In his last public appearance in 1935, Billy Mitchell, a former U.S. Army brigadier general and airpower visionary, testified before Congress that Alaska was the most strategic place in the world. From there, he said, U.S. Army aircraft could reach any capital in the northern hemisphere within nine hours. Mitchell cited, “Whoever holds Alaska will hold the world.” An Arctic presence enables global reach for whoever holds this region and the same is true today – although the flight times have drastically decreased.

The U.S. Air Force is actively engaging the challenges of maintaining a strategic advantage in the Arctic. Video // Master Sgt. Robbie Arp

Activity in the Far North is heating up, both environmentally and with competing sovereign interests. With the changing of maritime access due to receding land and sea ice, Russia has been refurbishing airfields and infrastructure, creating new bases, and developing an integrated network of air defense, while seeking to regulate shipping routes. China is also seizing the chance to expand its influence to obtain new sources of energy and faster shipping routes.

“The Arctic is among the most strategically significant regions of the world today – the keystone from which the U.S. Air and Space Forces exercise vigilance,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett.

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Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein, left, Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond attend a video conference at the Pentagon with members of the Atlantic Council think tank to discuss the rollout of the Arctic strategy, Arlington, Va., July 21, 2020. They discussed the Department of the Air Force’s first guiding strategy for operating in the Arctic region.

U.S. Air Force photo // Eric Dietrich

Barrett unveiled the new, comprehensive Department of the Air Force Arctic Strategy July 21. The strategy outlines the Department’s unique regional role and efforts to optimize Air and Space Force capabilities throughout the region in support of the National Defense Strategy.

“This Arctic Strategy recognizes the immense geostrategic consequence of the region and its critical role for protecting the homeland and projecting global power,” Barrett said.

The strategy outlines how the Air and Space Forces will enhance vigilance, reach and power to the nation’s whole-of-government approach in the Arctic region through four coordinated lines of effort: vigilance in all domains, projecting power through a combat-credible force, cooperation with allies and partners and preparation for Arctic operations.

Vigilance

The number one Department of Defense priority is homeland defense.

“The strategic value of the Arctic as our first line of defense has reemerged and (U.S. Northern Command) and (North American Aerospace Defense Command) are taking active measures to ensure our ability to detect, to track and defeat potential threats in this region,” Air Force 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.”

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North American Aerospace Defense Command F-22s, CF-18s, supported by KC-135 Stratotanker and E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft, intercepted two Russian Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft entering the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone on Monday, March 9th.

U.S. Air Force photo

When it comes to the Arctic, U.S. Air and Space Forces are responsible for the majority of DoD missions in the region, including the regional architecture for detecting, tracking and engaging air and missile threats. Space Professionals in the region are responsible for critical nodes of the satellite control network that deliver space capabilities to joint and coalition partners, as well as the U.S. national command authority.

“Integrating space capabilities into joint operations fuels the joint force’s ability to project power anywhere on the planet, any time,” said Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond. “The Arctic is no different. Spacepower is essential to Arctic operations, allowing us to see with clarity, navigate with accuracy, and communicate across vast distances.”

Projecting power

Protecting America’s interests in the homeland and abroad entails more than a vigilant defensive posture. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, present combat capability with fifth-generation fighters as well as mobility and refueling aircraft. The Air Force provides the capability to reach remote northern locations via the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing which operates ski-equipped LC-130s that can land on ice.

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U.S. Air Force Col. David Skalicky, the 354th Operations Group commander, and Lt. Col. James Christensen, 356th Fighter Squadron commander, taxi the first F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation fighter jets assigned to the 356th Fighter Squadron on the flight line at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, April 21, 2020. The 354th Fighter Wing’s F-35As partnered with the F-22 Raptors stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, will make Alaska the most concentrated state for combat-coded fifth-generation fighter aircraft.

U.S. Air Force photo // Master Sgt. Karen J. Tomasik

“Our unique positioning in locations like Alaska, Canada and Greenland are integrated with multi-domain combat power,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. “These locations harness powerful capabilities, and their unwavering vigilance to protecting the homeland represents a strategic benefit that extends well beyond the region itself.”

Cooperation with allies and partners

Alliances and partnerships are key in the Arctic, where no one nation has sufficient infrastructure or capacity to operate alone. Interoperability is especially critical in the Arctic due to the terrains, limited access, and low density of domain awareness assets. Many regional allies and partners have dedicated decades of focus to the Arctic, developing concepts, tactics and techniques from which the joint force can greatly benefit. Indigenous communities possess millennia of knowledge about the Arctic domain passed down through generations. Working with indigenous communities helps Air and Space Forces understand the Arctic environment, enriches training and exercises, and ensures recognition of their contributions to Department of the Air Force activities.

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Airmen with the 109th Airlift Wing cooperate with the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 440th Squadron to load equipment on their Twin Otter aircraft in support of Air National Guard exercise Arctic Eagle February 23rd, 2020.

U.S. Air National Guard photo // Tech. Sgt. Jamie Spaulding

“Strong relationships with regional allies and partners, including at the local level, are a key strategic advantage for the U.S. in the Arctic,” Barrett said. “U.S. Air and Space Forces are focused on expanding interoperability with peers that value peaceful access in the region, and we appreciate our local hosts that have welcomed Department of the Air Force installations, Airmen and Space Professionals as part of their communities for decades.”

