Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett unveiled the new, comprehensive Department of the Air Force Arctic Strategy on 21 July. The strategy outlines the Department’s efforts to optimize Air and Space Force capabilities throughout the region in support of the National Defense Strategy.
Barrett stated with respect to the significance of the revised strategy document:
“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. 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 identifies 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 strategy states that the number one Department of Defense priority is homeland defence. To achieve this objective, Air and Space Forces in the region monitor potential threats across all warfighting domains, including air, space and cyberspace.
US Air and Space Forces are responsible for the majority of Department of Defense missions in the Arctic region, including the regional architecture for detecting, tracking, and engaging air and missile threats.
Space Force personnel 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 US 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
US military assets in the region are spearheaded by Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Eielson Air Force Base, both located in Alaska, which host fifth-generation fighters as well as transport and refuelling aircraft.
The Air Force also provides the capability to reach remote northern locations via the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing which operates ski-equipped LC-130s that can land on ice.
The combat capabilities of these installations are supplemented by the use of installations in other countries in the region.
“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 represents a strategic benefit that extends well beyond the region itself.”
Cooperation with allies and partners
The strategy states that alliances and partnerships are key in the Arctic, where no one nation has sufficient infrastructure or capacity to operate alone. 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.
The document also noted that 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 strategy notes the extra preparations that must be taken prior to undertaking operations in the Arctic region due to the extremely challenging environmental conditions. LINK
The latest US Air Force strategy for the Arctic complements the National Defense Strategy, the overall blueprint for defending the United States and its interests, and the the 2019 Department of Defense Arctic Strategy, which also emphasizes the essential role of US Air and Space Force assets in the Arctic.
Commenting on the US strategy and capabilities in the region, other military analysts have also emphasized that the Arctic is the keystone for global power projection. Alaska offers the quickest flight access from mainland United States to locations across much of the Pacific region and western Russia.
Additionally, with polar ice melting, new and more efficient maritime routes are opening, which is increasing accessibility to Arctic natural resources such as oil and gas reserves and rare earth metals. This is also driving an increase in commercial traffic and international competition, not just from Russia but also from China and other countries.
While vast Arctic expanses formerly served as a strategic buffer for the United States, technological advancements are eroding this natural geographical defence. Russia is investing in Arctic airfields and infrastructure to secure its northern approaches, and now has the largest permanent military presence above the Arctic Circle of any country.
The Arctic is also extremely important for US operations in space, a point that is repeatedly emphasized in the new strategy document.
The Alaska Radar System and the 50-plus radars that comprise the North Warning System across Canada, for example, have long provided vital early warning decision space for homeland defence and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.
Locations like Clear, Alaska and Thule, Greenland offer additional advantages for missile warning and defence as well as serving to enhance space domain awareness, helping track more than 20,000 objects daily. The Arctic is also a key post for managing satellites.
“If you’re going to command and control satellites that are in polar orbits, where better to do that than on top of the world at the pole. The geography and position on the globe makes it an extremely advantageous place to operate from,” even if the Arctic does present what the strategy document describes as ‘arctic-unique orbital mechanics and electro-magnetic obstacles’ that the Air Force must overcome.
When Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska receives its full allotment of F-35s, Alaska will host more fifth-generation fighters than any other location in the world. From the perspective of US military commanders, bases in Alaska are positioned so far north and west that they are effectively forward-deployed and provide access to multiple combat command zones, including a large part of the Indo-Pacific Command and European Command zones, while simultaneously covering the core Northern Command zone. LINK
The document notes that Russia has always been a heavy player in the region, stating of its presence and activities in the Arctic:
“Russia’s recent Arctic initiatives include refurbishing airfields and infrastructure, creating new bases, and developing an integrated network of air defense, coastal missile systems, and early warning radars to secure its northern approaches. Further, Russia seeks to regulate maritime traffic on the Northern Sea Route in ways that may exceed its authority permitted under international law.”
The Arctic region is an area where the United States is especially reliant on NATO allies and partners. That means the US should plan for an increase in international military exercises and more spending on interoperable electronic communications, Air Force leaders said.
Over the past year, the US Air Force has conducted air-to-air training with Nordic partners in the Arctic Challenge Exercise, participated in air policing missions over Iceland, and trained with Canadian and joint partners in Arctic Edge, a homeland defence exercise.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said that the Air Force will be conducting even more exercises in the region in the future, pointing to the four ‘red-flag’ exercises that the service runs on a yearly basis as well as last year’s Arctic Challenge, which, he said, saw 140 different aircraft from nine nations and 4,000 participants.
The revised strategy describes the need to increase training with regional partners and establish new forums with allies to discuss Arctic issues, but does not specify if the United States wants NATO or any other international organization to take that lead role.
“Building these relationships counters influence from adversaries, whose actions are not aligned with U.S. interests, and bolsters U.S. national security,” it reads. “The Department of the Air Force must work to highlight shared goals, ensuring a peaceful and stable region where international norms and standards are upheld. To strengthen collaborative international security relationships.”
In this sense, the biggest area of investment for the Air Force in future arctic operations is not cold-weather specific, but networking between different parts of the Air Force and between the United States and its allies.
Among the Arctic states, Canada, Denmark (which owns Greenland), Iceland, and Norway, are NATO allies, and two others, Finland and Sweden, are NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partners. LINK
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