilitate that is we execute Northern Edge and Arctic Edge, which are two major exercises, one every year. That gives our forces the opportunity to train in the environment that they potentially could have to operate in.
Airman magazine: Have we had to change anything or pull from other assets to support this?
Gen. Bussiere: No, I wouldn’t say we’re pulling forces from other regions, but the Air Force is stationing and fielding a fifth-generation weapon systems in the Alaskan joint operations area. We have two operational squadrons of the F-22 Raptor here at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson and starting next April we’ll begin fielding two operational F-35 Lightning (II) fighter squadrons at Eielson Air Force Base.
It’s a very strong message to the world that the Alaskan joint operations area is a very important strategic location. Alaska with the vast ranges also provides a phenomenal opportunity for fifth-generation platforms to train.
Airman magazine: Where will the Air Force be most utilized in these developing situations?
Gen. Bussiere: The Air Force is postured to lead the way with trained and ready forces to operate in the Arctic. The U.S. Army Alaska forces are also very well postured. We’re continuing to invite all our fellow brothers and sisters in the Marine Corps and the Navy to continue their efforts to train in the Arctic.
It’s important that we work with our fellow allies and partners to be able to respond to anything in the Arctic and prevent anything bad from happening that is what we’re focused on.
The joint team in Alaska is extremely capable and professional and I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll be able to meet any challenge head on.
Airman magazine: What’s the state of the Air Force in the Arctic?
Gen. Bussiere: There are three different commands here. There’s Alaskan Command, NORAD Alaska and then the 11th Air Force. So, 11th Air Force is responsible for organized training, equipping all the air forces in Alaska, Hawaii and Guam. Our unique challenge is the fact that all the air forces in the 11th Air Force serve the Pacific Air Forces Command and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. And yet our challenges in the region are specific to USNORTHCOM and NORAD. So, each day from an 11th Air Force perspective we are trained to provide ready forces to USINDOPACOM or any other combatant command. And yet every day we’re also on alert providing air sovereignty defense for North American air space with Canada, and be prepared to defend North American homeland through Alaska Command, so that dynamic happens every day.
Airman magazine: Speaking directly to the Airmen of these commands, what would you like to say to them?
Gen. Bussiere: My most rewarding moments happen each day in watching the Airman, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines do phenomenal things. That’s the most rewarding thing. I was asked a couple months ago if we had a problem with recruiting innovative Airmen and I go, absolutely not. We don’t have a talent shortfall. We have the ability to let Airman do phenomenal things and we just need to watch and be in awe.
To the Airmen directly, continue to do phenomenal things for your Air Force and be proud of that. The 11th Air Force is a pretty large geographic command, going from Alaska to Hawaii and then all the way over to Guam, from a tropical environment to an Arctic environment and you make it look easy.
When you have an opportunity take a few moments to reflect upon how important what you do for our nation’s defenses is and then don’t forget to thank your families for enabling and empowering your service to our nation.