The increasingly accessible Arctic is becoming another arena for US-China military jockeying

US Marine Corps AH-1Z Viper helicopter Alaska
A US Marine Corps AH-1Z Viper over the Gulf of Alaska during Northern Edge 2021, May 3, 2021.

  • The strategic importance of the Arctic is clear, as the US prepares for training exercises and China becomes more active in the Arctic region.
  • “China, Russia, the US – Alaska is in the middle of all of it,” former US intelligence officer says.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Over the next two weeks, US armed forces will crawl through, drive over, fly above and shovel into Alaska’s thawing tundra, training to defend this sparsely populated state from a power whose ambitions increasingly defy geography.

Some 10,000 uniformed service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines will participate in the Northern Edge training exercise aimed at countering China, Russia and other potential adversaries that threaten the Arctic frontier and broader Indo-Pacific region.

This comes as Beijing becomes an increasingly active great power competitor as global warming makes resources more accessible, opens new shipping lanes and spurs military jockeying.

“China in the South China Sea continues to make territorial claims that are not recognised by the international community. We see that China’s using a series of abject intimidation, economic, coercion techniques to try and justify their territorial claims,” said Lt. Gen. David Krumm, commander of Alaska Command and the Eleventh Air Force.

“We need to make sure that pattern is not repeated up here in the Arctic,” added Krumm, an Alabama native overseeing Northern Edge.

Air Force F-35 fighter jet Alaska
US Air Force F-35s at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska during Northern Edge 2021, May 3, 2021.

Locals say Washington is finally waking up to the strategic importance of Alaska, America’s largest state geographically and least densely populated, too often considered an afterthought by the “Lower 48.”

“Finally you’ve figured out this is an important place,” said Fran Ulmer, former Alaska lieutenant governor and chairwoman from 2011-2021 of the US Arctic Research Commission. “At least the US government has started paying more attention.”

A big wake-up call for Arctic nations Canada, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the US and Russia came in 2018 when China declared itself a “near-Arctic power” despite its location some 930 miles away. Ironically, China was an Arctic power until 1858 when the Qing empire conceded far northern territory to Russia, nine years before the US purchased Alaska, allowing it to join the club.

Few see China making a grab for territory outright. But money, trade, logistics, six research stations, an aggressive icebreaker-building programme, “plausible dual-use” research projects and an explicit long-term Arctic road map have done little to mask Beijing’s ambitions.

Even as China refers to the Arctic as a “global commons,” internal documents suggest a more strategic outlook, analysts said, as Chinese scholars posit that controlling the region would afford Beijing a “three continents and two oceans’ geographical advantage” over the Northern Hemisphere. In March, Beijing pledged to add a “Polar Silk Road” to its signature global infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative.

“China seeks to become a ‘polar great power’ but downplays this goal publicly,” the Brookings Institution said in a report last month.

China Arctic icebreaker Xuelong Xue Long
Chinese researchers set up an ocean profiling float near the icebreaker Xuelong, or “Snow Dragon,” in the Arctic Ocean, August 18, 2016.

A 2018 Chinese white paper outlined three objectives: to understand, protect and develop the Arctic, a region where the attraction is evident. Access to its natural resources could help power China’s economy. And rapidly melting ice from Alaska to Norway could halve freighter voyages to Europe and reduce vulnerability, underscored by the Suez Canal’s closure in March after a vessel ran aground.

“They’re very good at driving a long-term strategy,” said Cameron Carlson, founding director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management programme at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “China’s been very astute, whether in Alaska or other parts of the Arctic, very good about inserting themselves.”

That includes embedding itself in major Arctic organisations, sending 33 high-level officials to the region since 2000, using scientific exploration to gain a foothold and mapping the seabed with its home-grown Xuelong 2 icebreaker.

“They conduct oceanographic research for climate change and, I suspect, undersea warfare,” said James Kraska, maritime law professor at the US Naval War College.

On other fronts, China has sought control over infrastructure with potential military use, making plays to develop a large regional port and acquire a submarine base in Sweden; buy an old naval base and three airports in Greenland; and acquire 250 square kilometres (96.5 square miles) in Iceland for an airstrip and golf course “in an area where golf cannot be played,” Brookings said.

And in a now standard playbook, Beijing has used economic muscle to gain political leverage, ploughing billions into smaller Arctic nations and employing divide-and-conquer tactics – as seen, analysts said, when investments in Greenland fanned local hopes of independence from Denmark.

“Once they have commercial, diplomatic and under-the-table payments, they build constituencies,” said Walter Skya, Asian studies director at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “You have to hand it to them, they are persistent.”

China Wang Yi Norway Erna Solberg Ine Eriksen Soreide
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, greets Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide, right, in Oslo, August 27, 2020.

Beijing’s growing confidence and ambition befits its huge economy and global importance, Skya said. “But it tends to overreach, like a fat man at a buffet,” he added. “And over time, people don’t say ‘these Chinese are wonderful.’ Resentment tends to build up.”

China is hardly alone in attempting blatant land grabs, however. In 2019, then US president Donald Trump rather bizarrely offer to “buy” Greenland, a source of rare earth minerals used in everything from jet fighters to cellphone batteries, only to cancel a trip to Denmark in a huff after being rebuffed.

China’s own bid to exploit the island’s rich deposits were set back when a pro-environment party secured a plurality in parliament last month, pledging to halt mining.

Beijing is in many ways only doing what Western powers have long done, securing resources and trading routes for its population, said Ulmer, adding that demonising China could undermine US interests. “They’re people rich and resource poor,” she said. “The less the US wants to do with China, the more that China will do it with Russia.”

The heart of the Northern Edge exercise is at Joint Base ­Elmendorf-Richardson. Nearly a metre of snow and dense pine trees line the road leading from Anchorage into the Chugach Mountains above the base.

