WASHINGTON ― When it comes to boosting the U.S. Defense Department’s role in the frigid Arctic, nobody in Congress seems hotter under the collar than Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska.
A former Alaska attorney general and Marine Corps officer, Sullivan has spent his time in office evangelizing for Alaska’s strategic role in the region, grilling and cajoling Pentagon officials in public hearings, and pressing change through provisions in successive National Defense Authorization Acts.
By his account, the Department of Defense ― driven by Congress and the National Defense Strategy’s focus on Russia and China ― is starting to see things his way. It’s embracing the region’s emergence as an economic and strategic hot spot, as well as an area that requires military deterrence.
“Although it’s changing, the Pentagon has had to be dragged into this. They’ve been the laggard, not the leader,” said Sullivan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee. “I’ve seen the awakening across the board, which is a positive thing, but we still need to get there.”
The lawmaker spoke to Defense News on May 2 about the Arctic’s importance to America’s national security, and what steps the government should take to ensure a strategic presence in the region.
Over the years, you’ve worked on changing the Pentagon’s stance on the Arctic. Why, and what have you seen while in office?
You’ve probably seen my frustration over the last five and a half years in the Congress, but I think overall there is certainly an awakening of the nation’s strategic interests in the Arctic region. And if you look at who’s driving it, this one has primarily been driven by Congress.
One of my first hearings as a new senator was with President Barack Obama’s defense secretary, Ash Carter, and I held up the DoD Arctic strategy. It was 13 pages, six of which were pictures. Climate change was mentioned like six times, and Russia was mentioned once in a footnote. China wasn’t even mentioned. It wasn’t a real strategic document. I kind of threw it on the dais in the hearing and told Ash Carter it was a joke. To be honest, I think he agreed.
So one of the first things I did was mandate in the NDAA that the Pentagon actually put together a real strategic document that reflects national security interests, military capabilities, threats. After that, there have been several iterations of strategies for the services, and it started to be pushing on an open door; a lot of the services started seeing the importance.
You may have seen the strategic Arctic port designations ― which of course the Pentagon resists ― and the authorization for six Polar-class icebreakers that we’re now finally starting to build. We have two icebreakers, and one’s broken.
One difference in five years that I’ve seen is in the U.S. Northern Command commander; when I initially came into the Senate, [the commander] had zero interest, zero clue, but the current commander is all over it. Look at the former secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, the former secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, and current Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein.
What about the military buildup in your state?
America’s an Arctic nation because of Alaska, and I like to say our state constitutes the three pillars of America’s military. And it’s a cornerstone of missile defense: We have a new missile field going in, the [Lockheed Martin-made Long Range Discrimination Radar at Clear Air Force Station] is almost ready, and that’s going to be the most sophisticated ground-based radar system, probably, on the planet. There’s even missile testing [at Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska] out on Kodiak Island.
We’re the hub of air combat power for the Arctic and Asia-Pacific. You may have seen that we are getting two new squadrons of F-35s at Eielson Air Force Base. In spite of the pandemic, the Air Force was on time landing the first two of 54 F-35s at Eielson two weeks ago.
With those and the F-22s we have at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska will have over 100 fifth-generation fighters. There’s no other place on planet Earth that has 100 combat-coded fifth-gen fighters. That’s in addition to the KC-135, the AWACS, the C-17s, the F-16 aggressor squadron.
That’s going to continue. The Air Force will be making its OCONUS [outside the contiguous United States] KC-46 bed down decision, and it’s a complete no-brainer that it should be Alaska.
The secretary of defense had a great line at his confirmation hearing. I asked what kind of message it would send rivals if you pair 100 fifth-gen fighters with KC-46 tankers in Alaska, from which you can reach anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere in 8 hours. He said: “Senator, that would send the message to our adversaries that we have extreme strategic reach.” I love that one.
What changed the thinking at the Pentagon, as you say? Was it the facts on the ground or a realization Congress wasn’t leaving this alone?
I would think it was a combination, but sometimes you can see an Alaskan senator pounding on the Arctic and a reporter or four-star general could think: “This guy is doing it because it’s parochial" ― so a little bit dismissive.
Sometimes the generals and admirals know what they’re doing, and Congress is kind of a backwater. But there are other times, with all due respect, the generals and admirals kind of have their heads up their asses, and it’s Congress leading. The Goldwater-Nichols Act is probably the most glaringly obvious one.
It’s not just me, but [SASC members] Angus King, David Perdue and Thom Tillis. John McCain ― I love that man ― was pressing Arctic issues. So this isn’t just one senator from the Arctic. And both Democrats and Republicans support the National Defense Strategy.
The facts on the ground are there are resources up there, new shipping routes are opening up, and China having icebreakers and trying to nudge into the group of Arctic nations. Look at the Russians, as always.
You know, we get these Russian intercepts on a fairly routine basis. Usually the intercepts, we’re professional with the Russians, but since the beginning of the year they’ve done three ― buzzing of our Alaskan coast, once in March and once in April. They flew over the Navy’s ICEX exercise in March.
I think people started seeing that as a serious national security issue that impinges on the sovereignty of our nation. The NORTHCOM commander is now talking about hypersonics with avenues of approach to protect the entire homeland of the United States — that you have to cover the Arctic avenue approach.
The facts on the ground, the National Defense Strategy, the strong, consistent pressing by Congress and attention from the media ― all of these factors started to pull the Pentagon into the game. Are we 100 percent there yet? No.
This strategic Arctic port idea is just a simple idea that of course you should be able to pull up ― we’re not talking about an aircraft carrier, but I’m saying you should be able to pull up a destroyer or a heavy icebreaker to a port in America that’s defending our Arctic interests.
