The United States military has not always been a positive force for Alaska Natives, but as the world changes, leaders in and out of the service hope to continue to turn that around.
“I think that what has been going on over the last three years since 2017 is renewed partnership and communications with the military in the state,” said Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka in a press conference at AFN’s annual convention, held digitally this year. “It is driven by what is going on in Alaska and in the world.”
Chaired by Air Force Maj. Gen Randy ‘Church’ Kee, now executive director of the Arctic Domain Awareness Center, saw the heads of all the major commands in Alaska meet as part of the AFN’s panel on strategic security.
“We go back to our roots with Gen. Billy Mitchell who labeled Alaska as the most strategic place on earth,” said Lt. Gen. David Krumm, commanding general of the Alaska NORAD region, Alaskan Command and 11th Air Force. “Each of you knows the Arctic and Alaska in particular is difficult to operate in. The cold, the wind, the waves, the ice.”
Changing fiscal environment, global demand for resources and technological advances are all driving forces in the requirement for increased emphasis on military operations in Alaska. There are nearly 27,000 Department of Defense personnel in Alaska, according to Alaska Command’s website. And that number is poised to increase, as those drivers turn Alaska from a buffer into an avenue for a hostile power.
“From a military aspect, the Arctic used to be a natural buffer for us. But with technological advances, the Arctic is now an approach to our homelands,” Krumm said. “What we have to do is invest in a foundation for operations in the Arctic. It means we will need to exercise more. It means we will need to participate more. But make no mistake, we will have to do this with our partners.”
Sea lanes and Arctic warfare
As the United States refocuses on operations in the High Arctic, the Army is beginning to shift its priorities from warfare in the deserts of the Middle East to operations in the snows of Alaska. One of the Army’s Stryker Brigades recently returned from a deployment to Iraq and Syria, said the Army’s commanding general in Alaska, Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak.
“The Army is currently building out and delivering, after the holidays, Arctic strategies,” Andrysiak said. “For a couple of decades we’ve been meeting significant demands around the world and it’s taken its toll.”
The Army, whose skill sets have been broadly homogenized by nearly two decades of war and counterinsurgency, said Andrysiak, will need to refocus on Arctic operations. One of America’s Arctic great power competitors, Russia, recently held an exercise involving more than 10,000 soldiers in combined arms formations both effectively and adaptively, Andrysiak said, and America needs to relearn to do the same.
“When we do conduct operations in the Arctic, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Andrysiak said. “U.S. Army Alaska used to be the part of the army that thrived in the harshest conditions of the year.”
The ground forces aren’t the only ones with a shifting mission. Melting sea ice and shifting fish stocks have seen an increased presence of Russian and Chinese fishing fleets and military forces, pushing against international laws and regulations, Krumm said.
“I am concerned that there are some that are going to go against the rules,” Krumm said, naming Russia and China. “We have seen other parts of the world where those two countries ignore the rules.”
Russia’s takeover of Crimea and China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea are both examples of predatory economic and political practices. With China’s naming itself an Arctic power, and Russia’s willingness to flout laws, the situation in the Arctic is becoming more fraught, Krum said.
“As a Navy, we need to keep an eye on that,” said Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, commander of U.S. Navy Region Northwest, headquartered in Washington and responsible for all of Alaska. “We’re trying to support a stable region. We want to support a rules-based region.”
The most visible branches of the military in coastal Alaska isn’t asleep on watch, either. The Coast Guard continues to actively work with coastal communities for regulations, safety, and search and rescue. Their oceangoing vessels also work to maintain sovereignty of the seas, and enforce fisheries regulations as fishing fleets from countries down south eye the massive fishing stocks avariciously.
“We all know that here in Alaska the largest importer of seafood is China. Their strategic goal of feeding their massive population is getting more fish protein,” Kitka said. “They (China) have massive fishing fleets moving into other parts of the world to feed their population. We have to learn about these things so we can have a seat at the table so we can contribute to the security of our country.”
The Coast Guard, the most active naval service in Arctic waters, will be even more visible in a month as the Polar Star, the Coast Guard’s medium icebreaker, begins a deployment to the Bering Strait from November to February, said District 17 commander Rear Adm. Matthew Bell Jr. And in several years, the Coast Guard will add more icebreakers to its lists as the Polar Security Cutters, the United States’ answer to growing fleets of Chinese and Russian icebreakers. The first PSC is due out of the yards in 2024.
“It is known that there are trillions of dollars of natural resources in the Arctic- one of the last natural resource wells in the world,” Kitka said. “The change in the weather, the change in the climate, the opening of sea lanes, the increased competition over these resources, increased competition with China and Russia, and increased assertiveness over it, has the chance to spill over to the Arctic.”
Building partnerships and infrastructure
More forces and operations in Alaska will require more infrastructure. That falls into the bailiwick of the Army Corps of Engineers. Col. Damon Delarosa, the commander of the Corps of Engineers’ Alaska District, emphasized the close relationships with Alaska Native tribes and business.
“We’ll continue to see an increase in partnerships from communities across Alaska,” Delarosa said, as erosion and permafrost loss require work.
The Corps awarded $232 million in contracts to businesses owned by Alaska Native corporations, Delarosa said — 86% of the funds awarded. The plan is to strengthen national security through long term infrastructure solutions, working with Alaska Native communities and businesses wherever possible.
“We have a trusted relationship with the military. We no longer look at the world from an equator viewpoint. We look at the world from a polar center viewpoint,” said Gregory Razo, member of AFN. “Alaska is a strategic place. You heard Sen. (Dan) Sullivan talk about $1.6 billion coming to Alaska for strategic buildup. You name it, Alaska Native corporations are doing it. If that money is going to be available, we want to compete for it.”
The National Guard is supporting that partnership with personnel right now, said Maj. Gen Torrence Saxe, Alaska’s adjutant general.
“Alaska is our area of operations,” Saxe said. “The rescue mission continues unabated. We have roughly one rescue a week.”
Saxe said that the National Guard needs to reflect the makeup of the state more accurately, recruiting more from off the road system. Saxe is looking to increase the number of Army national guardsmen in rural communities away from the hubs of Anchorage and Fairbanks. More than a 100 of those guardsmen are currently employed supporting public health and polling initiatives in communities that require the support. And at least five armories have been handed to communities to assist in their coronavirus response, Saxe said.
“We need to understand our relationship with the military,” Razo said.
Razo said that as Alaska becomes more and more strategically important, it needs to be ready to deal with near-peer adversaries operating in the waters and airspace around Alaska. To do that, the partnership needs to work from both ends.
“What is new and different is the technology changes. The U.S. used to be protected by the oceans. There was a buffer. They’ve said because of technology changes, things like hypersonic glide vehicles, ballistic missiles, there are threats to our country from all over the world,” Kitka said. “There is a role for Alaskans. There is a role for Native Communities and Native leadership to protect the country by being involved in that.”
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.