“This big base is out of the range of our adversaries,” said Laura Sturdevant, an Alaska World Affairs Council board member and former US Air Force intelligence officer, pointing out Elmendorf-Richardson’s criss-crossing runways as a bald eagle soared overhead. “China, Russia, the US – Alaska is in the middle of all of it.”

Held every two years – with a complementary Arctic Edge exercise in alternate years – the May 3-14 Northern Edge includes up to 300 aircraft and personnel from around the Pacific. Details have not been released. But past scenarios – some including trained dolphins to help detect underwater intruders – sought to encourage role players to think creatively when confronting extreme weather, severed communications, nonexistent airstrips and limited cooperation between insular military branches.

Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt
F/A-18 Super Hornets launch from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the North Pacific Ocean, April 29, 2021.

Increasingly, the Pentagon has also leaned on unmanned technology to “patrol” Alaska’s vast reaches, including over-the-horizon polar radar, low-earth orbit satellites and fixed seabed surveillance.

Also on its radar: how to defend against quasi-civilian “grey zone” tactics seen, for example, in China’s use of the coastguard and fishing fleets to harass and deter other nations who dispute its South China Sea claims, seen in March on the Philippines’ Whitsun Reef.

“The US absolutely will not and could not use our fishing fleets to impede on other countries in their economic zones. We would not do that. Yet we see China do it,” said Krumm. “What we don’t want is that mentality to come up here to the Arctic.”

Also worrying Washington is the spectre of Beijing and Moscow joining forces. While the two have a checkered history, their interests align in opposing democratic, human rights, market economic and rule of law values that threaten autocratic systems.

Russia has been President Xi Jinping’s most frequent foreign destination, and China’s share of Russian foreign trade rose to over 18% in 2020 from 10% in 2013.

Russia’s reliance on Chinese funding for its Arctic infrastructure projects – including the port in Zarubino, a deep water port at Arkhangelsk and the Yamal LNG project – increased significantly after Moscow’s 2014 takeover of Crimea curtailed Western financing.

The two have also held joint military exercises in the Barents and North seas and eastern Siberia, and Moscow has stepped up sales of fighter jets, missile systems and an early warning anti-missile system to China. And in December, they flew joint bomber patrols over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea.

That said, significant fissures exist. China has advocated more multilateral control over the Arctic befitting its “near-Arctic” status while Russia, with the longest Arctic coastline and effective control over sea routes, considers itself the “Arctic superpower.”

China Chinese PLA tanks
Chinese Type 96 tanks at the Vostok 2018 military exercise hosted by Russia, September 13, 2018.

Critics say the US is slowly waking up as American fishermen complain of aggressive Russian sorties over the Bering Sea, which at one point narrows to just 55 miles between the Alaskan and Russian coasts.

Last year, US jets scrambled 14 times to counter Russian aircraft testing their defences, double the normal levels, said Krumm, and the most in nearly a decade.

America’s two Cold War-era icebreakers – compared with nearly four dozen for Russia, nine of which are nuclear – keep breaking down or catching fire; the Arctic was only recently incorporated into strategic planning; and the Pentagon still lacks a central Arctic coordinating office, analysts say.

Last year, US Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz called the situation “a woefully unacceptable level of presence in an area where we must be a leading force”.

So far, the Biden administration has largely maintained Trump’s Arctic policy, which last June called for three heavy icebreakers by 2029, four support bases and more focus on impeding China’s Arctic ambitions.

“Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarisation and competing territorial claims?” then secretary of state Mike Pompeo told the non-military Arctic Council in 2019, warning Russia and China against “aggressive” action.

One change is likely to be more focus on environmental issues, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken set to visit the next Arctic Council ministerial in Iceland on May 19-20.

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star’s deck department crew remove ice from the ship’s deck while in the Chukchi Sea, December 28, 2020.

To better handle another Exxon Valdez-type oil spill, vessel collision or other mishap, analysts have recommended closer US integration with allies to check Arctic militarisation and the construction of a northern deep water port around Nome, Alaska. Currently the closest strategic US port is 1,300 miles away.

“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of shipping, as much as 2,000 ships a year,” said Bill Walker, a lawyer and a former Alaska governor. “We need a response capability when the worst happens.”

Analysts also recommend that Washington focus on driving a wedge between Russia and China.

“China is not an Arctic nation, and it is in the US interest to limit China’s influence,” the Centre for a New American Security said in a recent report, citing the risk of an arms race. “There is no time to waste.”

Washington’s slow start compares with Moscow’s chest thumping. In recent years, it has strengthened airfields and restored Cold War-era Arctic military posts, including one on Wrangel Island a few hundred miles from Alaska’s coast, and last year drove its new nuclear-powered icebreaker to the North Pole.

One thing most agree on: as the economic and military stakes rise, the jockeying will only intensify.

“Alaska’s strategic importance is indisputable,” said Major Meg Harper of the North American Aerospace Defence Command and the US Northern Command. “The escalation of Russian activity and Chinese ambitions in the region demonstrates the strategic importance of the Arctic. Competition will only increase.”

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Alaska to join Florida in suing the CDC for its ‘job-killing’ pause on the US cruise industry

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy in 2019.

  • Florida announced on April 8 that it would be suing the CDC to bring cruises back “immediately.”
  • Now, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy says the state will be joining Florida’s lawsuit against the CDC.
  • Alaska lost $3 billion when the CDC canceled the 2020 cruising season due to COVID-19, according to Dunleavy.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced on April 20 that Alaska will be joining Florida in suing the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to bring cruising back.

The CDC has maintained its pause on the cruise industry – via its no-sail order and recently updated Conditional Sailing Order (COS)– since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when cruise ships around the world initially became inundated with coronavirus outbreaks.

