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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
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
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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…”
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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