WASHINGTON — With commerce, travel and international competition in the Arctic region on the rise, the Department of the Air Force will prioritize making investments that will enable greater connectivity among U.S. military assets, the Air Force’s top general said July 21.
“Missile warning, space capabilities, air capabilities, how you marry up fifth generation and fourth generation [fighter jets]. It’s more the case as we look at the future of warfare that data will be the currency that we operate on,” said Air Force Gen. Dave Goldfein at a roll out of the department’s new Arctic strategy hosted by the Atlantic Council.
“It’s access to data, its manipulation at the speed of relevance. … How we build the networks that we can operate seamlessly on is where you’re going to see most of our investment,” he said.
In the new strategy, the U.S. Air Force and Space Force commit to enhancing its northernmost missile defense capabilities, exploring new surveillance and communications technologies and updating its dilapidated infrastructure in the region.
But the strategy doesn’t provide specifics on how much the service is willing to spend to make its goals a reality, and Goldfein, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond on Tuesday didn’t provide much clarity on whether the department’s strategic goals will turn into actionable investments.
Although the U.S. Navy has a major interest in the region’s waterways, the Department of the Air Force maintains the military’s largest presence in the Arctic, making up 80 percent of the Defense Department’s funding efforts in the region.
“We’ve always valued the Arctic and recognized the importance of its geostrategic location,” Barrett said. However, she added that Russia’s recent build-up in region, including “a network of offensive air assets and coastal missile systems,” has led the department to be more aware of the need to recapitalize its own technology in the Arctic.
Meanwhile, China — which is not technically an Arctic nation — is attempting to insert itself in the region’s affairs as part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative. That country seeks access to “rare earth minerals, hydrocarbons, and fisheries,” according to the strategy, and has pursued strategic investments that would enhance its air and sea transportation options, such as a failed plan to build an airport in Greenland.
The strategy lays out several goals that could result in greater investments in areas like command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C3ISR), space operations and missile defense.
It also states that the Air Force and Space Force will work with the other services on an Arctic communications roadmaps that explores current and emerging technologies that could expand connectivity to military forces in the region. It will also work with the joint force on developing data links and ensuring satellite coverage.
For missile defense, the strategy states an interest in “continuing to work with Canada to identify materiel and non-materiel solutions to the North Warning System” and updating the missile defense surveillance system in the Northern tier.
The Space Force will “develop new technologies and modernize existing assets in the Arctic necessary to ensure access to and freedom to operate in space,” the strategy states, though it does not explain what types of capabilities will be necessary. It will also develop capabilities that can better predict the weather and environmental disturbances.
U.S. Air and Space Force operations in the Arctic will have to become more agile, and could involve “expanded fixed bases, unoccupied airfields, or portable radar systems.” But even though the strategy also recognizes the difficulty of moving to a more modular way of operations given the complex nature of supplying installations in remote areas that may be almost completely inaccessible during the winter months, it provides few answers on what a more disaggregated approach to Arctic operations could look like.
The department needs to advocate for additional funding to modernize Air Force and Space Force installations in the region, which include major air bases in Alaska like Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Thule Air Base in Greenland, and remote radar sites that make up the North Warning System, the strategy said.
“To survive in the region, materials need to meet standards including: high thermal efficiency; long-term durability; tolerance to repeated freeze and thaw cycles; and resistance to permafrost degradation. Infrastructure in many austere locations, like Thule, Greenland, has deteriorated due to extreme environmental factors,” it said.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.