US Air Force Sets Out Strategy for Arctic Region

July 22, 2020 Updated: July 22, 2020

For the first time, the Air Force has issued an official Arctic strategy, underscoring the region’s growing strategic significance.

“Historically, the Arctic, like space, was characterized as a predominantly peaceful domain,” said Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett on July 21, as the new strategy was announced. “This is changing with expanded maritime access, newly discovered resources, and competing sovereign interests.”

Four key lines of effort are set out in the strategy document: increased vigilance for both deterrence and defense, projecting power through a combat-credible force, cooperation with allies and partners, and preparation for Arctic operations.

The document (pdf) also spells out the role of the newly minted Space Force in the region.

The announcement follows the return of U.S. military ships to the region, as well as recent warnings from the State Department that the debt traps linked to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative could be repeated in the region.

Russia has the largest permanent military presence in the Arctic, more than any other nation, according to Barrett.

Epoch Times Photo
Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett (C), Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein (L), and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond attend a video conference at the Pentagon with members of the Atlantic Council think tank to discuss the rollout of the Arctic strategy, in Arlington, Va., on July 21, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich)

But she also emphasized China’s push for a growing presence.

“China is trying to normalize its presence in the Arctic to gain access to regional resources, which are said to include over 90 billion barrels of oil and an estimated trillion dollars’ worth of rare-earth metals,” she said. “In 2018, China linked its Arctic activities to its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. Many are concerned that China may repeat what some see as predatory economic behavior, to the detriment of the region.”

The new Arctic policy involves both land-based military airpower and space-based capabilities provided by the Space Force, Barrett said.

Gen. John Raymond, the chief of space operations, said that space operations have happened in the Arctic for a long time now—and that it offers ideal conditions.

“If you look at one of the most critical missions that we do, and that’s missile warning, the Arctic is our front edge of that mission,” Raymond said. “We do that mission both at Thule, Greenland, north of the Arctic Circle, with our space professionals that are assigned there at Thule Air Base. We also do it in Alaska at Clear Air Force Station.”

Epoch Times Photo
A sailor stands on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman during flight operations in the North Atlantic on Sept. 18, 2018. (2nd Class Anthony Flynn/Released/DoD)

“If you look at the key terrain aspect of that environment, we also command and control satellites,” he said. “If you’re going to command and control satellites that are in polar orbits, where better to do it then on top of the world at the pole? It allows us to get great access to those satellites to be able to command and control and do that business. So that geography and the position on the globe … makes it an extremely advantageous place to operate from.”

Military activity is picking up in the frozen seas of the Arctic, as the United States defrosts old strategies to counter Russia and keeps a weather eye on China.

Since 2018, U.S. defense policy has officially marked countering a revanchist Russia as a top priority, second only to revamping to compete with China. Officials reject the notion that the shift marks a return to the Cold War, but some of the key naval dynamics with Russia remain the same as 40 years ago–including in the Arctic.

On June 9, President Donald Trump ordered a new fleet of at least three heavy icebreakers—potentially nuclear-powered—to be built in the next decade, to add to the current fleet of just two.

The memo was the latest indication of growing strategic interest in the Arctic, where Russia already has 27 ocean-going icebreakers, nine of them nuclear-powered.

In May, the first U.S. Navy ships since the Cold War sailed into the Barents Sea in Russia’s maritime backyard.

Two years earlier, the USS Harry Truman became the first aircraft carrier to sail to the Arctic Circle since the Reagan administration.

That carrier visit also broke with the previous clockwork cycles of deployment—showcasing a new strategy known as “dynamic force employment,” which is aimed to keep adversaries on their toes.

“In many ways, it’s a return to Cold War form,” Sidharth Kaushal, a naval defense analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, previously told The Epoch Times. “During the last decade of the Cold War, the Reagan administration really pushed this kind of forward maritime strategy, where the U.S. Navy and its allies would—in peacetime and wartime—really pursue a forward posture in the Arctic rather than just defending the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap.”

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