In an effort to “fight back” against this halt on cruising, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on April 8 that the state would be suing the CDC to bring cruise ships back “immediately.” Now, Alaska will be joining this cause in an effort to push the CDC to either remove or revise its order.

Alaska has lost $3 billion due to the 2020 cruise halt, and is projected to continue this loss as the 2021 cruising season remains in limbo, Dunleavy said in a news release.

“Alaskan families and small businesses need fast action to protect their ability to work and provide for their families,” Dunleavy said.”We deserve the chance to have tourism and jobs.”

According to the news release, the CDC doesn’t have the authority to continue this “job-killing” pause, and its COS hasn’t acknowledged that cruise ships have already been operating successfully outside of the US. The release also noted Alaska’s high vaccination and “low” hospitalization rates.

“Through this lawsuit, Alaska seeks to protect its citizens and its interests by forcing the CDC to act within the limited authority Congress granted it,” Treg Taylor, Alaska’s attorney general, said in the news release. “CDC simply does not have the authority to arbitrarily shut down an entire industry.”

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Alaska’s GameStop stake soared over 700% last quarter – and its Tesla bet has gone from $0 to $85 million in 18 months

Iditarod
Alaskan sled dogs.

  • Alaska benefited from the GameStop buying frenzy in January.
  • The state’s GameStop holding surged more than 700% to $7 million last quarter.
  • Alaska also owns over $85 million of Tesla stock, after eliminating its stake in 2019.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

There have been several surprising beneficiaries of the GameStop short squeeze in January, including the Mormon Church. The state of Alaska has also emerged as an unlikely winner.

The state’s revenue department has owned a stake in the video-games retailer since at least 2017, and held about 43,000 shares worth $802,000 at the end of December last year, regulatory filings show.

Although it trimmed its bet to 37,000 shares last quarter, the position’s value still surged more than eight-fold to over $7 million after Reddit users engineered an explosion in GameStop’s stock price.

The Alaskan agency could have scored an even bigger windfall. It held more than 69,000 GameStop shares in the third quarter of 2019, which would have been worth $34 million at the height of the short squeeze.

Separately, Alaska’s revenue department has warmed to Tesla in recent months. It eliminated its stake in Elon Musk’s electric-vehicle company in the second half of 2019, and owned only 2,000 shares at the end of September last year.

However, it bolstered its position to about 127,000 shares during the following quarter, when Tesla joined the S&P 500 index. The agency’s stake was worth more than $85 million at the end of March this year, making Tesla one of its largest holdings.

Overall, Alaska’s stock portfolio rose in value by about 5% to $9.2 billion last quarter. The state doesn’t tax personal incomes or sales, so it relies on oil taxes and royalties, federal funding, and investments to fund its budget.

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Competition is heating up in the Arctic, but the US isn’t prepared to counter Russia

Navy submarine Hartford Arctic ICEX
US Navy Los Angeles-class submarine USS Hartford surfaces near Ice Camp Sargo during Ice Exercise 2016, March 15, 2016.

  • With Arctic ice now thinner and disappearing sooner in the spring, several countries are eyeing the region.
  • Russia has been investing in Arctic capabilities and assets, and the US still has a lot of catching up to do.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

For decades, the frozen Arctic was little more than a footnote in global economic competition, but that’s changing as its ice melts with the warming climate.

Russia is now attempting to claim more of the Arctic seabed for its territory. It has been rebuilding Cold War-era Arctic military bases and recently announced plans to test its Poseidon nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed torpedo in the Arctic.

In Greenland, the recent election ushered in a new pro-independence government that opposes foreign rare earth metal mining as its ice sheet recedes – including projects counted on by China and the US to power technology.

The Arctic region has been warming at least twice as fast as the planet as a whole. With the sea ice now thinner and disappearing sooner in the spring, several countries have had their eyes on the Arctic, both for access to valuable natural resources, including the fossil fuels whose use is now driving global warming, and as a shorter route for commercial ships.

A tanker carrying liquefied natural gas from northern Russia to China tested that shorter route this past winter, traversing the normally frozen Northern Sea Route in February for the first time with the help of an icebreaker. The route cut the shipping time by nearly half.

Russia has been building up its icebreaker fleet for years for this and other purposes. The US, meanwhile, is playing catch-up. While Russia has access to more than 40 of these ships today, the US Coast Guard has two, one of them well past its intended service life.

As an expert in maritime trade and Arctic geopolitics, I have been following the increasing activity and geopolitical tensions in the Arctic. They underscore the need for fresh thinking on US Arctic policy to address emerging competition in the region.

The problem with America’s icebreaker fleet

Coast Guard Polar Star icebreaker Antarctica
Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star cuts a channel in a field of fast ice in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, January 7, 2016.

America’s aging icebreaker fleet has been a persistent topic of frustration in Washington.

Congress put off investing in new icebreakers for decades in the face of more pressing demands. Now, the lack of polar-class icebreakers undermines America’s ability to operate in the Arctic region, including responding to disasters as shipping and mineral exploration increase.

It might sound counterintuitive, but diminishing sea ice can make the region more dangerous – breakaway ice floes pose risks both to ships and to oil platforms, and the opening waters are expected to attract both more shipping and more mineral exploration. The US Geological Survey estimates that about 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of undiscovered oil may be in the Arctic.

The US Coast Guard has just two icebreakers to manage this changing environment.

The Polar Star, a heavy icebreaker that can break through ice up to 21 feet thick, was commissioned in 1976. It is usually posted to Antarctica in the winter, but it was sent to the Arctic this year to provide a US presence.

