The U.S. Air Force is spending about $6 billion on systems for Arctic security and operations, and the service will likely step up its investment, including the modernization of the North Warning System (NWS), a top Air Force official said on July 27.

“Our latest estimates are that we’re spending a pretty decent amount, certainly out of the Department of the Air Force’s budget on things that are clearly related to Arctic security/Arctic operations, and that number is in the neighborhood of $6 billion now, and we know there is going to be an effort going forward to do things, like modernize the North Warning System,” Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements told a virtual Wilson Center Arctic Dialogues panel.

“We’ve put that off for too long,” Hinote said of NWS modernization. “We know that we’re going to have to work with our partners in Canada to be able to do that. We also see ways of getting synergy between the investments our allies and partners are making in things they’re doing as well.”

A successor to the 1950s Distant Early Warning (DEW) line, NWS, first fielded in the late 1980s, consists of 25 Lockheed Martin [LMT] AN/FPS-117 long-range radars and 36 short-range AN/FPS-124 radars. NWS provides early warning of possible incursions into U.S. airspace and covers nearly 3,000 miles across North America from the Aleutian Islands in southwestern Alaska to Baffin Island in northeastern Canada.

U.S. Alaskan Command said in April that it used Air Force F-22 fighters by Lockheed Martin [LMT] to intercept more than 60 Russian aircraft last year, including Tupolev Tu-95 Bear bombers, and the command has said it may pursue options for the intercept mission to reduce the workload on the fifth-generation fighter (Defense Daily, Apr. 28).

Global warming heralds a higher level of economic competition among great powers, as the disappearance of permfrost allows Russia, China and other nations easier polar access to mine oil and gas and other resources.

“We’re not nearly as secure and safe as we may be thinking we are, especially in the avenues and approaches over the Arctic,” said Hinote, who heads the Air Force Futures group on the air staff. “That has led to a major shift in our wargaming…The Arctic is the shortest route between our competitors and us.”

“Our first line of effort is domain vigilance, and what we have seen is awareness about what is going on in the spaces we call the High North, or the Arctic, is a key part of preserving peace,” Hinote said. “We have found that none of the countries that routinely operate in the Arctic want war. In fact, they continually choose paths that will get to competition, but not conflict, if we know what’s going on. The times when we have seen in our work-ups, in our gaming, and in our simulations where we’ve seen conflict erupt is when one side is doing something that somebody else is not aware of. This gets into the importance of awareness in the Arctic as being one of the most important things that can happen for peacekeeping.”

Hinote’s remarks on July 27 came during a Wilson Center panel discussion on the Air Force’s implementation of its one-year-old Arctic Strategy to meet competitive threats from Russia and China (Defense Daily, July 21, 2020).

The Air Force wants improved sensors and communications for the Arctic, including Joint All Domain Command and Control, as the service seeks to make operations there more routine and as it fields Lockheed Martin F-35s to enhance U.S. Arctic power projection to the Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.

Air Force Lt. Gen. David Krumm, the commander of Alaskan Command and the 11th Air Force, has suggested that radar modernization for the Arctic is vital, as the legacy radars “were designed primarily to detect Soviet bombers coming to attack over the poles,” not the hypersonic weapons and cruise missiles on the current U.S. watchlist.

Another effort to improve military operations in the Arctic is the collaboration between Norway and the U.S. on launching jam-resistant, U.S. communications payloads on two Norwegian satellites.

Last summer, the U.S. Space Force (USSF) and Northrop Grumman [NOC] finished a delta Critical Design Review for the Enhanced Polar System Recapitalization (EPS-R) Control and Planning Segment (CAPS) program, which is to improve military satellite communications in the region of the North Pole (Defense Daily, Aug. 4, 2020).

CAPS is the ground segment providing command and control and mission planning for all four of the EPS/EPS-R payloads with a single software baseline.

Norway is to launch the two satellites with the EPS-R payloads. USSF has said that EPS-R hitching a ride on the Norwegian satellites will save significant costs, speed the fielding of jam-resistant polar communications, and deepen USSF’s partnership with Norway.

“It’s difficult to get great coverage of SATCOM over the High North, or down in Antarctica as well,” Kelli Seybolt, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs, told the Wilson Center Arctic Dialogues forum on July 27.

Seybolt said that she sees “tremendous opportunities” going forward for similar U.S. collaborations with other Arctic nations, including Canada, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Greenland.