The Arctic Heats Up

Nov. 28, 2017

Raven Camp, near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, is used to train aircrews of LC-130 “Skibirds” to operate on skiways. Photos: SMSgt. Willie Gizara/ANG; Russian Federation Ministry of Defense

With little press attention, a team of senior-level Air Force officials—including 15 general officers from the Air Staff and major commands—visited the Arctic in September, hitching a ride with USAF’s specialist polar aviation unit, the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard. The 109th AW performs resupply missions to USAF and scientific outposts at both ends of the Earth, flying ski-equipped LC-130s.

“We went up there to see what has changed in the Arctic and what threats and what other people are doing” there, said Lt. Gen. Mark C. Nowland, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations.

Nowland said, “There are economic opportunities and our opponents are doing things in the Arctic. So how do we respond to it? What do we do? What should we do?”

The trip, dubbed the Air Force Arctic Security Expedition, ran from Sept. 7-13 across Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Eleven of the generals on the expedition had “limited- to no-experience in the Arctic,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, head of 11th Air Force at JB Elmendorf–Richardson (JBER), Alaska. He led the group across “The Last Frontier” state, including stops at Eielson Air Force Base, Clear Air Force Station, and Long-Range Radar Site Point Barrow.

Wilsbach, who is also the commander of US Northern Command’s Alaskan Command, said there were a few things about the region that he most wanted to impress upon his colleagues.

First, the US is an Arctic nation, with much of Alaska above the Arctic Circle.

Second, the Arctic is vast and remote: “I wanted them to see how big it was,” Wilsbach said.

Finally, the three-star wanted the senior Air Force brass to witness for themselves the warming conditions in the Arctic. “There is a lot of controversy about climate change, but what we see in the Arctic is, it is happening. We’re seeing it predominantly with sea-ice melt, permafrost melt, and erosion— and we showed them all of that.”

The receding sea ice is bringing increased human activity into the region, as large swaths of what had previously been pack ice—inaccessible to all but specially equipped icebreaker vessels—has become open-seas navigable for much of the year.

“We’re seeing transit in the Arctic, we’re seeing tourism, we’re seeing the beginning of competition for resources like gas, oil, and fish,” said Wilsbach. He emphasized how important it is to be sensitive to the original Alaska populations and use any opportunity to learn from them.

He also highlighted the formidable challenges the Air Force faces in Arctic operations, and the difficulty of maintaining high-technology systems in extremely cold conditions.

After Alaska, the group visited Thule Air Base in Greenland, the northernmost US military post in the world, to view missile defense and space situational awareness operations. The expedition hopped a short flight north to Canadian Forces Station Alert, a small post on an ice runway fewer than 100 miles from the North Pole, and then to Ilulissat, Greenland, to meet with senior Danish defense officials. The visit to Ilulissat included time with Maj. Gen. Kim Jesper Jorgensen, head of Denmark’s Joint Arctic Command.

“I think we learned a lot, and it was an amazing trip,” said Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, the most senior officer on the trip.

“Now we have to take all this (and) put it together,” Nowland said.

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USAF’s Arctic Strategy

Specifically, the service is drafting a first-ever Air Force Arctic Strategy, which could set the stage for new requirements and capabilities for operations in the highest latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Service officials say the document will be “nested” in higher-level US government strategies. These include:

The 2013 National Strategy for the Arctic Region, which proclaims that the US seeks an Arctic that is stable and free of conflict.

The 2013 Defense Department Arctic Strategy, which sets as the desired end state a “secure and stable region where US national interests are safeguarded [and] the US homeland is protected.”

A 2016 update of the DOD Arctic Strategy, which affirmed the 2013 desired end state, but added, “nations work cooperatively to address challenges.”

“We’re clearly nested under the DOD Arctic Strategy and we’re operating in accordance with that strategy today,” Nowland said. “But, how do we respond to the changing situation? We need to look at the gaps of what we observed, what are we doing now, what do the plans say we have to do now, what are the gaps between the changing conditions, what are the concepts of operation that could fill those gaps.”

While the Air Force has a long history of operating in the Arctic—during the Cold War, for example, B-52s were dispersed to ice runways in Greenland—the service, until now, has not articulated a strategy for operating in the region, even as the Navy and Coast Guard have followed the DOD lead.

Still, USAF maintains dedicated Arctic aviation capabilities, including two Air National Guard units. The first is the 109th, based at Stratton Air National Guard Base in Schenectady, NY, which is capable of deploying forces on LC-130s directly onto open snow and ice with little to no infrastructure or support. The unit, which has classified missions, conducts year-round peacetime operations supporting the National Science Foundation in Greenland and Antarctica.

The second group of Guard arctic specialists are in Alaska at JBER, with squadrons that operate HC-130 transports and HH-60 helicopters. (Air Force Magzine showed its readers what it takes to compact snow into an Antarctica runway in the September issue.)

State of the Art

Major Air Force capabilities in Alaska include a C-17 airlift unit, C-130 squadrons, a tanker squadron—and, notably, an F-22A squadron at JBER near Anchorage. The service plans to bolster that fighter power by also basing two F-35 Joint Strike Fighter squadrons at Eielson AFB, located mid-state near Fairbanks, by 2022. That will give Alaska bragging rights to having more advanced fighters than any other location, according to Wilsbach.

“I know one thing, Alaska is important to us,” Nowland said. “We’re responding. We’re going to have over 100 fifth-generation aircraft up there. Alaska is a critical enabler. The Air Force is already in support of the DOD Arctic Strategy in putting some of our greatest technology up there.”