Preparation for Arctic operations

The Arctic’s austerity requires specialized training and acclimation by both personnel and materiel. The ability to survive and operate in extreme cold weather is imperative for contingency response or combat power generation.

“Spanning the first airplane flights in Alaska in 1913 to today’s fifth-generation aircraft and sophisticated space monitoring systems operating in the region, the Arctic has consistently remained a location of strategic importance to the United States,” Barrett said. “While the often harsh weather and terrain there call for appropriate preparations and training, Airmen and Space Professionals remain ready to bring the nation’s Arctic air and space assets to bear to support the National Defense Strategy and protect the U.S. homeland.”

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354th Security Forces Squadron Combat Arms Training and Maintenance (CATM) instructors oversee Airmen preparing to fire an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Jan. 9, 2020. CATM instructors are responsible for training Airmen how to use various small arms weapon systems.

U.S. Air Force photo // Senior Airman Beaux Hebert

Eighty-five years have passed since Mitchell’s proclamation about Alaska, made just eight days before his death, and his words still ring true. The same could be said about his foretelling of the attack on Pearl Harbor or his vision of building the world’s mightiest Air Force. During his military career, his outspoken predictions were met with ridicule, which ultimately led to him resigning his commission. Mitchell’s strategic foresight on Alaska is no coincidence to the Air Force’s long history and appreciation to the Arctic, which has now led to the forward-looking approach by leadership to stabilize the region for years to come.


More on the Arctic from Airman magazine

Cool School

Each year, more than 700 students attend the Arctic Survival School’s five-day course. While a majority of the students are Alaska-based aircrew, the course is open to all.

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Staff Sgt. Seth Reab, an Arctic Survival School instructor, looks over the horizon while standing outside of the Air Force Arctic Survival School training area near Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The course instructors teach students the basics of surviving in arctic environment through both classroom and field training.

U.S. Air Force photo // Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.


Arctic Vigil

Within the Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, alert forces at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, are tasked with intercepting any threats in, near or approaching the surrounding airspace. This mission to protect national security began in the 1950s and has evolved greatly over the past decades, adapting to changing aerial threats.

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A 90th Fighter Squadron F-22A Raptor escorts a Russian TU-95 Bear flying near the Alaskan NORAD Region airspace Nov. 22, 2007. This marked the first time a Raptor was called upon to support the ANR mission.

U.S. Air Force photo


Polar Airlift

Each year, the 109th AW flies more than 800 hours during the Greenland support season and transports 2.1 million pounds of cargo, 49,000 pounds of fuel and nearly 2,000 passengers.

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A ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft, with the 109th Airlift Wing, taxis to the skiway at Raven Camp, Greenland, July 30, 2017. The 109th’s “skibirds” are the only ski-equipped aircraft in the Department of Defense.

U.S. Air Force Photo // Tech. Sgt. Greg C. Biondo


Where The Sun Never Sets

Greenland’s Thule Air Base tracking station is the only one with access to polar orbiting satellites on a regular basis, making it vital for weather operations.

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This white golf ball like structure houses one of several radars that scan the skies for foreign military rockets and missiles at Thule Air Base, Greenland.

U.S. Air Force Photo


Engaging the Arctic

Environmental changes are leading to increased civilian and military activity above the Arctic Circle.

Citing a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Arctic Report Card, a Department of Defense report to Congress in June, 2019, stated, “The Arctic’s environment continues to change, including diminished sea ice coverage, declining snow cover and melting ice sheets. Temperatures across the Arctic region are increasing more than twice as fast as the global average…”

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A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, flies in formation over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, July 18, 2019. The JPARC is a 67,000 plus square mile area, providing a realistic training environment commanders leverage for full spectrum engagements, ranging from individual skills to complex, large-scale joint engagements.

U.S. Air Force photo // Staff Sgt. James Richardson


Northern Vision

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.

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U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom Bussiere, commander of the Alaskan NORAD Region, Alaskan Command and 11th Air Force, addresses Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson personnel during his visit to the 773d Civil Engineer Squadron snow barn at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Jan. 29, 2019. Bussiere toured the installation to visit Airmen, Soldiers and members of the JBER team, and help increase their esprit de corps.

U.S. Air Force photo // Airman 1st Class Jonathan Valdes Montijo


Foundation of Arctic Security

The DoD’s Eielson AFB regional growth plan will bring $500 million in infrastructure, including hangars, housing, maintenance facilities and simulators to prepare for an influx of the 3,500 airmen that will support the F-35 mission.

Most of Alaska sits on a thick bed of frozen soil, rock and sediment called permafrost, however that permafrost is thawing.

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A bulldozer fills in the thermosyphon site, which uses a heat transfer device to extract heat from the soil in order to keep the permafrost below frozen, Sept 9, 2019 at the munitions storage facility on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Once buried, a new earth covered magazine will be built on top to house munitions for the F-35.

U.S. Air Force photo // Tech. Sgt. Perry Aston


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