The crew on the aging ship has had to fight fires and deal with power outages and equipment breaks – all while in some of the most inhospitable and remote locations on Earth. The second icebreaker, the smaller Healy, commissioned in 2000, suffered a fire on board in August 2020 and canceled all Arctic operations.

Congress has authorized construction of three more heavy icebreakers at a total cost of around US$2.6 billion and has funded two of them so far, but they take years to produce. A shipyard in Mississippi expects to deliver the first by 2024.

An icebreaker solution

Coast Guard icebreaker Healy
Coast Guard icebreaker Healy in dry dock as its damaged starboard propulsion motor is replaced, November 23, 2020.

One way to add to the icebreaker fleet would be to have allies jointly procure and operate icebreakers, while each still builds up its own fleet.

For example, the Biden administration could collaborate with NATO allies to create a partnership modeled on NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capability of C-17 airplanes.

The airlift program, started in 2008, operates three large transport planes that its 12 member nations can use to quickly transport troops and equipment.

A similar program for icebreakers could operate a fleet under NATO – perhaps starting with icebreakers contributed by NATO countries, such as Canada, or partner countries, such as Finland.

Like the Strategic Airlift Capability, each member country would purchase a percentage of the shared fleet’s operating hours based on their overall contributions to the program.

Using the Law of the Sea

Royal Navy US Navy Arctic Ocean
British Royal Navy and US Navy ships during an exercise in the Arctic Ocean, May 5, 2020

Another strategy that could boost US influence in the Arctic, buffer looming conflicts, and help clarify seabed claims would be for the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Law of the Sea took effect in 1994 and established rules for how the oceans and ocean resources are used and shared. That includes determining how countries can claim parts of the seabed. The US initially objected over a section that limited deep seabed mining, but that section was amended to alleviate some of those concerns.

Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all urged the Senate to ratify it, but that still has not happened.

Ratification would give the US a stronger international legal position in contested waters. It also would enable the US to claim more than 386,000 square miles – an area twice the size of California – of Arctic seabed along its extended continental shelf and fend off any other country’s overlapping claims to that area.

Without ratification, the US will be forced to rely on customary international law to pursue any maritime claims, which weakens its international legal position in contested waters, including the Arctic and the South China Sea.

Relying on international cooperation

US Coast Guard cutter icebreaker Healy Alaska Russia
Coast Guard icebreaker Healy approaches Russian-flagged tanker Renda while breaking ice around the vessel south of Nome, Alaska, January 10, 2012.

The Arctic has generally been a region of international cooperation. The Arctic Council, an international body, has kept eight countries with sovereignty over land in the region focused on the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem, the well-being of its Indigenous peoples, and emergency prevention and response.

Over the past few years, however, “near-Arctic” countries, including China, Japan, South Korea, Britain and many European Union members, have become more engaged, and Russia has become more active.

With the rising tensions and expanding interest in the region, the era of cooperative engagement has started to recede with the melting sea ice.

[Over 100,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]

Rockford Weitz, Professor of Practice & Director, Fletcher Maritime Studies Program, The Fletcher School, Tufts University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How Delta, Rangers, and the Green Berets’ unique training would pay off in an Arctic war with Russia

Army Green Beret Special Forces Arctic
US Army Green Berets with 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) practice self-recovery from a glacial crevasse during an Arctic warfare exercise in Seward, Alaska, October 15, 2020.

  • The increasing accessibility of the Arctic has led to more commercial and military activity there.
  • The demanding Arctic environment requires special skills to survive and operate effectively.
  • US Army special-operations forces have long emphasized those skills and could put them to use in a war.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

After a long period of hibernation, tension in the Arctic is increasing, with military build-ups and encounters there between the US and its near-peer competitors, Russia and China.

In a reflection of that tension, the Army recently released a strategy meant to secure its military preeminence in the Arctic.

Dubbed “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” the strategy aims to create a dedicated headquarters and specialized Arctic warfare units, improve infrastructure in the region, and invest in individual and collective training.

Although mentioned only briefly in the document, Army special-operations units are expected to have a significant role in the region both in peacetime and during war.

Why the Arctic?

Army Green Berets Special Forces Finland Poland Estonia Arctic parachute
US Army 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) soldiers and Finnish, Polish, and Estonian special-operations forces jump out of a C-130 during airborne operations over Rovaniemi, Finland, March 14, 2018.

Economic and military activity in the Arctic is nothing new, but the region’s value has been steadily increasing as it becomes more accessible.

As the ice melts and more passages open, trade becomes easier. The Northern Sea Route, stretching along the Russian coast from Norway to the Pacific Ocean, promises to connect Europe and Asia, two markets with more than 70% of the world’s GDP.

In addition, the increased accessibility caused by climate change allows for the exploitation of natural resources that have thus far been unreachable. Although the exact size of the oil and natural gas reserves underneath the Arctic is still uncertain, it is considerable enough to catch the interest of every major global player and several regional ones.

Further, climate change means that the region is becoming increasingly accessible to military forces.

Russian Arctic Elk
Members of a Russian Northern Fleet motorized rifle brigade being pulled by reindeer during an exercise in 2017.

Recent satellite images show that Russia is amassing forces in the region and testing new weapons.

In addition to Russian ground and air force buildup in the Arctic, there is the formidable Northern Fleet, which is Russia’s largest naval formation, accounting for close to 75% of its naval power. It is responsible for both the Arctic and the Atlantic oceans.

Russia is a legitimate Arctic state and has the world’s longest Arctic coastline. China doesn’t border the Arctic, but Beijing still wants a slice of the pie.

In 2018, China declared itself a “near-Arctic state” and launched the Polar Silk Road Initiative. Similar to the much-criticized Belt and Road Initiative, this project aims to make the Arctic a route for Chinese goods.

