Q: With its new F-35s, Alaska now has more fifth-generation combat power than anywhere else in the world. What does this mean for the region, and what changes are you planning for the Joint Pacific Alaskan Range Complex (JPARC) to better train with these more advanced aircraft?
A: The addition of the F-35s … is a mind-meld step in our … nation’s ability to project power all over the Northern Hemisphere. When we look at Alaska from a globe, … what you see is [that from] … anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, you can get from Alaska really, really quickly. … The location here just creates an ability for our nation to be able to respond almost anywhere in the world, and these aircraft are the most advanced in the world.
The airplanes are very complex. They have incredible sensors. They can shoot weapons that go further faster, and we need an airspace training area that allows our operators to exercise those aircraft to their fullest capabilities. So, we need to continue to build up the JPARC, … [including] increasing the size of the airspace to reflect those better sensors and longer-range weapons as well as improving the threats.
Q: Can you elaborate on the threat updates that you’re looking at with regards to the range?
A: What we’re looking at primarily are the ground threats that our operators can train against. … What are the systems that we can buy that can replicate what our operators will face in conflict? … Technology is moving at an incredibly rapid rate. Our adversaries, potential adversaries at least, are looking at some incredible technological advancements across the electromagnetic spectrum. We just need to not be locked into the past.
… The threat doesn’t have ones or twos of these systems. They have dozens, if not hundreds. So, we need to be able to replicate that. We need an environment that is densely packed with electromagnetic signals and systems that can provide feedback to our operators about when they’re targeted, when they’re vulnerable, and … if the tactics they were doing were correct. I’m pleased with the progress. You always want to go faster, but we are moving at it.
Q: Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was busy forming new military units focused on the Arctic, refurbishing old infrastructure, and building new bases. Where does that stand now?
A: Certainly, the focus of their military operations has been on the invasion of Ukraine. I don’t think there’s any doubt of that, but we haven’t seen them, … take assets or people out of those … areas … [they were] building up, and I think that that’s expected because the Arctic is very, very important to Russia. Depending upon what number you look at, it generates a significant portion of their GDP from materials like petrochemicals and hydrocarbons. … They are committed to securing their interests in the Arctic.
Q: Are you still intercepting the same number of Russian aircraft entering the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)? A few years ago that was a record high.
A: We don’t talk specific numbers because of operational security, but certainly we also do message when we are tracking and or intercepting aircraft that come into our ADIZ, and those have been few and far between of late.
… What I would say is we don’t see any change in their commitment to the Arctic. But it is reasonable to assume that some of the operations that they’ve done in the past have not been conducted of late. And I think it’s important to note, … operations in the Arctic are pretty circular, right? So, … we’ll see increases [in exercises or training] and then we’ll see some lulls. I think it’s too early to tell if this is just one of those standard lulls or if it’s something new.
Q: China obviously is not geographically close to the Arctic but considers itself an Arctic nation. Have you seen any changes there?
A: China, … has proclaimed themselves a near-Arctic nation. … If you’re familiar with Google Maps, you might find some disparities with that statement. Here’s what we know: China continues to have an interest in the Arctic. They use research vessels, which … most likely have a dual civilian and military purpose in the Arctic. They are keenly involved in the Arctic Council, even though they’re only an observer, because they are not an Arctic nation despite what they might want to proclaim. They obviously understand that the Arctic is going to be important to them and to the world in the upcoming future and they want, I believe, to try to influence the governance of the Arctic and how it’s managed.
Q: Last year, Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, told Congress that Arctic funding was “inching” along. Has there has been progress in this area in FY23?
A: The FY 23 budget isn’t finalized yet, so … it’s too early to declare victory, stalemate, or defeat when it comes to Arctic funding. But I would say that people are recognizing the importance of the Arctic. There are just some incredible competing demands right now, and … funding is not unlimited. It’s going to have to be apportioned to the priorities of our nation. … In order to make different strategies work, you’re going to have to resource them, and if you want to resource those strategies, you’re going to have to take from other areas, and I think that’s the discussion we continue to have.
