During a U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security hearing, officials outlined the challenges the country faces in the Arctic abroad, with Russia and China, and in Alaska, where Native communities say their concerns remain unheeded.

Yesterday, the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing called, “The High North: How U.S. Arctic Strategy Impacts Homeland Security.” Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and three other high-level officials from the Coast Guard and federal government agencies testified before the committee on current challenges in the Arctic and the United States Coast Guard’s unique role in maintaining freedom of movement, defending national interests, and safeguarding American sovereignty in the north. Predictably, many of these challenges were traced to the increasingly intertwined activities of Russia and China. Yet others were more candidly attributed to the U.S. federal government’s failure to fully consult with and heed the concerns of Alaska Natives and others living in the 49th state.

The hearing was chaired by committee chair Mark Green (R-Tennessee), a veteran of the War on Terror who once interrogated Saddam Husein for six hours following the Iraqi dictator’s capture. Given Green’s battle-hardened views and the committee’s objective of ensuring “that the American people [are] protected from terrorist attacks,” the hearing pointed fingers at Russia and China as major threats to the U.S. in the Arctic. In his remarks, Representative Carlos Gimenez (R-Florida) described the region as “Russia and China maybe against, versus, the United States and Canada” – somehow forgetting to mention the other five European allies (four of which are NATO members) that the U.S. has in the region.

Senator Sullivan asserted, “We are in a new era of authoritarian aggression led by the dictators Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. They are running hostile regimes that seek to control access to the Arctic region, and, importantly and dangerously, are increasingly working together in the Arctic.”

Sullivan’s remarks strayed from the recent tone the Biden administration has tried to set with China. Earlier this month during the APEC Summit in San Francisco, President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping shook hands and were all-smiles after a four-hour meeting, their first in a year. In an Instagram message emphasizing his hard line on China, Sullivan cautioned Biden before his meeting with Xi: “No kowtowing.” The rather daft pun, however, ignored the fact that just six years ago, the Chinese president was warmly welcomed in Anchorage by former governor of Alaska Bill Walker during a stopover on his way back home after visiting Trump in Florida.

A friendly layover no more, given Alaska’s proximity to Russia and China, Sullivan contended that his state must “play a vital role in securing America’s interest in the Arctic.” “Fortunately,” the Alaskan senator continued, “We have undertaken a military buildup there that needs to continue.”

Alaska bolsters its military might with fighter jets, runways, and Arctic Angels

As part of the ongoing military buildup in Alaska, the fleet of F-35 fighter jets at Eielson Air Force Banks in Fairbanks has grown. In 2022, the final aircraft arrived, cementing Alaska’s status as “the most concentrated state for combat-coded, fifth-generation fighter aircraft,” according to a U.S. Air Force press release. (Fifth-generation aircraft are those with technologies developed in the 21st century, including, in the case of the Lockheed Martin-engineered F-35, supersonic speed, low observable stealth, and electronic warfare range capabilities.) Describing this increase in Arctic airpower, Sullivan noted, “We have over 100 fifth-generation fighters located in Alaska – F-22s and F-35s. There’s no place on the planet Earth that has over 100 combat-coded fifth-gen fighters.”

Two U.S. Air Force F-35A Lighting IIs fly over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex on April 14, 2022. Photo: Senior Airman Jose Miguel T. Tamondong (public domain)

Then, the U.S. Army’s 11th Airborne Division, nicknamed the “Arctic Angels,” was reactivated in 2022 after 57 years of inactivity. In the activation ceremony in 2022, former Chief of Staff of the Army General James McConnville remarked, “I expect every soldier of this Division to be masters of their craft, of Arctic Warfare.” According to its website, the 11th Airborne Division “defends critical infrastructure in homeland defense and on order is capable of decisively defeating any adversary in extreme cold weather, mountainous, high latitude, and high altitude environments through large scale combat operations.” The military has been hard at work keeping its cold-weather warriors warm, sending out nearly 6,000 state-of-the-art jackets from their manufacturer in Rhode Island earlier this year.

