Having a reliable broadband communications capability for Arctic operations is the top unfunded priority of U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), the command’s chief said on Tuesday during before a Senate panel examining U.S. readiness in the Arctic.

“One of the things we find, very simple things become hard,” Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, commander of USNORTHCOM, told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management. “And one of those is communication when you’re in the Arctic.”

USNORTCHOM’s unfunded priorities list delivered to Congress is topped by $130 million to initiate an Arctic communication capability. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), the ranking member on the panel, asked the general what the unfunded request would provide USNORTHCOM that it currently doesn’t have.

O’Shaughnessy said that above 65-degrees latitude north, which includes most of Alaska, “your satellite communication starts to diminish and above 70 it becomes extremely limited except for some of our more exquisite capability, for example, with submarines.”

O’Shaughnessy said that new commercial communications companies such as OneWeb and SpaceX’ Starlink, which are building satellite base global communications networks, provide the Defense Department with an opportunity to “bring us some capability sooner, significantly sooner,” adding that these satellites “will provide literally the same connectivity that you get in your home right today, broadband connectivity that would then be available in the majority of the Arctic.”

Using these commercial services would go beyond basic communications to include connecting sensors that have “limited ability to connect” currently “and, frankly, are not that resilient, so it gives us the resiliency,” he said.

Kaine agreed that there isn’t a need to build an “exquisite capacity” for Arctic communications if commercial capabilities exist, “as long as we can protect the security of information.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), the subcommittee chairman and a leading proponent of U.S. readiness efforts in the Arctic region, said during the markup later this year of the defense authorization bill he will “make a press” to include the Arctic communications package in the legislation.

Sullivan pointed out that unlike with the continental U.S., many communities in Alaska don’t have the same internet and telecommunications coverage taken for granted elsewhere. He asked the general how the commercial-based Arctic communications can help Alaskans.

O’Shaughnessy replied that “We find the more we peel the onion back and that the more things we actually find we have these common interests and we can get after it together.” For the commercial communications providers, the more potential subscribers the “better the business case,” he said.

O’Shaughnessy said he is working with industry and that “we are on the verge to be able to make this happen and I think it will be game changing for the military. I think it will be game changing for the local populations. I think it will be game changing for our partners like the Coast Guard to be able to communicate and on and on and on so I really want to pursue this capability.”

The U.S. government is slowly turning its attention to the Arctic region due to melting sea ice, which is opening potential new sea routes and increased human activity, increased Russian activity, and even interest and activity by China, which claims it is a “near Arctic” state.

In his prepared remarks, O’Shaughnessy said that in 2019 Russia lengthened existing, and built new, runways in the “high north,” deployed a cruise missile unit across the Bering Sea from Alaska and fired a cruise missile for the first time in the region as part of a training exercise.

“When deployed to the Russian northeast, this system has the capability not only to control access to the Arctic through the Bering Strait, but also to strike land targets in parts of Alaska with little to no warning,” he stated.

The newly deployed Russian long-range cruise missile capability that can hit U.S. and Canadian territory combined with Russia’s expanding military presence in the Arctic region means the U.S. has “no choice but to improve our homeland defense capability and capacity,” O’Shaughnessy stated in his written testimony.

The U.S. and its allies require a layered defense to protect the homeland, he said during his opening statement, noting that the Strategic Homeland Ecosystem Layered Defense (SHIELD) “is the architecture we need to defend our homeland against adversary threats. And the Arctic, particularly Alaska, has a critical role to play in SHIELD.”

The architecture requires all-domain awareness, a layered grid of all-domain sensors that can “detect and track threats from their point of origin long before approaching our sovereign territory,” all-domain command and control that links various sensors and enables real-time decision making, and systems to defeat adversary weapons, O’Shaughnessy said.