WASHINGTON — In order to operate in the Arctic, the U.S. military must spend more money on joint training and cold weather technology and more time on Alaska’s ranges and working with Native American tribes, according to defense officials.
U.S. defense officials announced at the Sea Air Space forum here on Monday that September Arctic sea ice is receding at a rate of roughly 13 percent per decade. That presents economic opportunities for nations with coastlines that hug the region but also competition from rivals.
Russian forces are projecting power within the Arctic, operating the world’s largest icebreaker fleet while building out air bases, sea ports, weapons and domain awareness tools to operate there.
China also has declared itself a “near-Arctic state" as it angles for a share of the trillions of dollars to be made off minerals, natural gas, ocean fisheries and trade routes in the region.
“I’m not sure that’s even a defined term,” U.S. Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy said of China’s self-designated title.
O’Shaughnessy, who helms both U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said that enforcing a “rules-based international order” is at the forefront of U.S. policy. But the security implications of a warming Arctic are clear: the U.S. homeland is no longer a sanctuary.
“The Arctic is the first line of defense,” O’Shaughnessy said.
While the U.S. Coast Guard continues to invest in a new icebreaker fleet, defense officials say more must be done to cement America’s place in the Arctic.
Exercises like NATO’s Trident Juncture — involving 50,000 troops, 150 aircraft, 65 ships and 10,000 vehicles — gave a taste of the frigid challenges the alliance would face should a northern member, like Norway, be invaded.
During that autumn training operation, the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman became the first U.S. Navy flattop in nearly three decades to sail north of the Arctic Circle for an extended period of time.
Waging war in the Arctic will also require troops capable of conducting mountain terrain analysis, cold-weather operations, land navigation in the alpine wilderness and rock climbing, among other skills.
Aircraft crews will need to understand and prepare for cold-weather flight, not to mention the strain that ice, cold and high latitudes put on airframes.
And the armed forces must collaborate with those who have lived in the region for generations — especially the Alaska Federation of Natives, or AFN, the largest statewide Native organization, according to O’Shaughnessy and other defense leaders.
“We need them. I need to tap into that local knowledge," said Navy Rear Adm. John Okon, commander of Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.
“Leveraging indigenous people’s knowledge to operate up there is critical for us.”
Native Alaskans have an acute understanding of ice-flow, melting conditions and shifting weather patterns, Okon said.
Tapping into that knowledge will be critical because the region remains an operational enigma for much of the military, he added.
Okon warned that the state of weather observation in the Arctic today is comparable to that across the continental United States during World War I.
“We’re a hundred years behind understanding the conditions of where we’ll have to defend the homeland and our partners,” Okon said.
While computer models can map weather patterns, the military needs to make those models reliable by collecting detailed observations at sites across the Arctic.
“We’re operating in the blind," Okon said, and that’s a problem because the “Arctic is harsher than any other place on Earth, under, on or above the sea."
Temporal conditions make predicting weather tricky and the lack of accurate navigation charts complicate operations even more, he warned.
American efforts to shore up decades of Arctic inattention come amid growing Russian influence in the region.
Moscow’s forces already operate across the Bering Strait at Kotelny Island’s Northern Clover military base.
The installation brims with coastal defense missile systems and a cold-weather version of Pantsir medium-range surface-to-air missiles.
Russian forces are preparing to monitor airspace and secure the Northern Sea Route, which has the potential to turn the Arctic into a geostrategic thoroughfare on par with the Strait of Malacca — a major shipping channel connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans — and the Suez Canal, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Officials said that Pentagon planners contemplating 21st century operations in the Arctic must confront challenges unique to the region.
For example, while America’s military embraces autonomous vehicles, those systems are limited in the Arctic by a lack of persistent operations and high costs to create and maintain them.
New technology deployed to the region must be reliable, affordable and allow for persistent operations, they said, but a major limitation remains the duration of battery power in cold conditions.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.