Since 1996, the countries bordering the Arctic – Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Russia, and the US – have used the Arctic Council to address issues facing the region, with the exception of security matters. A number of non-Arctic states have observer status with the Council, including China.

Army commandos in the Arctic

Army Green Berets Special Forces Finland Arctic
Army 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) soldiers and Finnish special operations forces during live-fire training in Rovaniemi, Finland, March 16, 2018.

In the Arctic, Army special-operations units can contribute significantly to deterrence in peacetime and in a potential conflict.

Rangers, Delta Force operators, and Green Berets all have valuable mission-sets and skills that can translate very well to the Arctic domain.

The 75th Ranger Regiment is the world’s premier light infantry special-operations unit focused on direct-action missions, such as raids, ambushes, and airfield seizures.

The harsh Arctic climate means logistics and the resupply of forces are particularly challenging, making the Rangers’ ability to seize airfields especially useful in case of conflict.

Army Rangers Arctic snow Wisconsin
Students in a Cold-Weather Operations Course, including 75th Ranger Regiment soldiers, on a ruck march at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, March 1, 2019.

Delta Force is the Army’s direct-action special-mission unit and primarily specializes in hostage rescue and counterterrorism.

In the Arctic, Delta Force could conduct unconventional warfare and sabotage operations similar to the World War II missions of the British Special Air Service (SAS), a unit that influenced Delta’s formation and early days.

The SAS wreaked havoc on Nazi and Italian forces in North Africa, destroying more planes on the ground than the Allied planes did from the air. SAS operations also forced the Axis powers to use a significant number of their forces for base and vehicle convoy security rather than on the frontlines.

“We certainly have the capability and the necessary skill sets to operate all alone and deep behind enemy lines for long periods without regular resupply. The Unit has already done it in the past during Desert Storm and the invasion of Afghanistan but also more recently in Syria,” a former Delta Force operator told Insider.

Army Green Beret Special Forces ice diving
Green Berets from 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) prepare for a dive during ice-dive training at Fort Carson, Colorado, February 18, 2021.

Finally, Special Forces operators can be very valuable as trainers of conventional Army units.

Green Berets thrive in foreign internal defense, or the training of foreign partner forces. They can take that knowledge to train their conventional counterparts in specialized skills such as mountaineering and cold-weather operations.

The 10th Special Forces Group already routinely trains soldiers from the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in cold-weather operations.

There are many other courses run by Green Berets that could prove useful, such as the Special Operations Advance Mountaineering School and the Winter Mobility Instructor Course.

Army Green Beret Special Forces ice Arctic
A Green Beret from 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) climbs a frozen waterfall at Fort Carson, November 14, 2019.

“If you look at the Multi-Domain Task Force and long-range precision fires that will be in there, the capabilities, it’s ideal for the amount of training space that we have, whether it’s a maritime component, whether it’s a land component, or an air component,” Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commander of US Army Alaska, told Insider during a March press briefing.

“So there’s a lot of opportunities to look at the breadth and depth of a future battlefield where Special Operations Command will play a role,” Andrysiak added.

All of the above units can also conduct special reconnaissance and direct both airstrikes and naval gunfire.

Other Army special-operations units, such as the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the “Night Stalkers,” and the Psychological Operations Groups could also contribute by enabling operations or shaping the critical information environment.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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US Army says it needs to ‘regain dominance’ in the Arctic, but it’s still figuring out what it needs to do it

Army Alaska Arctic paratroopers C-130J
US Army paratroopers exit a C-130J during exercise Arctic Warrior 21 in Alaska, February 8, 2021

As military activity increases in the Arctic, the US Army is putting renewed emphasis on the region, particularly Alaska, seeking to rebuild its ability to operate in the toughest conditions.

“We have a long history of training and operating out here. It really hit its peak in the ’80s,” Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commander of US Army Alaska, told Insider in a March interview.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the Army shifted its focus to the Middle East, adapting its formations and capabilities to better deploy and operate there. “As a result, those [Arctic] skill sets atrophied,” Andrysiak said.

But the Army is refocusing on the high latitudes, underscored by the release in mid-March of its Arctic strategy, titled “Regaining Arctic Dominance.”

Canadian army Chinook helicopter Alaska Arctic
US and Canadian personnel during a simulated aerial assault as part of Arctic Warrior 21, February 17, 2021.

With adversaries, namely Russia and China, increasing their activity in the Arctic, the Army “must have the proper training to endure the harsh Arctic environment during extended operations, equipment that can function in challenging terrain and extreme temperatures, and the infrastructure to sustain the force over vast distances,” the document says.

Among the strategy’s objectives are the creation of an operational headquarters, led by a major general, with specially trained and equipped combat brigades, an increase in the materiel readiness of Arctic-capable units, and an improvement in the training of US forces to operate in the region.

The goal is have soldiers capable of high-end operations not only in Alaska but throughout the Arctic and in mountains elsewhere, but the Army is still assessing what it needs to do that.

‘In and through’ the Arctic

Army Alaska Arctic paratroopers
US Army paratroopers clear snow before installing a cold-weather tent in Alaska during Arctic Warrior 21, February 7, 2021.

US Army Alaska conducted its Arctic Warrior exercise in February, reflecting a decision made last year to “start focusing on the coldest parts of the year,” Andrysiak said in March.

“Now what we’ve been asked to do is start training in October and largely finish up by March and then build the higher-end skills to operate in and through” the Arctic, Andrysiak told Insider.

Extreme cold, snow, and mountainous terrain all present specific challenges in the winter months, and during the exercise, the Army’s Combined Arms Center led a review to find where equipment fell short.

“They’re in the process now of doing this very detailed gap analysis that the Army will then take in turn and figure out what they’ve got to do to adapt existing capabilities or, where necessary, acquire new capabilities,” Andrysiak said.

