The U.S. Air Force on July 21 released what it called the service’s first Arctic Strategy to meet competitive threats from Russia and China.
The 14-page strategy, accompanied by a classified annex, was co-signed by Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, U.S. Space Force chief of space operations Gen. John Raymond, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.
“The Arctic’s capacity as a strategic buffer is eroding, making it an avenue of threat to the homeland, due to advancements by great power competitors,” per the strategy. “Additionally, it hosts critical launch points for global power projection and increasingly accessible natural resources. While the DoD analyzes the immediate prospect of conflict in the Arctic as low, the confluence of activities in the region by great power competitors with increased physical access due to receding land ice and sea ice, yields the potential for intensified regional competition as well as opportunities for cooperative endeavors with allies and partners.”
In June last year, DoD released an updated Arctic Strategy, which said that China, while it has had a limited Arctic presence, is seeking Arctic shipping routes and that China’s two icebreaking vessels, the Xuelong and Xuelong 2, and civilian research efforts “could support a strengthened, future Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean.”
The new Air Force Arctic Strategy said that Alaska’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Eielson AFB will be home to more advanced fighters, including the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22 and F-35, than anywhere else and that the Arctic offers critical power projection capabilities for the U.S. to the Indo-Pacific and European theaters.
The Arctic provides vital missile defense and deterrence opportunities, as the Arctic is the shortest distance for potential adversary strategic air and missile defense attacks.
“The Alaska Radar System and the 50-plus radars that comprise the North Warning System across Canada
provide vital early warning for homeland defense and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD),” per the strategy. “Locations like Clear, Alaska and Thule, Greenland uniquely enable missile warning and defense in addition to space domain awareness, helping USSPACECOM [U.S. Space Command] track tens of thousands of objects daily.”
On missile defense, the strategy lays out likely future needs. “Today’s threats have longer range, better precision, and lower radar cross-sections,” per the strategy. “To counteract evolving threats: The Department of the Air Force will enhance its missile defense surveillance system in the northern tier while continuing to work with Canada to identify materiel and non-materiel solutions to the North Warning System. The Department of the Air Force will improve domain awareness through new technologies ranging from over the horizon radar to space assets.”
At a strategy roll-out event at a virtual Atlantic Council event on July 21, Raymond said that the U.S. Space Force is striving to collaborate more with Arctic nation allies, including Canada and Norway.
“With the changing strategic environment in the Arctic and more operations occurring in the Arctic, you then have to put satellites in purpose-built orbits to provide coverage over that part of the poles,” Raymond said. “Over the past year, we’ve developed a partnership with Norway, and we have a requirement to put two communications satellites in an orbit that would help cover the Arctic region. Norway was going to launch two satellites already so rather than build our own satellites, we took communications payloads and are going to integrate those on the Norwegian satellites. That will save significant costs for the United States, allow us to get capabilities onto orbit quicker, and allows us to deepen an already strong partnership with Norway.”
In 2018, the Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman [NOC] a $428.8 million contract for the two Enhanced Polar System-Recapitalization (EPS-R) payloads to provide enhanced military communications coverage for the Arctic region.