Russian reconnaissance planes intercepted by U.S. jets earlier this week were watching for U.S. submarines popping up out of the Arctic ice, according to a military commander who described the Arctic as the “new frontline of our homeland defense.”
General Terrence O’Shaughnessy said on March 11 that the incident on Monday highlighted the need to improve communications systems up in the Arctic.
“We saw just yesterday, you may have seen in the news, we had a Russian bomber 60 miles off the coast of Alaska, operating in one of our ICEX exercises we had where submarines actually pop up out of the ice,” O’Shaughnessy told the House Committee on Armed Services.
According to a statement by Norcom, the Russian Tu-142 bomber-reconnaissance planes did not enter U.S. or Canadian airspace but flew for four hours, escorted by U.S. and Canadian jets, within what is known as the air defense identification zone (ADIZ).
That zone is the buffer around sovereign airspace, in which aircraft come under control of local air traffic and defense authorities. That zone, as is the case for the airspace around Alaska, can reach beyond the boundary of sovereign territory.
The Russian aircraft “loitered” around 2,500 feet above the submarine practice site, said O’Shaughnessy.
O’Shaughnessy heads up the geographic military command, Northcom, that covers the U.S. homeland and the surrounding oceans, including the Arctic.
The Arctic is becoming an increasingly contested “battlespace,” said O’Shaughnessy.
“The Arctic is no longer a fortress wall, and our oceans are no longer protective moats; they are now avenues of approach for advanced conventional weapons and the platforms that carry them,” he said in a written statement (pdf) to the committee. Our adversaries’ capability to directly attack the homeland has leapt forward, and they are engaged in overt, concerted efforts to weaken our national technological, economic, and strategic advantage”
Vice Adm. Daryl Caudle, the Commander of U.S. Submarine Forces, said in a statement that the Arctic was a potential strategic corridor for growing competition.
“The Submarine Force must maintain readiness by exercising in Arctic conditions to ensure they can protect national security interests and maintain favorable balances of power in the Indo-Pacific and Europe if called upon,” he said in a statement.
With new shipping lanes potentially opening up with melting ice, and next-generation nuclear-powered ice-breakers, the Arctic, with its rich resources, is an increasingly enticing military and commercial prospect.
Russia has been preparing to open up the frozen ocean to its north all year round—what it calls the Northern Sea Route—amassing the largest fleet of ice-breakers in the world, nine of them nuclear-powered.
Despite having no geographical claim to the Arctic, China is also trying to get a foothold in the region, and to piggyback on Russia’s potential new shipping route.
Russia has continued to grow its military infrastructure in the arctic over the last year said O’Shaughnessy.
“Russia lengthened existing runways and built new ones at multiple airfields in the high north,” he said. In September, Russia deployed a coastal defense cruise missile opposite the Bering Sea from Alaska, for a first-ever training launch from that region.
“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,” said O’Shaughnessy.
“In order to reclaim our strategic advantage in the high north, it is critical that we improve our ability to detect and track surface vessels and aircraft in our Arctic approaches and establish more reliable secure communications,” he said.