Col. J.P. Clark, chief of the strategy division within the Army general staff, said at a March press conference that “shortfalls in equipment” found during the analysis “will be handled pretty quickly,” with requests to address “near-term deficiencies” likely coming in the 2023 defense budget.

“We have a year to kind of dig into those questions and see where we want to have the money go,” Clark said.

Army Alaska Arctic AH-64 Apache helicopter
Logistics personnel from Army Aviation and Missile Command support Arctic testing on an AH-64 Apache, February 12, 2021.

The strategy calls for equipment that can be used in temperatures as low as -65 degrees for extended periods, but much of the service’s gear – such as tents, batteries, and vehicles – can’t function well or at all in that extreme cold.

Freezing temperatures make it hard to keep water on hand, hindering cooking and other essential operations. Extreme cold also affects electronics, which are also hampered by the region’s long distances and sparse satellite coverage.

“We’ve got to go back and figure out where do we need to alter the key performance parameters [for equipment] and then what modifications that we need to make to existing capabilities,” Andrysiak told Insider.

The cold affects hydraulics, brakes, even weapons on vehicles, but snow poses a different challenge. “That 16 or 18 inches of snow, if you’re not plowing it, they can’t operate in it,” Andrysiak said. Ground movement can also be hard in warmer months, when lakes, rivers, and swamps thaw.

In the 1980s, US Army Alaska had 700 small unit support vehicles, a tracked vehicle that can move through snow. Now it has “less than 50,” and while the Army is working on a replacement, whether it will be what’s needed “is yet to be determined,” Andrysiak said.

As analysis of mobility challenges unfolds, “we can inform our modernization efforts of those potential future requirements,” Elizabeth Felling, a strategic planner in the Army general staff, said at the press conference.

Infrastructure needs are also an issue. While there are many bases across the state, parts of Alaska lack transportation infrastructure, like paved roads or ports, inhibiting movement.

Army Alaska Arctic paratroopers small unit support vehicle
A Small Unit Support Vehicle (SUSV) moves paratroopers over deep snowy terrain during Arctic Warrior 21, February 9, 2021.

“If we want to be able to project power to remote locations, either we’ve got to change the equipment that we operate with so that it relies less on infrastructure or we’ve got to build the infrastructure, which takes a lot of time,” Andrysiak said.

The Army is “looking at how well our bases … support our forces and their ability to train,” Felling said, adding that as training requirements become clear, so will infrastructure needs.

The Army’s embrace of multi-domain operations – working with other service branches in the air, on land, at sea, and in space and cyberspace – brings with it new infrastructure requirements and new challenges for logistics and sustainment, both exacerbated by the harsh Arctic conditions.

The Army is reviewing requirements for different approaches to multi-domain operations, Clark said. “Once we kind of figure out what we want to do, then we can figure out what the logistical tail that is required.”

The Army has 11,600 soldiers in Alaska, and it’s “premature” to say how many more may be stationed there, but, Felling said, “options are being worked with Army senior leaders, and we expect that there will be announcements for that probably later on this year or maybe even next.”

The Army has already started an Alaska-focused recruiting campaign. Other efforts are underway to improve quality of life there to boost retention.

“There’s no doubt that with ‘people first‘ being a priority for the chief of staff of the Army and [for] us … we’ve got to make an investment that’s commensurate – that speaks to ‘people first,'” Andrysiak said.

‘They’re committed’

Army Alaska Arctic paratroopers
US Army paratroopers conduct a simulated attack as part of Arctic Warrior 21, February 11, 2021.

The strategy outlines how the Army will support the Defense Department’s Arctic strategy, published in 2019, and officials said last month that the service’s goals will take years to reach.

“We have a long time period for the implementation,” Clark said. “It will be quite a bit in order to get our full multi-domain force as has been laid out. We’ve used 2028 and 2035 as our waypoint and our aim point.”

But things are moving quickly, according to Andrysiak, who said the strategy itself came together in about six months.

“The sense of urgency and investment … has been unprecedented, in my opinion,” Andrysiak told Insider.

Andrysiak said he was “confident” that some equipment could be adapted “relatively quickly” and that there was “the right level of engagement and support” to address other shortfalls.

“There’s a lot that we have to learn in the human dimension, and our ability to operate in the human dimension is largely impacted by material solutions,” Andrysiak added.

“What we’ve got to do here has got to be measured in years, because this is just a very unique environment,” Andrysiak said. “My view is with this strategy the Army knows that. It’s a multi-year approach, and they’re committed to that.”

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Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said he’ll ‘support’ Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s reelection

dan sullivan
Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing for Kenneth Braithwaite, U.S. President Donald Trumps nominee for navy secretary, May 7, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said he would support his fellow Sen. Lisa Murkowski for reelection after the two GOP lawmakers split in their votes to convict President Donald Trump during the impeachment trial.

“We don’t agree on everything, but we make a good team for Alaska,” Sullivan said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, noting that Murkowski has supported him throughout the years. “If Sen. Murkowski runs again, I’m going to support her.”

The two senators from Alaska landed on opposite sides of Trump’s impeachment trial vote. Sullivan voted to acquit Trump while Murkowski was one of the seven GOP senators to vote in favor to convict Trump. The former president responded by publicly stating that he would not endorse her during her reelection.

“I will not be endorsing, under any circumstances, the failed candidate from the great State of Alaska, Lisa Murkowski,” Trump told Politico. “I do not know where other people will be next year, but I know where I will be – in Alaska campaigning against a disloyal and very bad Senator.”

Murkowski was one of the first Republican senators to call on Trump to resign following the US Capitol insurrection. “I want him to resign. I want him out. He has caused enough damage,” Murkowski told the Anchorage Daily News. Alaska’s Republican Party censured Murkowski for her impeachment vote.

