Alaska is a strategic hotspot for defending the United States, the Indo-Pacific region and the Arctic, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said during a visit to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, yesterday.
The secretary met with troops and leaders at Eielson and Fort Wainwright, Alaska. He spoke about his visit during a press conference in an Eielson hangar.
"We are an Indo-Pacific nation, and we are an Arctic nation," the secretary said. "And here in Alaska, those two critical regions intersect. This is where we can project power into both regions and where we must be able to defend ourselves from threats coming from both places. It's also where we can better posture ourselves and prepare for climate changes that will impact our future."
Climate change is already altering the strategic picture in the north. The ice pack is melting, and there is a viable Northwest Passage across the Canadian-U.S. Arctic coast for much of the year. Permafrost is not so permanent, and Austin warned that this change could lead to a scramble for resources in the region. He said this might mean the Arctic could become "a theater for resource competition and even instability, and we need to stay ahead of that."
Austin spoke with Army leaders at Fort Wainwright and came away impressed by the thinking on the issue and how the service — which has two brigades in Alaska — is applying operational concepts to the Arctic.
While Austin visited Wainwright and Eielson on a beautiful summer day, the winter weather in the region is brutal. It regularly has temperatures that are well below zero degrees Fahrenheit. A member of Fort Wainwright's Northern Warfare Training Center cadre told of working outside when the temperature — not the wind chill — was 50 degrees below zero. "You don't get used to the cold," said Army Staff Sgt. Brant Faus, one of the instructors at the center. "You get used to dealing with it."
The instructors discussed the challenges of operating in the environment and ways they have devised to continue the missions. They also discussed the equipment needs for troops operating in such extreme conditions.
On the way to Eielson in Army helicopters, local commanders gave Austin an aerial tour of the Clear Space Force Base and the missile fields that protect the homeland from rogue state missiles.
Eielson is the center of operations for Alaska and the center of training for the Indo-Pacific Command. The base hosts four Red Flag exercises per year. Participants include the U.S., Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Philippines; others also participate. During Austin's visit, Australian airmen were working with Eielson officials to prepare for their Red Flag exercise later this year.
Airmen at the base said there are more than 120 aircraft at the base including F-22 Raptors, F-35 Lightning IIs, F-15 Eagles, F-18 Super Hornets, A-10s, tanker aircraft and more. "It looks like ants running around the air base," one airman said. "There are planes everywhere."
All of these airmen are taking advantage of the 77,000 square mile training area that Alaska offers. The instrumented area allows airmen to practice any number of real world missions.
The range is at the heart of readiness for U.S. forces in Alaska and beyond. "I was impressed by the training that goes on from missile defense exercises, to the Red Flag exercise, to the cold weather and mountain warfare training," Austin said. "It's a harsh environment, but, as I said, it's a critically important region. We must continue to hone the skills our soldiers and airmen learn in Alaska's unique training environment. We must also invest appropriately in the infrastructure needed to keep them ready and to keep them viable. I'm committed to doing that and to working with the services to make sure that we adapt and modernize our training and the tools that we give our troops."
More troops have made Alaska their home with airmen associated with F-35 operations at Eielson still arriving. There are no plans for additional forces to move to Alaska.