… What I always like to emphasize is what happens in our Arctic, … we want to be by choice, not by consequence. So, we need to make the right choices about funding the right things in our Arctic strategy, so that we’re not trying to play catch up later on.
Q: This spring you had multiple simultaneous Arctic exercises going on where agile combat employment played a big role. What unique challenges, if any, does ACE present in the Arctic? What have you learned so far?
A: The concept of agile combat employment isn’t only for the Pacific region. The threat is real, and essential bases that are consolidated, are vulnerable now to different types of attack. … Dispersal is going to be a key part for us in future conflict, … and being able to move assets, … to keep your assets protected by surprise, by concealment—you know complicating the enemies’, targeting—that’s going to be a fundamental concept of conflict in the future. …
We’ve learned that organizing, training, and equipping on a regular and consistent basis is going to be key, because you just don’t show up in January in the Arctic and thrive. You’re pretty much just trying to survive, much less thrive. … We know that we need a regular drumbeat of exercising, training, and equipping our forces to work up here. The environment itself is challenging. The cold, the snow, the wind, the weather, are just things that our service members need to experience. … It’s also the equipment because we bring equipment that’s never seen below freezing to Alaska, different things happen, so understanding hydraulics, understanding seals, understanding all the things that the cold weather affects is important for not just the human body but also for the equipment that we use.
Q: Clear Space Force Station, Alaska, received its first Long Range Discrimination Radar in December. Can you talk about the capabilities that brings to the region and where that stands in terms of operational capability?
A: Clear is an important improvement in both domain awareness as well as missile defenses, and I’m excited about what that capability brings for us. The Space Force is running that location, we’re obviously providing support where we can. … Much like real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. Where Alaska sits provides an incredible place for you to be able to detect, track, and engage threats to our homeland. And a Clear provides us those capabilities.
Q: How is climate change impacting all these things that we’ve talked about?
A: The warming rate is two to four time faster [in the Arctic] than the rest of the globe, and what that’s doing is creating a different environment. … It’s really affecting the permafrost, so the ground in which we built and utilize all of our systems … is changing. So it’s going to change the way that we build in the future, and it’s going to probably require us to make modifications to the things that were built in the past. The warmer temperatures are creating less sea ice and that gives us a couple of challenges. … Do you know how when a hurricane comes up from the Caribbean and … goes on the East Coast, and … it’s got like 75 mile an hour winds and everyone’s freaking out in New Jersey and New York? We call that a Thursday up here in the Arctic. When you have less sea ice, now you have the wind and the storms, causing some incredible erosion patterns that we just never really anticipated. Because the open water is there longer, … we’re seeing some erosion rates on the coast of Alaska that are decades further than we thought. … At one of our sites the erosion is already up to what we predicted it would be in 2040. …
A lack of sea ice also is creating opportunities. … If you think about a route from East Asia to Europe, you can save somewhere in the order of seven to 12 days in travel time with a ship sailing from East Asia to Europe. That’s an incredible cost savings for transportation companies, and just one of the reasons that we believe that a few countries like China are looking very closely at the Arctic. The … lack of sea ice … doesn’t make the environment less formidable, but it allows you to have access to some of the resources, … in the form of hydrocarbons, … rare earth metals, minerals, and … fish, … which again, is why I think you see Russia very steadfastly building up this Arctic presence to safeguard what it believes are its national interests.
Q: If erosion is happening so much faster than you anticipated, what does that mean for the radars located along the coast?
A: We’ve already built a number of sea walls and fortified the structures around those radars. … The radars themselves are vitally important to us, but in the future, we’re looking at different technologies, like over-the-horizon radars—those wouldn’t necessarily be built on the coast—to provide us that domain awareness. … We’re not planning on moving any of our radar sites at this time. I think we understand how to protect them with those sea walls … and fortifying them.