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Biden says he’s ‘proud’ of his secretary of state for confronting China’s top diplomat in a heated debate

Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken confronted China on human rights abuses in the first high-level talks between the US and China under the Biden administration.

  • Biden on Friday expressed pride in Blinken for confronting Chinese diplomats in Alaska.
  • Blinken and China’s top diplomat engaged in a lengthy verbal spat on Thursday.
  • The secretary of state called out China for human rights abuses and defended America’s record.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

President Joe Biden on Friday expressed pride in Secretary of State Antony Blinken after the top US diplomat confronted his Chinese counterpart in a testy exchange in Alaska the day before.

“I’m very proud of the secretary of state,” Biden said in comments to reporters before departing for Atlanta.

At the start of the talks in Anchorage on Thursday – the first face-to-face meeting between US and Chinese officials under the Biden administration – Blinken said the US intended to use the discussions to raise concerns about China’s increasingly aggressive activities at home and abroad.

Blinken cited concerns about human rights abuses in Xinjiang, attacks on democracy in Hong Kong, aggression toward Taiwan, cyberattacks on the US, and economic coercion toward US allies.

“Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability. That’s why they’re not merely internal matters and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today,” Blinken said.

National security advisor Jake Sullivan echoed Blinken’s concerns and said that China had engaged in “assaults on basic values.”

Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, responded by accusing the US of “condescending” to China while rejecting the notion that the US government is suited to lecture other countries on human rights and related issues.

“We believe that it is important for the US to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world,” Yang said. “Many people within the US actually have little confidence in the democracy of the US.”

“On human rights, we hope that the United States will do better on human rights,” Yang added. “China has made steady progress in human rights and the fact is that there are many problems within the United States regarding human rights, which is admitted by the US itself as well.”

Yang said human rights challenges in the US are “deap-seated,” and “did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter.”

The Chinese diplomat’s comments lasted for roughly 15 minutes, according to the Associated Press, and the State Department accused the Chinese delegation of violating the format for the talks by breaking the two-minute time limit for opening statements.

After Yang’s lengthy remarks, Blinken urged reporters to stay in the room so he could offer a response.

Blinken said that what makes the US different is its willingness to confront its shortcomings, seemingly alluding to the Chinese government’s general denial of human rights abuses.

“What we’ve done throughout our history is to confront those challenges openly, publicly, transparently, not trying to ignore them, not trying to pretend they don’t exist, not trying to sweep them under a rug,” Blinken said. “And sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s ugly, but each and every time, we have come out stronger, better, more united as a country.”

Tensions between the US and China have escalated to historic heights over the past year, and Thursday’s meeting was emblematic of the increasingly combative dynamic.

Though former President Donald Trump often boasted about his amicable relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping early on his first term, his disposition toward China shifted with the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump blamed the pandemic, which originated in Wuhan, China, on the Chinese government. This rhetoric, combined with Trump’s trade war with China, placed major strains on US-China relations. Top experts have warned that the US and China are entering a new Cold War.

From a policy standpoint, Biden’s approach to China does not differ drastically from Trump’s. But the new president’s overall tone toward Beijing, while still tough, is less belligerent than his predecessor’s.

The Biden administration issued fresh sanctions on two dozen Chinese officials on Wednesday over assaults on democracy in Hong Kong, just a day before the first high-level talks between the US and China were set to begin. Chinese diplomats were highly critical of this move on Thursday. “This is not supposed to be the way one should welcome his guests,” said Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister.

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The heavy-duty ship the US needs to protect its thawing border with Russia ‘is just falling apart,’ captain says

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
Petty Officer 1st Class Wahkene Kitchenmaster removes ice from Polar Star’s hull in below-freezing temperatures in the Chukchi Sea, December 28, 2020.

  • Polar Star, the Coast Guard’s only working icebreaker, wrapped up an Arctic mission in February.
  • The 45-year-old ship is “definitely showing its age,” its commanding officer said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The months-long Arctic operation that Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star finished last month was a rare mission for the US’s sole heavy icebreaker.

It was the first time a US icebreaker had been in the Arctic in winter since 1982. The crew overcame “treacherous” conditions, but they also grappled with a problem aboard the ship that may hinder the US’s Arctic ambitions.

Polar Star is “now 45 years old, and it’s definitely showing its age,” Capt. William Woityra, Polar Star’s commanding officer, said in February at an event cohosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Nome office of Alaska Sea Grant.

“We were up to this mission, and we were excited to undertake it, but it took the crew working around the clock to keep the ship running,” Woityra added.

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
Polar Star in the Chukchi Sea, December 19, 2020.

Polar Star can break through 21 feet of ice and sail through 40- to 50-foot seas (though seas much lower than that can incapacitate the crew, Woityra previously told Insider).

The icebreaker’s usual wintertime trip to Antarctica to help resupply the McMurdo Sound research station was canceled because of the pandemic. It was sent north after the US’s only other oceangoing icebreaker, Healy, broke down as it sailed to the Arctic.

Polar Star has its own history of breakdowns, which cropped up again.

“On New Year’s Eve, we actually got stopped in the ice,” Woityra said. “We had a diode on our AC-to-DC rectifier that blew out, and we had to replace it. And this is a part that is no longer available. It’s not made anymore.”

Polar Star has a split propulsion system. In addition to gas turbines, it has what Woityra called “basically locomotive engines” powering generators that send power through that rectifier to turn a propeller shaft.

“We’ve got a few dozen of these in a box on a shelf,” Woityra said of the diode. “When they’re gone, the ship will not be able to run anymore. It’s really kind of disconcerting … that this ship, and this operation, and the US’s icebreaking presence in the Arctic is reliant on a box of spare parts that … there are no more of.”