As a final example of the military buildup that the Alaskan senator wants to see continue, the National Defense Authorization Act for 2023 included $332 million in military construction and equipment for his home state, including $100 million to extend the runway at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. This infrastructure project will help the U.S. to keep up with Russia. Between 2016 and 2020, the Arctic’s largest country constructed a 3,500-meter cement runway at its northernmost military base, Nagurskoye, located on an island in Franz Josef Land in the Arctic Ocean at 80°N. The recommissioned Russian runway can now accommodate most Russian Air Force planes, including Tu-95 (“Bear”) strategic bombers, which are capable of dropping nuclear bombs.

Satellite imagery reveals the construction of a 3500-meter runway at Nagurskoye, Russia’s northernmost air base.

The U.S. government is doing more in the Arctic – but still not enough

During the House hearing, witnesses were careful to toe the line between doubling down on America’s Arctic readiness while beseeching the federal government to step up its game. Sullivan reassured the audience that while he “loves the Coast Guard” and “loves the Department of Defense,” the country needs “not only more Coast Guard assets but also a Navy presence back in Alaska.” (The Navy, which effectively governed Alaska from 1879-1884, finally left the state in 1997, when it closed the Naval Air Facility at Adak in the Aleutian Islands.)

Icebreaker anxieties

The Coast Guard, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security in peacetime, also recognizes the need for a stronger presence in the Arctic. In July 2023, the security service submitted a report to Congress on the need for an expanded number of “Polar Security Cutters,” which includes both new heavy and medium icebreakers. Citing this report, when asked by Representative Green on the size of the “fleet mix” that the Coast Guard would require ten years from now in the Arctic, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Gautier underlined that 8-9 icebreakers would be needed. This number includes “a mix of heavy icebreakers like the Polar Star and the Polar Security Cutters that we’re building now, and medium icebreakers like the Healy, that have shallower drafts that can get into tighter spaces,” Gautier explained.

U.S. Coast Guard Polar Sea in Seattle. The vessel has been out of service since 2010 due to an engine failure. Photo: M. Bennett

The Coast Guard report specifies that three new heavy icebreakers will be needed. The procurement of the first two is already funded, and the original $1.9 billion contract for all three icebreakers – considered a relative bargain given initial estimates of $1 billion per icebreaker – was awarded in 2019 to private shipyard Halter Marine, which at the time was owned by a Singaporean maritime engineering firm. In late 2022, however, Louisiana-based Bollinger Shipyards acquired Halter Marine for a song at a mere $15 million – including the $1.9 billion contract.

Whether the Gulf of Mexico shipyard will be able to deliver vessels that can plow through thick polar ice is a major source of doubt. Although its shipyard in Mississippi began cutting steel for prototypes for the first heavy icebreaker, which will be named Polar Sentinel, in July 2023, the icebreakers are already years behind schedule. During the hearing, committee members vocalized their concerns about whether the polar security cutters would ever be built. Representative Clay Higgins (R-Louisiana) asserted that Bollinger “took great risk in assuming that contract, a massive amount of risk, from Halter Marine…In my opinion, it has many challenges. Not only does the contract include production of a vessel that has not been built in 50 years, but inflation over the last two years has caused an incredible rise in production costs.” Looking out for a company based in the state he represents, Higgins inquired, “How is the Coast Guard working with this shipbuilder?”

Vice Admiral Peter Gautier was unfazed. Having been pleased, at least on the record, with his visit to Bollinger’s Mississippi facilities in October, he remarked, “I don’t want to in any way gloss over the really substantial challenges in this very unique vessel type, but we really do believe that we’re building a ship, and we’re building a shipyard.”

Alaska Natives: An ear to the Arctic ground for the government, but one still often ignored

Polar-class steel isn’t the only force that the House Committee on Homeland Security hopes will protect America in the Arctic. Members also made clear their hopes that Alaska Natives, who Sullivan described as “some of the most patriotic Americans anywhere,” will provide crucial information to the federal government even as their concerns continue to fall on deaf ears. Their insights and the capacity of the U.S. to harness them if it only were to actually listen to Alaska Natives may help make up for any perceived shortcoming in hard power between the U.S. and Russia and China in the Arctic, especially at sea.

