The Air Force Is Gearing Up for More Action in the Arctic

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Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex
Students walk around to keep warm during Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (S.E.R.E) 5-level training Jan 22, 2016, in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex. (U.S. Air Force photo/Joshua Turner)

As Russia and China expand their commercial and military activities in the Arctic, airmen should prepare for a corresponding uptick of U.S. and partner activity in that region, according to the Air Force's top general.

During a panel hosted by the Atlantic Council, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told audiences that the anticipated increase will require airmen to be expeditionary and to become accustomed to Arctic warfare exercises.

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"I do see an increase in activity relative to building on this strategy to ensure airmen are prepared to go anywhere, globally, as an expeditionary force," he said. The panel, including Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Space Force chief of space operations Gen. John Raymond, debuted the Air Force's first-ever Arctic strategy during the event.

"What I tell [airmen]: 'I don't know exactly when I am going to ask you, squadron commander, to pick up, pack up, and deploy forward to either 120 degrees-plus [temperature] or 50 degrees minus. I just know we have from right now until then to get you ready,'" Goldfein said.

With the demand for military activity anticipated to rise, the Air National Guard's LC-130 "Skibird" will likely deploy to the polar region more often, he said. The Air Force has only 10 LC-130 aircraft -- equipped with ski-like landing gear -- which are used for operations in Greenland, as well as Antarctica.

The service is responsible for nearly 80 percent of the Defense Department's Arctic funding, with substantial contribution to two major military bases in Alaska, training ranges, early missile defense warning systems, and satellite command-and-control stations in the region, according to the new strategy. With the service leading these initiatives, airmen have the means through "inherent rapid-response and long-range capabilities" to respond to events, even catastrophic ones, happening in the high north, it adds.

The Air Force is watching its adversaries, Barrett said Tuesday. As Arctic ice continues to melt, Russia has emphasized its push for undersea intelligence gathering -- from submarines to drone operations -- within the Northern Sea route, in addition to its development of air defense and coastal missile systems. Further complicating things, China, which considers itself a "near-Arctic state," plans to create new shipping lanes with its "Polar Silk Road" initiative.

The Air Force's Arctic strategy notes that, while adversaries seek to capitalize on the changing environment, it presents looming hazards for the service. "Reductions in single- and multi-year polar ice are accelerating the rate of coastal erosion, putting Air and Space Forces' already sparse infrastructure at risk," it states..

Amid the growing international interest, Barrett outlined the strategic importance of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Air Force bases in the region.

"When the full complement of planned F-35s arrive at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska's unparalleled concentration of fifth-generation fighters will project unmistakable influence," she said.

By 2022, Alaska will be home to one of the highest concentrations of stealth aircraft operating in the Pacific theater and near the Arctic Circle. A total of 54 conventional takeoff and landing versions of the Lightning II are scheduled to arrive by December 2021. The base also has KC-135 Stratotankers and F-16 Fighting Falcons, which often serve as aggressor air or "red air" training aircraft to simulate air-to-air battles with jet fighter counterparts.

Adding more U.S. jets to the region also presents an opportunity for allied nations to integrate and learn from American pilots, officials have said. The 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson accepted its first F-35s in April as part of the enhanced build-up.

Despite its progress, the Air Force said it must advocate for future investments to its infrastructure in order to "match future operational needs." Those needs also contribute to homeland defense, according to the new strategy. However, it does not outline how officials have begun planning for these unspecified investments, how much they will cost or how the service will appeal to Congress for additional authorization.

For example, the Pentagon for years has been looking to update its early missile detection systems, many of which are located in the north.

In 2017, Gen. Lori Robinson, then head of North American Aerospace Defense Command, said the U.S. and Canada were working on upgrades to protect against cruise missile threats posed by countries such as Russia and North Korea -- the first substantial buildup in more than two decades.

The binational steering group was tasked with analyzing ways "to manage the eventual replacement of the North Warning System, which is our network of surveillance radars across Alaska and northern Canada" to protect against cruise missile threats posed by countries, Robinson said at the time.

The Air Force continues "to work with Canada to identify materiel and non-materiel solutions to the North Warning System," the strategy states, without disclosing more details.

Missile defense depends on communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance -- all aided by space operations, added Raymond. "Spacepower is essential to Arctic operations, allowing us to see with clarity, navigate with accuracy, and communicate across vast distances," he said.

The missions must all converge under a comprehensive, cross-domain network, Goldfein added.

"There is no better [topic] than the Arctic to talk about, not what airplanes, what ships, what submarines, what satellites, but what network do we need to build?" he said. "And how do we tie together these platforms, sensors or weapons so we can operate seamlessly across the joint team."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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