NORTHCOM Commander Highlights Alaska’s Importance to Homeland Defense

O’Shaughnessy: “The Arctic is the new front line of our homeland defense.”

WASHINGTON, DC – In a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) received strong support for Arctic and Alaska-specific defense priorities from General Terrance O’Shaughnessy, the U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) commander, and Admiral Charles Richard, the U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) commander. During the hearing, General O’Shaughnessy agreed with many of Senator Sullivan’s Arctic priorities, including the need for additional missile defense capabilities, modernization of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC) for 5th Generation aircraft training, increasing Arctic and cold weather training across all military services, the need for strategically-located air refueling capability, such as the KC-46 tanker aircraft, and increased Arctic communication through space-based infrastructure, which could expand broadband access for rural Alaska communities. 

“General O’Shaughnessy gave one of the most comprehensive and insightful descriptions I’ve heard of U.S. strategic interests in the Arctic during his testimony today,” said Senator Sullivan. “It’s encouraging to hear from a leader with such strategic vision and one who understands the strategic importance of the Arctic.”

Alaska: Frontline of Homeland Defense

Senator Sullivan questioned General O’Shaughnessy on Alaska’s importance as it relates to defense of the American homeland. In his written testimony, General O’Shaughnessy stated that the Arctic is the new front line for homeland defense.

When asked by Senator Sullivan if Alaska remains a sanctuary from which the U.S. can safely project power, O’Shaughnessy replied, “[The Arctic] is clearly an avenue of approach to our great nation. It impacts the whole nation, absolutely.”

He later expanded, saying, “It is now battle space." 

Missile Defense 

During the hearing, Senator Sullivan expressed his concern regarding the cancellation of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) missile defense program and pressed General O’Shaughnessy on the need for a timely replacement. 

“There's now been a decision recently, despite the fact that we just built 20 new silos at Fort Greely, to make those empty for the next 10 years,” Senator Sullivan said. “I can't think of something that is more unequivocally going to harm our readiness in terms of missile defense.”

Sharing the senator’s concern about this timeline, General O’Shaughnessy said, “I am very dissatisfied that it is going to take us 10 years to actually produce the Next Generation Interceptor. Our adversaries are building capability and capacity, and so we have to be able to respond. We're going to have trade space develop so we can bring up interceptors to put into those holes sooner.”

Fort Greely, Alaska is home to the majority of the United States’ missile defense capabilities and is nearing completion of 20 new Ground-based Interceptor silos. The RKV program was set to be the kill vehicle that would tip the 20 new interceptors heading to Alaska, but was cancelled on August 22, 2019. The replacement kill vehicle program is not estimated to be completed for at least another 10 years.


Continuing his pressure on the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to recognize the strategic opportunities Alaska has to offer for the basing of the KC-46 tanker aircraft, Senator Sullivan asked General O’Shaughnessy, “The Secretary of Defense said that if you co-located the over 100 5th-Gen fighters that we're going to have in Alaska with the OCONUS deployment of KC-46s, it would show our adversaries that we would have extreme strategic reach, whether in PACOM or EUCOM. Do you agree with that?”

General O’Shaughnessy replied, “The tankers are important because it's a strategic place where you can actually get to the European theater [from Alaska] quicker than you can even get to the South China Sea from Mainland. I do believe there's a powerful synergy of bringing together the 5th generation with additional and modern-day tanker capabilities.”

Senator Sullivan has pressed top DOD leaders on the strategic importance of Alaska and included language in the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that requires the DOD to produce a report which takes into account factors favorable to Alaska when considering basing locations for the KC-46, such as strategic location, ample training opportunities, sufficient airfield space, existing infrastructure, and minimal construction costs.

Space-Based Communications 

During the hearing, General O’Shaughnessy expressed that USNORTHCOM’s top unfunded priority in this year’s budget is improving communication in the Arctic through the deployment of space-based infrastructure.  

“One of my main concerns in the Arctic is communication,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Basic communication that we normally use satellites for becomes challenged above about 65 [degrees latitude], even harder above 70. One of the things we find is that the commercial technology is there, and so we've been working with commercial companies and finding ways that we might be able to bring that ability to have, essentially, broadband conductivity anywhere, for example within Alaska, and that is a huge implication for us to be able to operate, if we can connect the force in areas that today we can't connect the force.”

O’Shaughnessy later added, “It is my number one priority to have Arctic comms.”

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