The Department of the Air Force unveiled its first-ever Arctic Strategy on July 21, with Secretary Barbara M. Barrett citing the Arctic’s increasing strategic importance as Russia builds up its military presence in the area, China looks to normalize its presence there, and melting ice caps open up sea lanes to more traffic, creating the potential for increased rescue operations.
The U.S. Air Force and Space Force maintain 79 percent of U.S. military assets and forces in the Arctic, including two large bases in Alaska, which combined will soon host more fifth-generation combat power than any other place on Earth, as well as a string of radar and early warning sites throughout Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.
“The Department of the Air Force[‘s] contributions to U.S. national security in the Arctic are large, but relatively unknown,” states the strategy. “Given the Arctic’s vast distances and challenges to surface operations, air and space capabilities have long been essential to gain rapid access and provide all-domain awareness, early warning, satellite command and control, and effective deterrence. Offering a solid foundation on which to build and project power across the region, the Department of the Air Force is the most active and invested U.S. military department in the Arctic.”
The strategy outlines four main lines of effort:
- Power Projection
Speaking during a virtual Atlantic Council event, Barrett said the department is committed to bolstering its vigilance through a range of capabilities, including weather forecasting, consistent communications, and air and missile threat detection and tracking. The department operates the new Long-Range Discriminating Radar at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska, which “provides persistent long-range, mid-course discrimination, precision, and tracking of missile threats,” according to the strategy. It also manages the North Warning System, which stretches from Barrow, Alaska, in the north to Labrador in Eastern Canada.
In addition, “The Department of the Air Force is enhancing existing defenses and embracing new air and space technologies,” noted Barrett. “Our commitment to collaboration with our Canadian allies remains strong as we reinvigorate aging warning systems that benefit our mutual security.”
Most of that investment will be tied to the department’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control initiative, which looks to integrate missile warning, space, and air capabilities, said Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, speaking at the same event alongside Barrett and his Space Force counterpart, Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond.
“As we look at the future of the warfare, data will be the currency that we operate on with allies and partners. … So, our investment strategy that you’ve seen the Air Force bring forward both in the ’21 [budget] drill and now in the ’22 drill is focused on this integration of capabilities,” Goldfein said. “We’re focused on highways, not so much on trucks. And so, how we get these highways built, how we build a network that we can operate seamlessly on, is where you’re going to see most of our investment.”
According to the strategy, the Department of the Air Force will work with the Joint Force to develop an Arctic communications roadmap that looks at existing capabilities and emerging technologies. But the strategy also emphasizes that the United States can no longer assume space superiority.
“China has really gone from zero to 60 in space, very quickly, and they are developing a robust set of capabilities for their own use to provide them the same advantages that we’ve enjoyed over the years,” said Raymond. “They’re also developing a robust set of capabilities that threaten our access to space in the Arctic at both Clear Air Force Station [in Alaska] and Thule Air Base [in Greenland]. Those missile warning radars also provide space domain awareness for understanding what’s going on in that domain, and we are going to continue to invest and modernize those capabilities to make sure that we have a really good understanding of the capabilities that are being lost and operated in that domain, and the Arctic provides us a great area to do that.”
Barrett stressed the importance of maintaining a free and open air domain. Alaskan bases are a key launching point to critical areas in both the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and U.S. European Command theaters of operation. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, hosts F-22 Raptors, E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, C-130s, C-12s, HC-130s, and HH-60Gs, as well as the Alaskan Rescue Coordination Center. Nearby Eielson Air Force Base is in the process of bedding down the first F-35 squadrons in Pacific Air Forces, and it also hosts F-16 aggressors, Air National Guard KC-135s, and the Arctic Survival School, which teaches anyone who’s interested how to survive in the Arctic’s harsh environment.
“If you take the globe and you spin it up on end, it really provides you a unique power projection location where you can reach places into Europe, to all of North Asia, and then of course into the Eastern Asia area, so I think that’s of course very, very critical,” Col. Shawn E. Anger, commander of the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson, told Air Force Magazine. “You could draw an eight-hour aircraft flight mark from our installation, and you can reach some of our most strategic locations, places that the National Defense Strategy calls out specifically as Great Power Competition.”
Cooperation with Allies and Partners
Cooperation with allies and partners is another key tenant of the strategy. The United States has a strong defense relationship with six of the seven Arctic countries, including NATO allies Canada, Denmark (including Greenland), Iceland, and Norway; and NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partners Finland and Sweden, according to the strategy.
“Interoperability is especially critical in the Arctic region due to terrain, limited access, and the low-density of domain awareness assets,” states the strategy. “Through the centuries, regional allies and partners have developed concepts, tactics, techniques, and procedures from which the Joint Force can greatly benefit.”
Some of these countries, such as Norway and Denmark, are also buying F-35s, offering even more opportunities for interoperability. In addition, the U.S. can learn from allies and partners when it comes to dispersed basing and search and rescue techniques, according to the strategy.
“We know that the F-35 is an incredible airplane and by having our partner nations and our allies with that airplane, we can almost effortlessly integrate and really enhance our combat capabilities and capacity,” Lt. Gen. David A. Krumm, commander of Alaskan Command, told Air Force Magazine. “It is a key cornerstone of our interoperability with our allies.”
Preparing for Arctic Operations
The final line of effort is preparation. U.S. Northern Command boss Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy often says you cannot be successful in the Arctic if you don’t prepare. With temperatures that can dip as low as -60 degrees Fahrenheit, misunderstanding the environment could prove fatal.
“The environment’s always trying to kill you in the Arctic,” Maj. Tyler Williams, commander of USAF’s Arctic Survival School, told Air Force Magazine. “This isn’t something you can go read in a book or watch a YouTube video about and then go out and be successful in. You have to get training, you have to know how your gear is going to respond, you have to know how you’re going to respond to the cold weather conditions, but also to the dark environment, there’s a psychological aspect to it.”