Right now you can’t do that. The closest port is Anchorage or Dutch Harbor, which is like 1,600 nautical miles away from where the sea lanes are. That’s like Fort Lauderdale covering Boston. We would never accept that on the East Coast. But there’s been resistance to that, remarkably, but former Navy Secretary Spencer certainly saw the light on that. And you know, in my confirmation discussions with the new Navy secretary, I’m going to make sure he sees the light as well.
You can’t project power or maintain presence without some kind of logistical support in the region. The serious Arctic strategy, which Congress mandated, calls for FONOPS [freedom-of-navigation operations] to protect our interests up there. Well, can we even do FOPNOPS right now? We don’t have the logistical hubs. We don’t have the ice-breaking capability. We have subs up there all the time, but FONOPs are supposed to show presence.
What’s the latest on the analysis of the need for a strategic Arctic port?
That’s my language and the NDAA. I got that in there about three or four years ago, and it laid out we need presence and logistics capability. It’s not like asking for a Navy base, but do we need a strategic port to protect our interest in the region ― recognizing that the nearest port is 1,500 nautical miles in Anchorage, where I am right now.
The Pentagon initially gave that a little bit of a backhand and looked at what was required by the Senate Armed Services Committee in the NDAA, and said: “No, we don’t need anything.” This was the Pentagon being myopic, so I reattached it and said: “No. Wrong answer.”
I’m giving them a second opportunity to get to “yes.” At the same time, I’m on the Environment and Public Works Committee, where we’re working with the Army Corps of Engineers in conjunction with City of Nome, Alaska, to look at building out their port in a way that could handle not a carrier, but a destroyer or icebreaker. This is, to me and most members of Congress, a no-brainer.
That DoD report is due in June, but a lot of reports are slipping due to the pandemic.
We’re not the East Coast, but this is becoming a much more crowded area of the world; the sea lanes are clearly opening up; the traffic from a commercial international trade perspective is dramatically increasing. So I’ve always talked in terms of a series of ports ― for example, at Naval Air Facility Adak.
The Navy’s talking about warming up a Adak, and you could put some sub hunters there, bring in big ships ― it’s a protected port, and where it is in the Aleutian Island chain is a gateway to the Asia-Pacfic.
Heading into NDAA season, where are you hoping to guide the Pentagon through the 2021 bill? There are some potential benefits to rural Alaska communities by improving military communications in the Arctic.
NORTHCOM’s No. 1 unfunded priority is establishing a polar communication capability using a low-Earth orbit system of satellites. The funding for that, in the world of Pentagon budget, not very significant.
[Alaska Republican] Sen. Lisa Murkowski and I have legislation to establish a Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies to help drive the strategic thinking in this area. And I plan to continue to press on the topic of the KC-46 bed down. We do have tankers in Alaska, and they’re really important because we’re at the seams of so many combatant commands, and the tankers we use now are 50 years old. Tankers in Alaska can service anyone, anywhere.
Would you also address the Pentagon’s decision to cancel the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program, which would have replaced the current Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle on the Ground-Based Interceptor? You’ve expressed concerns about this publicly, and it ties in with Fort Greeley, Alaska.
I still have concerns, and what’s happened there is just remarkable. And I’ve said publicly you have really smart guys seemingly making really dumb decisions. We’ve almost finished 20 new silos out at Fort Greeley. [Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin is] making the decision that the RKV wasn’t exactly what we wanted. We need something much better, more perfect, but it’s going to take at a minimum 10 years to develop, so we’re going to leave these silos empty for 10 years. I mean, by any kind of strategically sensible review, that seems like a really dumb decision.
If we have an incoming missile hit us ― New York or Chicago ― Alaska protects the whole country. But the shot doctrine is how many missiles and RKVs do we need to throw up in the air to make sure we take that missile out. And as you can imagine, it’s not 1-to-1, so having more rounds in the chamber helps you with your shot doctrine.
Now we’re going to have 20 silos that are empty for at least 10 years, which I think ignores budgets, ignores the Congress. Heck, if you were at the Pentagon when the president was announcing the Missile Defense Review, he specifically mentioned these silos at Fort Greeley. I’m not even sure he knows about the fact that one of his lower-level undersecretaries decided on his own to dig 20 holes and not put anything in there for at least 10 years.
That just makes no sense. None. Zero.
In the NDAA, can you reverse that decision?
Of course we can reverse that decision. We’re the Congress of the United States. He’s an undersecretary. I caught word that [the White House’s Office of Management and Budget] didn’t even know about this decision, so we’re definitely looking at options.
But there’s a lot of people in the Pentagon who don’t think this was a good idea either. And we’ve discussed options with the undersecretary, with the people who can make these kind of devices, because remember: You’re still keeping 44 in the ground with older technology.
We had a salvo test with current technology at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and they made it public. With the Ground-Based Interceptors like we have at Greeley, the first one hits this missile in space like a bullet hitting a bullet, and the second GBI tracks and hits the biggest piece of debris.
The technology we have — although it might not be perfect up to Under Secretary Griffin’s standards — is still quite good, as shown by this test, so why wouldn’t we just put those in the ground at Fort Greeley?
Your NDAA priorities and others will all cost money. It already seemed defense budgets would be flat, but will the expense of fighting a pandemic put added pressure on defense spending?
It’s a really important question. One thing that doesn’t get a lot of press is that in the Senate there’s bipartisan support for the National Defense Strategy and the last couple of NDAAs ― the support has been quite strong, quite high.
We have a pandemic to get through that’s a top priority right now, but our adversaries aren’t stopping. There’s some evidence that they’re looking at this as some kind of opportunity to make mischief. I think we have to keep our eye on the ball, and ― what the Department of Defense is all about ― protect our nation, and more specifically as a Marine Corps infantry officer, it was always destroy the enemies of our nation.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.