JUST IN: Air Force Unveils Arctic Strategy to Compete with Russia, China

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Early warning radar at Thule Air Base in Greenland

Air Force photo

The Department of the Air Force has a new strategy aimed at bolstering its forces and investments in the Arctic region to counter threats from Russia and China.

Activity in the region has been increasing in recent years, with melting sea ice opening up passageways for military assets and other vessels, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said July 21 as the strategy was being rolled out.

“Historically, the Arctic — like space — was characterized as a predominantly peaceful domain,” she said during a webinar hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “This is changing with expanded maritime access, newly discovered resources and competing sovereign interests.”

Russia and China, both identified as great power competitors by the 2018 National Defense Strategy, are both jockeying for influence in the region, she noted. No other country has a larger permanent military presence above the Arctic Circle than Russia. Recent Russian investments in the area include a network of offensive air assets and coastal missile systems, Barrett said.

Almost 25 percent of Russia GDP comes from Arctic resources such as hydrocarbons, she noted.

Meanwhile, China — while not an Arctic nation — is working to normalize its presence in the region to gain access to its vast resources which include over 90 million barrels of oil and an estimated $1 trillion worth of rare earth metals, Barrett said.

“Many are concerned that China may repeat what some see as predatory economic behavior to the detriment of the region," she said.

To address these challenges, the Air Force is elevating the importance of the Arctic with the release of its first strategy focusing on the region, she said. The objectives of the strategy are to defend the homeland, maintain favorable balances of power and protect the global commons.

The Department of the Air Force — which now includes the new Space Force — currently provides nearly 80 percent of the Pentagon’s resources in the region and has installations and bases across Alaska, Canada and Greenland, according to the strategy.

The document features four focus areas including: vigilance in all domains, projecting power through combat credible forces, cooperating with allies and partners, and preparing for Arctic operations.

“Vigilance encompasses everything from weather forecasting and consistent communications to threat detection and tracking,” Barrett said. Key equipment for these mission sets includes the Long-Range Discrimination Radar in Clear, Alaska, and the North Warning System which includes radar sites stretching from Alaska to Labrador, Canada.

The department will enhance its missile defense surveillance system in the northern tier while continuing to work with Canada to identify materiel and non-materiel solutions to the North Warning System. Improved situational awareness will come from new technologies ranging from over-the-horizon radar to space assets, according to the strategy.

Bolstering communications is another component of the strategy. Environmental and geographic limitations above 66 degrees North latitude challenge the Air and Space Forces’ main communications capabilities in the region, which include satellites, high frequency radio and long-haul terrestrial systems. To address the problem, the department plans to develop an Arctic communications roadmap that examines current capabilities and emerging technologies that could offer solutions.

"The Department will pursue satellite communications options with the Joint Force and ally and partner nations to develop critical communications and data links for operations in the region," the document said.

Meanwhile, the Space Force will develop new technologies and modernize existing assets in the Arctic to help ensure access to and freedom of operations in space. The Arctic is of critical importance for the service, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John "Jay" Raymond noted. For example, missile warning radars that operate in the region also provide space domain awareness.

The service plans to continue to invest and modernize its situational awareness capabilities. That it is of particular importance to counter China, he added.

“China has really gone from 0 to 60 in space very quickly,” Raymond said. “They're also developing a robust set of capabilities that threaten our access to space.”

The Space Force will also devise capabilities to mitigate and predict environmental disturbances unique to the Arctic region, according to the strategy.

To boost power projection capabilities, the Air Force will continue with the delivery of the full complement of F-35 joint strike fighters to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. That will provide "unparalleled concentration of fifth-generation fighters," the document noted.

Investments in other types of platforms are also part of the plan.

"The Air Force will advance recapitalization and explore modernization of existing and emergent polar mobility platforms that are critical for reaching remote areas," the strategy said.

One such system is the LC-130, a ski-equipped transport aircraft. The platform is operated by the Air National Guard.

"The LC-130s have been pivotal to getting access to terrain that would otherwise be inaccessible," Barrett said. "The LC-130s are very important and recapitalizing is a significant issue to us."

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein noted that platform is expected to remain in high demand to maintain access in the region.


However, creating a robust network — not just developing new platforms — is also critical, he said. 


The service needs to think more about "what network do we need to build and how do we tie together these platforms, sensors and weapons so we can operate seamlessly across the joint team?" he said. "The LC-130 and others will play into that strategy, but it's how we connect them ... that's far more important than the individual platforms themselves.” 

The department will also work with Alaskan Command and the U.S. Coast Guard to further develop air-deployable rescue packages and personnel recovery techniques for Arctic conditions and locations, the strategy noted.

Preparations for Arctic operations are in the works with specialized exercises and training, Barrett said.

However, rejuvenation of facilities and equipment is needed, as much of the military infrastructure in the region was built during the Cold War, she noted.

“Aging technology tells us it's time for us to focus there again,” she said.

Raymond noted that the melting of permafrost is causing issues for existing facilities in the region.

“The thawing and the melting of the permafrost … can have significant challenges on our infrastructure,” he said. “It can cause foundations of buildings and equipment to shift. It can impact the structural integrity of those facilities. It can, for example, cause increased runway maintenance for the runway that we operate up there.”

Leveraging strong relationships with allies and maintains is another key element of the strategy. The United States has close connections with six of the seven other Arctic nations, Barrett noted. 

“Building upon past collaboration and expanding existing cooperation in the Arctic will continue as our priority,” she said. “Already Air and Space Forces are increasing interoperability with allies and partners through everything from military exercises to satellite launches.”

Topics: Air Force News, Air Power

Comments (1)

Re: JUST IN: Air Force Unveils Arctic Strategy to Compete with Russia, China

The USAF's Arctic Strategy should be more than just F-35s and radar installations as the USAF needs actual ground combat power of some sort to rescue and defend these vital installations. That task is often left to the USMC and the U.S. Army, but really, the USAF cannot defend Alaska without some adequate ground forces to push back spies, Frogmen, saboteurs, scouts, commandos, and salvage crews out to steal or down vital DoD technology.

USAF PararescueJumpers, Military Police, and Guardian Angel Forces won't "cut it" for a ground combat force, and I know that the USAF isn't into ground combat, but something needs to "beef up" if hundreds of billions of dollars in stealth warplanes, Missile Defense, and installations are in Alaska. Thus that requires Joint Forces with the Army and the Marines.

P at 12:19 PM
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