Sullivan Chairs Hearing on America’s Military Readiness in the Arctic

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) yesterday chaired a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support on U.S. military policy and posture in support of readiness in the Arctic. The committee heard testimony from Dr. James H. Anderson, who is performing the duties of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and General Terrance O’Shaughnessy, Commander of U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Sullivan covered a number of topics important to Alaska and U.S. national security, including the need for freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) and a strategic port in the Arctic, the challenge of overlapping combatant commands in the region, the potential benefits to rural Alaska communities of improving Arctic military communications, and the potential bed-down of the KC-46 tanker aircraft in Alaska. 

“There’s a lot at stake in the Arctic. From resource development and transportation routes, to the region’s strategic location and the environment, to the Arctic’s cold-weather-hardened-but-warm-hearted people, the Artic is growing in its global importance,” said Senator Sullivan. “Congress gets it. Secretary Pompeo gets it. The media – as evidenced by headlines over the past few months – get it. However, the Department of Defense has been slow to recognize the threat and even slower to address it with real capabilities…Simply put, we are not ready today to fight in the Arctic or another cold-weather environment like those found in Russia, China, and North Korea. We’re improving, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

“[When] we do talk about the Arctic, we must remember it's not just about the Arctic. It's about our homeland,” said General O’Shaughnessy. “It's about the United States of America and…protecting our sovereign territory. Having the means to operate in battle space…that advancing adversaries [have] the capability and the intent to operate there, we must have the same ability to operate.”

Arctic Communications

Regarding efforts to improve Arctic communications for the Department of Defense (DoD) and Alaska residents, both Senators Sullivan and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) pressed for more information on USNORTHCOM’s top unfunded requirement in the President’s Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Request to improve communications in the Arctic region.

 “…[O]n this Arctic [communications] piece, can you just unpack a little bit more of the potential that has for coverage in some of the communities in my state,” said Senator Sullivan. “It's not just a [communications] issue for the military. A lot of the communities in Alaska don't have nearly the internet or telecom coverage that the vast, vast majority [of] the Lower 48 accept and take for granted.”

In response, General O’Shaughnessy said:

“One of the things that we find is that very simple things become hard and one of those is communication when you're in the Arctic…You could go about [addressing] this with a DoD project to bring communications. The commercial world is getting after this…and we find a partnership with the commercial world might bring us some capability sooner. Significantly sooner.”  

General O’Shaughnessy then expanded on the potential positive impacts in store for the DoD and Alaska from the commercial operations that could soon be undertaken in the Arctic. 

“We can look at this from a couple different aspects…the individual villages – the schools, the health facilities, the first responders – that are currently cut off…then, from the more selfish interests of the Department of Defense,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I think about if we could link all those together with search and rescue capability with the ability to tie in those villages to part of our [DoD] infrastructure…I think we are on the verge of being able to make this happen and I think it will be game-changing for the military, game-changing for the local populations, and game-changing for our partners, like the Coast Guard, to be able to communicate.” 

Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS)

With regard to promoting free transit through Arctic waters, Senator Sullivan pushed Secretary Anderson on the fact that the DoD’s existing capabilities are insufficient to execute the department’s current Arctic Strategy, including Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the region.

“I've been a little bit frustrated…with regard to the Pentagon's approach to the Arctic,” said Senator Sullivan. “In the first serious DoD Arctic strategy, they talked about how we need to protect our sovereign territory – our sea lanes – through freedom of navigation operations…It appears to me that with the lack of ice breakers or even high ice-hardened Navy ships that the ability to do FONOPS in this key part of the world to protect America's strategic interests is quite limited. The Department of Defense has said we're going to do freedom of navigation operations. Putin has said that the Arctic is the new Suez Canal that he's going to control. He has 54 ice breakers. He's got all of the cards…The whole point of a FONOP is to demonstrate presence. So how do we address that, Mr. Secretary, because I think we're sorely lacking in that realm as of now, even though it is part of the strategy?”

Secretary Anderson replied: 

“I think the Navy does have the capability in ice free areas to do FONOPs and a very limited capacity in those that might be congested with ice…but I take your point and certainly acknowledged that we do have limitations from the Arctic right now…The Navy has assessed that to exercise their Arctic strategy, they do not have a requirement for ice-hardened ships.” 

Sullivan responded:

“Do you think that is remotely logical? I don't think that's logical. I think the days of the Murmansk runs, which is a proud history of the U.S. Navy, [are over because] we couldn't do them right now. We’re going to wake up one of these days and recognize that that's a severe limitation. We’ve been beating the drum, but I think we’ve got a lot more work to do.”

Arctic Infrastructure and a Strategic Port

Senator Sullivan has consistently pushed for greater infrastructure in the Arctic region to support U.S. military operations and readiness.  

“Power projection relates to infrastructure and the ability to have ports and other infrastructure that can support military assets,” said Senator Sullivan. “The closest strategic port that could actually handle an Arleigh Burke-class [destroyer] or a polar class icebreaker is about 1,500 nautical miles from the Arctic Circle. That would be about the equivalent of having Fort Lauderdale cover the entire Eastern Seaboard up to Boston in terms of port capability. We wouldn't accept that. But somehow we accept that in the Arctic…[Meanwhile], Russia has probably close to a dozen or two dozen of these kinds of ports.

Referring to provisions in the Fiscal Year 2017 and 2020 National Defense Authorization Acts requiring the DoD to designate a site for a Strategic Arctic Port, Senator Sullivan added, “I certainly hope the Pentagon is not going to come back after studying this again, saying there's no need. The infrastructure is not fine. It doesn't exist. And we need it to exist.”

General O’Shaughnessy agreed with the Senator, noting that American vessels need to be able to operate in the Arctic beyond simply reaching a port there.

“I will say we have a stated requirement for fuel north of Dutch Harbor – 1,000 miles from Barrow – and…the one thing we have to look at is it's not just getting a ship to Barrow,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It is its ability to continue to operate once it gets there, and not just have to turn around and go get gas…I thank you and Senator Murkowski for the work that you've done with the Civil Work Act and the bill that that you put on there that allows us to look at those with a national security lens as we go forward.”


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