Representative Lou Correa (D-California) admitted, “In my opinion, we’re never going to equal the assets Russia or China have, or can produce.” China, it was mentioned during the hearing, already stands to surpass the U.S. icebreaking capacity by 2025, when its third icebreaker will be delivered. In light of the icebreaker gap, Correa reflected on another witness’ earlier mention of soft power. He asked,” What are the multipliers out there we can rely on? Let’s think about playing not checkers but chess here.”

Sunset over Denali, Alaska. Photo: M. Bennett

With its combination of the wealth of Alaska Native knowledge and military might, the U.S. has the right pieces to place chess. Yet it is still falling short of the task, viewing the Arctic like a game of Battleship rather than Settlers of Catan, let alone Sim City.

Chelsa Kenny, a Director in the Government Accountability Office (GAO)’s International Affairs and Trade team, summarized a GAO report released on the same day as the congressional hearing entitled, “Arctic Region: Factors that Affect the Advancement of U.S. Priorities.” She acknowledged that the many discussions that the GAO held with Arctic experts and stakeholders from both the U.S. and other countries, revealed that on the one hand, the U.S. is recognized as an important contributor to regional knowledge about issues such as forest fire management, search and rescue, climate change, and sustainable development. On the other hand, U.S. federal agencies were not seen as “meaningfully coordinating with the State of Alaska or Alaska Natives.” She added, ” “Specifically, we heard that coordination was often irregular or last-minute, and input was often repeatedly provided and not addressed.” In other words, while the U.S. is a leading scientific voice internationally, domestically, it is coming up short.

Ironically, even while federal agencies continue to ignore the concerns of Alaska Natives, the government is placing burdens on their time and resources by asking them to join committees to provide the feds with knowledge. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security seeks to tap Native expertise in Alaska and the rest of the U.S. through its Tribal Homeland Security Advisory Council, which was established in 2022. Of its fifteen members, two are Alaska Native. The council is tasked with providing advice “on homeland security policies and practices that affect Indian Country, including emergency management, law enforcement, cybersecurity, domestic terrorism and targeted violence, and border security. Christa Brzozowksi, the acting assistant secretary for the Trade and Economic Security Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, remarked of the advisory council that it is “indispensable in getting the perspective of the local community where we might not have as robust of a physical presence in the areas where they are.” Whether the federal government will reciprocate and listen to Alaska Native concerns beyond issues of homeland security remains to be seen.

“The Antarctic, the Arctic, the Americas”

In a statement that represented both a nod to the Monroe Doctrine and a discursive widening of America’s sphere of influence, Correa, the California representative, mentioned the Arctic, Antarctic, and Americas all in one breath. He elaborated, “I keep hearing the echoes of, ‘We haven’t invested enough to protect our northern border’…Frankly, given every bet we gotta cover around the world, it’s going to be challenge to do all of the above. But you know what, I think the American public expects us to do our job. And that is to make sure we protect Alaskan territory, American water rights, [and] resources in that area as well as all the way to Antarctica.”

For a hearing focused on “homeland security,” the homeland appears to have stretched all the way from the North to the South Pole. If the U.S. wasn’t already below capacity in the Arctic, ensuring that the country can protect its alleged resources all the way to the South Pole is a monumental feat. As the House committee already recognized, the icebreaker gap with Russia and China will continue to widen regardless of whether Bollinger delivers on its contract. Instead, the U.S. should draw strength from the fact that unlike those two authoritarian states, as a liberal democracy, the country has the capacity to publicly admit where its weaknesses are, whether in the form of lagging maritime infrastructure or poor coordination with Alaska Natives.

Now that these issues have been exposed, the hard work must begin of seriously addressing them.

Alaska Native stakeholders may be sending information out, but will the government respond? Photo: The post office in Kaktovik, Alaska. M. Bennett.
Categories: Military & Defense

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