Capt. Brian Hudanich, a B-2 pilot assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing, took off from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., June 18 for a 25-hour, two-ship bomber sortie across the Atlantic Ocean. They flew north of the Arctic Circle, met up with a KC-135 from the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall, U.K.—refueled, rendezvoused with two Norwegian F-35 strike fighters off the coast of Norway for interoperability training, and returned home—all without ever seeing the sunset.
No B-2 Spirit ever flew so far north.
It was the second time in three months the nuclear-capable bomber flew in the Arctic, and one of at least five missions U.S. strategic bombers conducted with Norway between March and June.
“The Arctic is a strategic region with growing geopolitical and global importance,” explained Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander. “These Bomber Task Force missions demonstrate our commitment to our partners and allies and our capability to deter, assure, and defend together in an increasingly complex environment. The integration of our bombers across Europe and the Arctic is key to enhancing regional security.”
The increasingly congested and contested Arctic region is only becoming more important. Russia is building up its miliary presence in the region; China, though it has no territorial claim there, presents itself as an Arctic nation as the receding polar ice cap opens up sea lanes and opportunities for oil and mineral exploration. Climate change also creates the potential for increased rescue operations, said Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett, during a virtual rollout of the Department of the Air Force’s first-ever Arctic Strategy on July 21.
Among the U.S. military assets in the region, 79 percent belong to the Air Force and Space Force, including two large bases in Alaska and a string of remote radar and early warning sites spread throughout Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Yet, most Americans are unaware of the department’s Arctic role.
“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,” the new strategy states. “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 has four main pillars:
- Power projection
- Cooperation with allies and partners
- Vigilance in all domains
Alaskan air bases are key launching points not only for Arctic defense across the polar ice cap but also to critical areas in the Pacific and Europe. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), Alaska, which hosts F-22 Raptors and E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, supports U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and U.S. Northern Command. The base also hosts C-12s, C-130s, HC-130s, HH-60Gs, and the Alaskan Rescue Coordination Center. Eielson Air Force Base, only about 100 miles from the Arctic Circle, is home to USAF’s northernmost fighter wing. It is currently bedding down the first two F-35 squadrons in Pacific Air Forces—USAF’s second and third operational Joint Strike Fighter squadrons—and it also hosts F-16 aggressors, Air National Guard KC-135s, and the Arctic Survival School.
“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 East Asia area, so I think that’s of course very, very, critical,” said Col. Shawn E. Anger, commander of the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson. “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.”
Those same attributes make Arctic shipping lanes cost-effective routes for Chinese firms transporting goods across the globe, cutting weeks off some delivery times, as well as to potential adversaries that could seek to exploit the polar region to reach the U.S. homeland.
Lt. Gen. David A. Krumm, who as head of Alaskan Command is the most senior military officer in Alaska, is responsible for defending against such incursions. The North American Aerospace Defense Command intercepted Russian aircraft off the coast of Alaska at least 10 times in the first half of the year. Most of the intercepts of Russian bombers, fighters, and maritime patrol aircraft occurred in June.
“If you go back in history, Russia has always operated with long-range aviation and out-of-area flights that come into our Air Defense Identification Zone,” Krumm noted. “We see that as a continuation of those efforts in the past,” said Krumm. Why the increase in flights now? “It could have been … more training was required after some COVID-19 issues that struck all over the world. Regardless, we’ve always been able to, and ready to, intercept and defend our borders.”
F-22s from Elmendorf, supported by E-3 AWACS and KC-135 tankers, responded to the Russian flights and the addition of F-35s will reinforce U.S. defenses there, Krumm said. Once the beddown is complete, Alaska will have “the largest concentration of operational fifth-generation capability in the world.”
The new Air Force strategy calls on the Department of the Air Force to work with the other services to “develop Arctic basing concepts that complicate enemy targeting systems.” USAF will not be “constrained to the Cold War model of employment,” but instead distribute air assets more widely. Rather than operating from a few large bases, Arctic defense forces will adopt Agile Combat Employment, frequently repositioning assets to different locations. Developed in response to anti-access strategies in the Pacific that seek to put America’s forward bases at risk, U.S. European Command is also adopting the concept. Distributing forces unpredictably makes planning attacks and counterattacks on U.S. forces more complicated. The problem—for now—is that the U.S. lacks sufficient infrastructure in the polar region.
