US Air Force Details New Arctic Strategy

A radar system at Thule Air Base, Greenland, is one of several that scan the skies for foreign military rockets and missiles. (DoD photo)

As conditions change in the Arctic region, the Department of the Air Force has revealed a new strategy for how it will contribute to regional stability there, what new partnerships it should pursue and how its mission might evolve.

Within the U.S. military, the Department of the Air Force has the largest presence in the Arctic region, with assets in both Alaska and Greenland. As the environment changes in the Arctic, new routes for transportation have opened up and new resources are being discovered. This creates both new opportunities in the region as well as new security challenges, the secretary of the Air Force said.

"Historically, the Arctic, like space, was characterized as a predominantly peaceful domain," Barbara A. Barrett, said today during a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council. "This is changing with expanded maritime access, newly discovered resources and competing sovereign interests."

Russia, she said, has the largest permanent military presence in the Arctic — no other country matches its presence there.

"Recent Russian investments in the Arctic include a network of offensive air assets and coastal missile systems," she said. "The Arctic defines Russia. Almost 25% of Russia's [gross domestic product] comes from ... north of the Arctic Circle, ... mostly from hydrocarbons."

Barrett said that Russian economic reliance is one explanation for its growing military initiatives in the region. But Russia is not alone in its interest in the Arctic. China, which is not itself an Arctic nation, has also staked claims there, she said.

"China is trying to normalize its presence in the Arctic to gain access to regional resources, which are said to include over 90 billion barrels of oil and an estimated trillion dollars' worth of rare earth metals," she said. "In 2018, China linked its Arctic activities to its 'One Belt, One Road' initiative. Many are concerned that China may repeat what some see as predatory economic behavior, to the detriment of the region."

As long-time Arctic occupants increase their activity there, and newcomers begin staking claims as well, the Department of the Air Force has developed, as part of its Arctic strategy, four strategic priorities to guide its involvement in ensuring the United States is equally and fairly represented in the region.

First, Barrett said, the department is increasing vigilance for both deterrence and defense in all domains.

"Vigilance encompasses everything from weather forecasting and consistent communications, to threat detection and tracking," Barrett said. "Physical facilities delivering vigilance include advanced systems like the long-range discriminating radar at Clear, Alaska, and the north warning system, stretching from Alaska to Labrador."

Second, Barrett said, is a focus on projecting power through a combat-credible force.

"Bases in Alaska benefit from the region's strategic geography," she said. "When the full complement of planned F-35s arrive at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska's unparalleled concentration of fifth-generation fighters will project unmistakable influence."

Third, the Department of the Air Force will continue to focus on cooperation with existing allies and partners and on building new partnerships — a goal aligned with the National Defense Strategy.

"The United States deeply appreciates its strong defense relationships with six of the seven other Arctic nations," she said. "Building upon past collaboration and expanding existing cooperation in the Arctic will continue as our priority. Already, air and space forces are increasing interoperability with allies and partners through everything from military exercises to satellite launches."

Finally, she said, the Department of the Air Force will focus on preparation for Arctic operations.

"For example, at Alaska's [Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex], the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve augment specialized exercises and training to prepare for Arctic air and space missions."

The Department of the Air Force isn't alone in operating in the Arctic, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said. Successfully operating in the Arctic and ensuring free access to the region by the United States and its allies will require a joint effort from all U.S. services, including the Coast Guard.

"The Department of Defense does its very best work when we operate as a joint team," Goldfein said. "While this is [the] Department of the Air Force strategy, it is completely nested with and must stay nested with the Coast Guard, ... with the Navy, and with the Army, and with the Marine Corps."

Goldfein said he and Space Force Gen. John W. "Jay" Raymond, the chief of space operations, are working through a concept called "joint all-domain operations" that addresses the need for a joint effort in the Arctic.

"It's a technological approach, but it really at the end feeds a leadership approach to joint operations, across the spectrum, from peacetime and competition, all the way to open warfare," he said. "No one domain is going to be dominant in that operation. The whole idea is to connect this team so that we can bring to bear military capabilities, from air, from space, from surface, from subsurface, manned, unmanned, all of the above."

The Space Force is new to the Department of the Air Force, but Raymond said space operations have happened in the Arctic for a long time now — and the environment in the Arctic is ideal for conducting those operations.

"If you look at one of the most critical missions that we do, and that's missile warning, the Arctic is our front edge of that mission," Raymond said. "We do that mission both at Thule, Greenland, north of the Arctic Circle, with our space professionals that are assigned there at Thule Air Base. We also do it in Alaska, at Clear Air Force Station."

Raymond said the Arctic's geographic location makes it the best place to conduct space operations.

"If you look at the key terrain aspect of that environment, we also command and control satellites," he said. "If you're going to command and control satellites that are in polar orbits, where better to do it then on top of the world at the pole? It allows us to get great access to those satellites to be able to command and control and do that business. So that geography and the position on the globe ... makes it an extremely advantageous place to operate from."

Barrett said the Department of the Air Force's new Arctic policy involves both the land-based military air power the Air Force provides and the space-based capabilities provided by the Space Force.

"The U.S. air and space forces value the Arctic," she said. "Access and stability require cooperation among America's allies and partners, along with a commitment to vigilance, power projection, and preparation. The Arctic should remain a free and open domain for benevolent actors, and it is a critical domain to protect America's homeland."


WASHINGTON --- Secretary of the Air Force Barbara 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.

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

The strategy outlines four coordinated lines of effort that Air and Space Forces will use to enhance vigilance, reach and power to the nation’s whole-of-government approach in the Arctic region:

-- Vigilance in all domains
-- Projecting power through a combat-credible force
-- Cooperation with allies and partners
-- Preparation for Arctic operations

Vigilance in all domains: The number one Department of Defense priority is homeland defense. Air and Space Forces contribute to this priority by monitoring potential threats across all warfighting domains, including air, space and cyberspace.

When it comes to the Arctic, U.S. Air and Space Forces are responsible for the majority of Department of Defense 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 through a combat-credible force: 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 that operates ski-equipped LC-130s, which 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 represent 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.”


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