By Joaqlin Estus
Twice this week, Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers cruised near Alaska.
U.S. military leaders say these forays, which included four aircraft each, are both training missions for Russian pilots and a show of Russia's advanced long-range strike capability.
U.S. Air Force F-22 fighters intercepted the flights, which did not enter Alaskan airspace but came within 32 nautical miles of Alaska on Tuesday and within 20 nautical miles on Wednesday.
During the Cold War that followed World War II, the Soviet Union regularly sent planes into international air space near Alaska, Canada and Europe. Those flights ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Ten years after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, U.S. and Russian military relations reached a high point. The two engaged in a joint training exercise simulating response to a hijacked civilian plane traveling from Asia through Russian airspace enroute to Alaska.
That was the first and last such U.S. training exercise with Russia. The United States annually or even twice a year holds similar exercises with Canada and Mexico.
Russian flights off U.S. and Canadian borders resumed in 2007 with one flight every year or two, which gradually grew to a handful per year. While the Russian overflights have been occurring for many years, military leaders say they are growing in both number and complexity.
“For the eighth time this year, Russian military aircraft have penetrated our Canadian or Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zones, and each and every time NORAD forces were ready to meet this challenge,” said General Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, U.S. Air Force commander of the Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, in a prepared statement. NORAD is a longstanding joint command focused on the defense of the United States and Canada.
During an 11-hour mission Wednesday, four Russian aircraft flew over the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea, the Chukchi Sea and the Northern Pacific Ocean. In March, U.S. and Canadian jets intercepted two Russian submarine-hunting aircraft. The Russians flew over an encampment for U.S. troops practicing submarine operations and surfacing from under the ice in the Arctic Ocean.
At a Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee hearing last year, O’Shaughnessy said he views the Arctic as the front line in the defense of the United States and Canada.
He said global strategic dynamics have changed as Russia and China began “fielding advanced long-range weapons systems and engaging in increasingly aggressive efforts to expand their global presence and influence, including in the approaches to the United States and Canada.”
O’Shaughnessy said Russia has “multiple weapon systems specifically designed to circumvent U.S. missile defenses and hold our homeland at risk.” He said Russia has a growing “capability to strike targets in North America with both nuclear and advanced nonnuclear weapons launched from well beyond our territory.”
Dr. Michael Sfraga, an Alaskan who directs the Wilson Center Polar Institute in Washington, D.C., was one of a half-dozen presenters who spoke on military affairs in Alaska to the Legislative Joint Armed Services Committee a few months ago.
He said Russia and China are laying the groundwork for a power play in the Arctic.
“We are no longer isolated in the Arctic from any of these competitive values. None of them. Alaska and the Arctic, we are a part of the major geopolitical issues facing this world today,” Sfraga said.
Jason Suslavich, national security advisor to Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, told legislators China has a strategic plan, the “Arctic Silk Road,” that outlines its intentions for the Arctic. China plans to work with Russia to access Russian oil and gas, and to use that to fuel trade with Europe.
Russia is building infrastructure — ports and military bases all along its Arctic shore, and ice breakers — to protect what it sees as a new economic zone of opportunity. Suslavich showed a slide on the growing number of Russian assets on its northern coast.
“What you see there is 16 deep water ports, 14 operational airfields, a new Arctic command, and nearly 50 icebreakers, some of which are actually nuclear powered."
In comparison, the United States has two military bases and two airfields in Alaska, one icebreaker that works (and another being used for parts). The U.S. deep-water port nearest to the Arctic is 1,500 miles south of Utquiagvik (formerly known as Barrow) on the Arctic Ocean.
“So why is Russia doing this? Well, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, 90 percent of Russia's gas reserves are in the Arctic,” Suslavich said.
O’Shaughnessy said, “civil and military operations in the Arctic are impeded by limited communications capability, harsh environmental conditions, and vast distances between population centers.”
U.S. Senator Sullivan, as Chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee and a former Marine, has made a point of bringing attention to the Arctic and the military. He recently voted to authorize $193 million in military spending for Alaska projects and improvements in fiscal year 2021.
Some of that money will go toward a study on Department of Defense efforts to recruit from Alaska Native populations. “Alaska Natives historically have served in the military at higher rates than any other Americans,” Sullivan’s website states, “but that trend has declined over time.” He has also supported funding for construction of a deep water port in Nome, new icebreakers and other infrastructure.
Russia’s buildup of infrastructure and military capabilities makes it the dominant military threat in the Arctic, Suslavich said. He went on to say China has taken action to normalize its naval and commercial presence in the region.
These activities fly in the face of public positions. Dalee Sambo Dorough, Inupiaq, is international chair for the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which advocates on behalf of the Inuit and other Indigenous people of Greenland, Canada, the United States, and Russia.
She said the militarization of the Arctic has been a concern right from the start of the Inuit council. A resolution on the issue was adopted at its organizing conference.
“That was in 1977 and the call for the Arctic to be declared as a zone of peace was echoed in 1987 by Mikhail Gorbachev, and more recently in 2018. And you have a declaration that was adopted at the [Inuit Circumpolar Council] general assembly in July, 2018. That declaration mandates the ICC to initiate diplomatic talks for the purpose of laying the groundwork for negotiations to declare the Arctic as a peaceful zone,” Sambo-Dorough said.
She said demilitarization of the Arctic region has been echoed by the nation members of the Arctic Council, a high-level forum that promotes cooperation in the Arctic: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States.
Sambo-Dorough said the eight Arctic Council member states voted to adopt statements supporting the role of the “Arctic Council in maintaining the Arctic as a zone of peace and stability, and the notion that the Arctic's eight States are competent, that, you know, there was no problem that they couldn't solve together through cooperative relationships on the basis of existing international law and goodwill.
“And, I think that there is a desire but when you look at the Russian Federation as a member of the Arctic council, yet at the same time, they're still taking these initiatives to display or conduct exercises with their military forces. The two don't square in any way,” Sambo-Dorough said.
She said the militarization is also occurring against a backdrop of other issues, including climate change, extractive development activity, and lack of infrastructure.
Those issues, Sambo-Dorough said, reflect the lack of a cohesive U.S. strategy for the Arctic.
“There may be little bits and pieces surrounding development of Arctic policy, but there hasn't been, in my view, any sustained or comprehensive approach to the issue by the United States under this administration, at least in a way that is logical and certainly in a way that has taken place as an approach that is responsive to the concerns of the people that live there, namely Inuit and other Arctic Indigenous peoples, and others along all of the coastal communities throughout the circumpolar region.”
Alaska has served as the backdrop for military operations before. During World War II, hundreds of Unangan people were evacuated from their villages in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. Dutch Harbor was attacked by Japanese bombers. And battles were fought on a few islands. During the Cold War, hundreds of early warning and other facilities were built in Alaska. Now more than 500 abandoned military sites and facilities across the state are littered with tons of hazardous waste.
Sambo-Dorough said news of the Russian flights “makes me think of what it was like when we were kids and in the middle of the Cold War and the same types of activities were taking place. [We had] air raid warnings we could hear in Anchorage and people knew where these bunkers were to go for safety.”
Corrected: Changed $193 to $193 million.
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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.
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