“In the North American Arctic, some of that [infrastructure] is from the Cold War-era. Obviously, we still have those large infrastructure bases … such as JBER, Eielson, and Thule [Air Base, Greenland], but the Finnish, their ability to use the disbursed basing and land on highways, etc., that’s a totally different operating model,” said the strategy’s author, Iris Ferguson, who also serves as the senior adviser to the Department of the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements. “We certainly have been working with our allies to … co-use locations, whether that be in the European theater or in Canada. … There’s a lot that exists there, but I think we’re still in the early stages of developing this kind of agile combat land for the region.”
Barrett said the Air and Space Forces will improve weather forecasting, communications, and threat detection and tracking. The strategy notes, for example, that a new Long-Range Discriminating Radar at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska, “provides persistent long-range, mid-course discrimination, precision, and tracking of missile threats.” U.S. forces co-own with Canada the North Warning System, which stretches from Barrow, Alaska, in the north, to Labrador to the east.
Built in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the North Warning System “has done a spectacular job,” Ferguson said, but as the range and precision of adversaries increases, the system has been pressed to its limits. Air Combat Command and its Canadian counterparts are evaluating modernization alternatives now.
“The Department of the Air Force is enhancing existing defenses and embracing new air and space technologies,” said Barrett. “Our commitment to collaboration with our Canadian allies remains strong as we reinvigorate aging warning systems that benefit our mutual security.”
The new investment will contribute to joint all-domain command and control, which will integrate missile warning, space, and air capabilities into a single network, promised then-USAF Chief of Staff, Gen. David L. Goldfein, at the strategy’s rollout.
“As we look at the future of warfare, data will be the currency that we operate on with allies and partners,” Goldfein said. “The investment strategy you’ve seen the Air Force bring forward … is focused on this integration of capabilities. … 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—[that] is where you’re going to see most of our investment.”
The joint force will develop an Arctic communications roadmap to evaluate existing capabilities and emerging technologies, the strategy says. But it must do so, according to Chief of Space Operations Gen. John. W. “Jay” Raymond, in the face of new challenges in space. In short, 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 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.”
There are eight Arctic nations including the U.S. The United States has strong defense ties to six: Canada, Denmark (including Greenland), Iceland, and Norway (all NATO members); as well as Finland and Sweden, both NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partners. Russia is the eighth.
“Interoperability is especially critical in the Arctic region,” the strategy says. “Through the centuries, regional allies and partners have developed concepts, tactics, techniques, and procedures from which the joint force can greatly benefit.” Further enhancing those opportunities: Norway and Denmark are also buying F-35s.
“By having our partner nations and our allies with that airplane, we can almost effortlessly integrate and really enhance our combat capabilities and capacity,” Krumm said. “It is a key cornerstone of our interoperability with our allies.”
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 to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, mistakes can be fatal.
“The environment’s always trying to kill you in the Arctic,” said Maj. Tyler Williams, commander of USAF’s Arctic Survival School. “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 not only to the cold weather conditions, but also to the dark environment—there’s a psychological aspect to it.”
The Air Force has offered Arctic survival training since its inception in 1947 and the school—often referred to as “Cool School”—has been based at Eielson since 1960. It can train as many as 780 students a year, with its primary emphasis teaching Alaska-based aircrew how to survive in the Arctic environment long enough to be rescued. Williams said the school also trains members of the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and government civilians, as well as law enforcement and international students. Classes are offered October through March. “The colder, the better, I suppose,” Williams said.
In addition to the Cool School, 11th Air Force has been developing a plan over the last 18 months to “professionalize Arctic service,” Chief Master Sgt. David R. Wolfe, senior enlisted adviser of the Alaskan NORAD Region and Command Chief Master Sergeant of 11th Air Force, told Air Force Magazine.
Alaska-based Airmen can now earn an Arctic leadership identifier after working on station for a year and completing certain academic coursework. The identifier will help when leaders need to find Airmen with specific Arctic skills and experience. For example, what if a cruise ship ran aground and USAF was called in to get passengers off that ship?
“Who are the people in the Air Force that have the experience to do that?” Wolfe asked. “Now, obviously, since we have a lot of people stationed here, we can pull from that pool of available folks locally, but what if the situation was overwhelming the number of people we needed, and we needed to bring people up from the lower 48? We would be able to identify who has an Arctic background, and very easily … send folks in.”
Wolfe said the identifier will also help out small teams of Airmen operating at very remote locations. For example, if USAF sends a communication team up to Barrow, in the northern tip of the state, to work on one of its radar sites, “We want somebody on that team to have that Arctic leadership identifier, so that they can help our folks stay safe and come back—you know, with all the fingers that they left with.”