Climate change stokes military challenges in Alaska

Joaqlin Estus

Corrected: Leaders from the Air Force, Navy and other branches discuss international tensions, latest recruitment efforts in the state

Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Climate change is opening new trade routes in the Arctic, and raising international tensions. Military leaders in Alaska are looking to Alaska Natives for wisdom and partnerships, and to fill their ranks.

Lt. Gen. David Krumm, commanding general of the Alaska NORAD region, Alaskan Command and 11th Air Force, was one of several military leaders who spoke at last week’s Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

Krumm kicked off his comments by quoting early 20th century military leader Billy Mitchell, who testified to Congress that “Alaska is the most strategic place on Earth.” It’s strategic because of its central location near the top of the globe. There it provides timely access to Europe, Asia, Russia and the United States’ east and west coasts.

That centrality is becoming more important as climate change occurs in the Arctic at three times the rate of the rest of the globe. Melting sea ice is opening the door to new trade routes across the tops of Canada and Russia. It’s providing better access to oil, precious metals and fisheries. Nations are vying to stake out their territory.

Soldiers assigned to the Alaska Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Battalion volunteer at Bean's Cafe in Anchorage in an effort to feed thousands of Alaskans during the COVID-19 pandemic, April 8, 2020. The meals are distributed to Alaskans sheltering at Sullivan and Boeke arenas. (Photo By: Army Sgt. Seth LaCount, Alaska Army National Guard)
Soldiers assigned to the Alaska Army National Guard volunteer at Bean's Cafe, a soup kitchen for the homeless, in Anchorage in an effort to feed thousands of Alaskans during the COVID-19 pandemic, April 8, 2020. (Photo By: Army Sgt. Seth LaCount, Alaska Army National Guard)

Some are pressing at the boundaries of international laws, said Krumm.

“We’ve seen in recent history where they’ve decided there is something for the taking and they're taking it — with Russia and Crimea, and China in the South China Sea,” he said. “Now what happens is those countries control those areas. And they control the areas around them as well.”

Once a country has established itself in a location, “it is very, very difficult to counter those claims,” Krumm said, adding U.S. officials want to make sure that pattern isn’t repeated in the Arctic.

To that end, Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, commander of the Navy Region Northwest, said the Navy is acquiring polar security cutters to “project better national sovereignty in the Arctic.”

Other military branches were represented in the panel discussion, including the Army, Air National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers. Each explained the ways their branches are expanding operations in Alaska, through new equipment, more training, better facilities or a more visible presence.

Rear Admiral Matthew Bell, of the Coast Guard, announced the nation’s only heavy-duty ice breaker, the Polar Star, will come to Alaskan waters this year instead of going to the Antarctic. The pandemic grounded many of the scientists who would usually be on board for research in the South Pole region.

While the purpose of the trip to Alaska has not been outlined in detail, “they’ll patrol through the Beaufort and Chukchi seas through the middle of February before they return home to Seattle,” said Bell.

Krumm said to protect homelands in a range of capabilities, including conventional, nuclear and cyberspace, the military recognizes the need to step up to not just survive in the Arctic but thrive.

And that will only work, he said, with the help of partners, including Alaska Natives.

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star breaks ice in McMurdo Sound near Antarctica on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. The crew of the Seattle-based Polar Star is on deployment to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2018, the U.S. military’s contribution to the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen.
The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, shown here near Antarctica in 2018, will be deployed to Alaska in 2020. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen).

“You are the people that know this region best,” he said. “We need your wisdom to help us make the right choices, not just for national defense, but how to do it in the right way that protects the heritage, the culture and environment, and sustainability of this land.”

Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard and commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, said his goal is to fill more positions in rural Alaska.

“The one thing that the pandemic is absolutely showing me is we have to focus guardsmen in all areas of the state. And the National Guard should look like the rest of Alaska,” he said. “I really do believe there's way too much focus on the road system for the National Guard.”

He said the National Guard is targeting regional hub communities such as Bethel, Kotzebue, Kodiak, and Nome.

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The National Guard has worked with the state, the tribal health system and others on COVID-19 response by delivering personal protective equipment to health professionals and food to people in dire need. Saxe said the National Guard is also supporting the state election process.

As permafrost melts, it destabilizes structures such as buildings, runways and roads. The Army Corps of Engineers has several projects in the works to protect communities from flooding and erosion.

Arctic military Spartans conduct Arctic airborne ops [Image 7 of 19]Army Staff Sgt. Bruce Henderson, a native of Keystone Heights, Fla., assigned the 1st Squadron (Airborne), 40th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, part of U.S. Army Alaska, takes aim with his M4 carbine on Malemute drop zone at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Dec. 12, 2013. This is the first Arctic airborne operation for the brigade since its redeployment from Afghanistan last year, and the purpose of this training event is to further validate the unit's rapid insertion capability into Arctic conditions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Connaher/Released)

Date Taken:12.12.2013

Several of the speakers expressed their appreciation for the patriotism of Alaska Natives, who serve in the military in disproportionate numbers.

Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commanding general of the U.S. Army Alaska, noted he’s on his second tour in the state and said he and his family “could not be happier.”

“It’s a terrific place to live, raise kids and, you know, the local community, the entire state really are tremendous supporters of the military, including those of you here today,” he said.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

Corrected to show that responsibility for COVID-19 screening at airports has shifted from the National Guard to contract and local workers.

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