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Arctic Bering Alaska
Crew from Polar Star enjoys a brief ice liberty on the frozen Bering Sea, January 30, 2021.

Parts for Polar Star are dwindling. Crews have stripped replacement parts from its out-of-service sister ship, Polar Sea, and even turned to eBay to find a resistor unavailable elsewhere.

“The only source of supply in the world was on eBay,” Woityra told Insider during the event. “We worked with the supplier to actually pull listing from eBay, and we were able to use normal government contracting mechanisms to purchase those resistors.”

“With a ship that’s almost 50 years old, every single part of it is just falling apart, and there’s no one-for-one replacement to keep it going,” Woityra added.

Polar Star is set to begin a five-year service-life extension program this summer to keep it going for another decade. The Coast Guard has awarded a contract for a new icebreaker, which it expects by 2024, with two more by 2030.

Leasing an icebreaker is also being considered as a near-term option, as other countries expand their icebreaker fleets.

‘We’re pushing back’

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
Polar Star’s deck department removes ice from the ship’s deck and deck equipment while in the Chukchi Sea, December 28, 2020.

Despite mechanical challenges, the Coast Guard was enthusiastic about Polar Star’s mission, which included testing communications technology for the Defense Department and scientific research in an environment and at a time of year for which data is scant.

“It had been 40 years since the Coast Guard had been operating in this region,” Woityra said. “So here was a chance to gather some in-situ data that was normally not available under any circumstances.”

American researchers, Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen, and Royal Navy sailors were also aboard Polar Star for the mission, as were junior Coast Guard members, there to train as the service tries to rebuild its Arctic proficiency.

“We’ve really got to build out a future fleet of icebreaker sailors, as the Arctic … becomes increasingly more an area of focus and becomes increasingly more accessible,” Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard, said at a separate event last month.

That increasing accessibility, driven by climate change, has made the Arctic a growing venue for geopolitical competition. The Bering Strait, which separates the US and Russia, is likely to be a focal point for that competition.

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
The Aurora Borealis is seen from Polar Star while patrolling in the Chukchi Sea, December 21, 2020.

Schultz, Woityra, and other Coast Guard officials have stressed that the service has a good relationship with its Russian counterpart, but a major Russian military exercise in the area last summer, during which Russian warships harassed US fishing boats, added to tensions.

Polar Star’s crew was aware of that encounter and was motivated to “defend US interests” and support Alaskans, Woityra said.

When Polar Star patrolled the US-Russian maritime boundary, the Russian fishing fleet “was well on their side,” Woityra said. While in the strait, Polar Star also saw “regular overflights by Russian border-patrol aircraft.”

“We knew that they were coming. They knew where we were,” Woityra said. “We got word 12 to 24 hours ahead of time … and when they came into range, they held us on VHF radio, we exchanged information, everything went exactly as according to plan.”

Schultz said last month that “having a pragmatic relationship with the Russians is a good thing,” as it facilitates cooperation on search-and-rescue operations, environmental management, and disaster response, but the service is “projecting our sovereign interest” in the region, Schultz added.

“Russia’s pushing up against that line, and we’re pushing back,” Schultz said.

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Trump said he would travel the 5,000 miles from Mar-a-Lago to Alaska to bury the political career of GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski in revenge for her impeachment vote

trump impeached
Former President Donald Trump.

  • Trump is seeking revenge on GOP figures who disparaged him in the final months of his presidency.
  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted to convict Trump in the Senate after he was impeached in January.
  • Trump told Politico he would campaign against the “disloyal” Alaska senator in the 2022 Senate election.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

President Donald Trump has said he will travel to Alaska to derail the reelection campaign of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of his fiercest Republican Party critics.

Sen. Murkowski was one of the first GOP senators to call on Trump to resign following the January 6 Capitol riot and voted to convicted him in the Senate after he was impeached for comments he made that incited the rioters.

Since losing the 2020 election and being impeached, reports have detailed how Trump is set on getting his own back on those who criticized or turned on him.

In a statement Saturday, Trump, who now lives at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, said he would make the 5,000-mile journey to Alaska to campaign against Sen. Murkowski, who is running in the November 2022 Senate elections.

“I will not be endorsing, under any circumstances, the failed candidate from the great State of Alaska, Lisa Murkowski. She represents her state badly and her country even worse, Trump told Politico.

Lisa Murkowski
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

“I do not know where other people will be next year, but I know where I will be – in Alaska campaigning against a disloyal and very bad Senator.”

In January, Trump vowed to back any candidates who want to challenge Republican Party incumbents who had defied him. A total of seven GOP senators and a large number of GOP Members of Congress voted to impeach or convict Trump in early 2021.

At his beachfront home in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, Trump is planning revenge, CNN reported, adding that he refers to it as “accountability” for what he views as “going against the people.”

Sen. Murkowski said on February 18 that she was well aware that her words may damage her chances of reelection next year.

Trump leaves
Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump wave to supporters as they board Air Force One to head to Florida on January 20, 2021, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.

“I know that my actions, my vote may have political consequences. And I understand that. I absolutely understand that. But I can’t be afraid of that,” she told reporters, according to NPR.

The statement given Saturday is not the first time Trump has pledged to work to unseat Sen. Murkowski.

In June 2020, Sen. Murkowski said she could not support Trump in his 2020 reelection campaign, saying she agreed with the assessment of former secretary of defense Jim Mattis that Trump was unfit to lead the country.

In a string of tweets at the time, Trump said he wouldn’t forget her words.

“Few people know where they’ll be in two years from now, but I do, in the Great State of Alaska (which I love) campaigning against Senator Lisa Murkowski,” Trump wrote.

“Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don’t care, I’m endorsing. If you have a pulse, I’m with you!”

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