Indeed, going by resources dedicated, the Air Force is the major US military player in the Arctic. In FY17, the Pentagon estimated $6 billion earmarked for Arctic-unique capabilities—excluding spending on strategic capabilities, such as ballistic missile submarines. According to a June 2016 DOD Report to Congress on Resourcing the Arctic Strategy, USAF controlled the bulk of that allocation —$4.3 billion—including $650 million for Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) and $1.1 billion for procurement of Arctic-unique capabilities. Another $2.2 billion was allocated for Air Force Arctic operations and maintenance and $375 million for military personnel.

Key research and development projects include work to identify capabilities needed to provide long-range, wide-area surveillance in the northern approaches; modernizing the Northern Warning System to improve surveillance and protection for the Arctic; funding to develop a follow-on to the Milstar satellite communications system to provide secure connections in the Arctic; and upgrades for the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System for improved capability in the Arctic, according to the DOD report.

As the ice cover recedes, resources that were once inaccessible and locked beneath it are coming within reach. A 2009 US Geological Survey estimated that about 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil is likely to be found north of the Arctic Circle.

At the same time, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia are all making seabed claims based on the extended continental shelves beyond their exclusive economic zones. Those claims, based on the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, set the stage for potential territorial disputes.

The receding ice also opens up new ocean transit routes for commerce and tourism. For example, in August, the Christophe de Margerie, a Russian tanker on its maiden voyage, made the northern passage without an icebreaker escort for the first time. It carried liquefied natural gas from Norway to South Korea in just 19 days, a trip that was an estimated 30 percent faster than the conventional southern route via the Suez Canal, according to press reports. In 2016, the cruise ship Crystal Serenity sailed a new route, from western Alaska to New York across the Arctic Ocean.

While defense experts don’t gauge the near-term probability of Arctic conflict as very high, concerns are rising about competing claims in the region.

China, which doesn’t even have any territory in the region, has asserted rights to the Arctic and is building icebreakers to facilitate transit there.

In 2010, then-Rear Adm. Yin Zhin advised China’s political leaders not to fall behind on Arctic Ocean exploration. “China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population,” Zhin said, according to multiple English-language press reports citing the official China News Service.

Russia—which in 2007 symbolically staked a claim to the fossil fuel reserves in the Arctic by deploying submarines to plant a flag at the seabed more than two miles beneath the North Pole—is also flexing military muscle in the region. (The word “arctic” is derived from a Greek word meaning “near the bear, northern” a reference to the constellation Ursa Major and the North star.)

Since 2012, Russia’s plans for military modernization in the Arctic have expanded, with a focus on maritime and air capability and the ambition to permanently deploy forces along Russia’s entire Arctic Coast from Murmansk to Chukotka, according to Katarzyna Zysk, Russian military expert and associate professor at the Norwegian Defence University College.

“Russia has an asymmetric power advantage compared to other Arctic nations’ military presence in the Arctic,” Zysk said in an interview. “I think the other Arctic nations have a lot to do to catch up.”

In the last few years, according to Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), a member of the Armed Services Committee, the Russian buildup includes four new Arctic brigade combat teams, a new Arctic command, 14 new operational airfields (with a goal of 50 by 2020), 16 deepwater ports, and 40 icebreakers with 11 more in development; some nuclear powered.

“So … something serious is going on in the Arctic,” Sullivan said Jan. 24, 2017, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Wilsbach is keeping a close eye on Russia and believes that most of its military beefing-up could be explained by Moscow protecting legitimate interests. Russia draws an estimated 20 percent of its gross domestic product from its Arctic resources.

“Right now, I’m not overly concerned for two reasons,” Wilsbach said. “I know it is part of their overall Arctic buildup. We have a corresponding defensive capability to counter that should—and I don’t think this is going to happen—should they intend to use it. I’m not concerned yet. At the same time, as we go forward in time, I encourage people to keep an eye on that. And ask the ‘What’s-that-for?’ question. And ‘Why are you building this capability?’?”

Wilsbach sees one Russian capability being developed in the Arctic that clearly is not defensive. “Amphibious arctic-capable units. Amphibious operations are clearly for inserting troops and taking territory,” he said.

John L. Conway III, a retired Air Force colonel and intelligence officer who studied the Arctic for years, said the near-term focus for the Air Force in the region will likely be on plugging capability gaps. “I don’t think

warfighting, expect perhaps aerial intrusion, is an issue right now,” Conway said. “I think we need to see and communicate and then worry about learning how to shoot up there.”

That could augur for an Air Force Arctic Strategy that details service-specific capability shortfalls along the lines of those outlined in the DOD strategy. They include the challenge to maneuver, employ, and sustain forces in extreme cold weather clothing; aging surface mobility platforms; ice, permafrost, and extreme weather conditions; limited navigation aids; inadequately mapped terrain; and command and control of forces that are challenged by limited satellite and terrestrial communications above 65 degrees north latitude.

While the Navy and Coast Guard have already outlined Arctic roadmaps and strategies, the Air Force was not “present” in these documents, according to Conway, referred to only as “sister service air transport.”

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Conway said. “We’ve got to have a strategy.”

The Air Staff’s Nowland said, as he and his colleagues traveled around the Arctic in September, they were struck by the immense distances between destinations, making an implicit case for airpower that must be made explicit as the Air Force crafts a new strategy.

“The Arctic trip showed us the same thing we have in the Asia-Pacific Theater, that is: time-distance problems,” Nowland said. “There is inherent requirement for air capability in the Arctic.”

_Jason Sherman is senior correspondent for His last article for Air Force Magazine, “The Services Meet the Warlords,” appeared in the September 2008 issue.