Academic journal article Military Review

Why Alaska and the Arctic Are Critical to the National Security of the United States

Academic journal article Military Review

Why Alaska and the Arctic Are Critical to the National Security of the United States

Article excerpt

Over the past five years, Russia has moved aggressively to build its Arctic military capabilities, apparently in an effort to secure its claims and interests in the region. (1) Increasingly, human activity is occurring in the Arctic as the sea ice recedes and economic opportunity opens to nations via new shipping lanes. Characteristically, in any geographical area, with the rise in human activity there is also the corresponding possibility that friction will occur as people compete to exploit the natural resources and corresponding economic possibilities. Such friction--and potential conflict--in the Arctic is highly likely at some point unless preparations are made to mitigate it.

Alaska makes the United States an Arctic nation, and its location places the state and country at the center of this fast-evolving region. (2) Thus, Alaska is critical to the national security of the United States; however, we are not, as a nation, keeping pace with the rapidly changing security situation in the Arctic. Lagging here could also have an enormous impact on our economy. To change this dynamic, there are several things that the U.S. military can do to ensure the future security of the region.

Alaska's Geostrategic Importance

"Alaska is the most strategic place on earth," stated Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell in testimony before Congress in 1935. (3) The reason for this bold statement is that Alaska is the closest U.S. location to the center of the Northern Hemisphere (see figure 1). The state is singularly closer to many national capitals in the hemisphere than most points in the lower forty-eight states. This makes Alaska the perfect power projection platform for the United States from a military standpoint. Further, because Alaska sits astride the Bering Strait chokepoint and the Great Circle Routes between North America and Asia as can be seen in figure 2 (on page 115), it is critical to our economic and national security. (4)

The air lanes and sea lanes of the Great Circle Routes are heavily trafficked by shipping companies because they shorten the distance between the two continents, saving time and money for shippers. Consequently, the city of Anchorage and Alaska are at the center of existing commercial shipping lanes between East and West. Anchorage, at roughly the halfway point between the major commerce centers of North America and Asia, is an important hub for such international corporations as Federal Express and DHL. (5) Moreover, many nations such as China and Russia are routinely making use of these routes for their economic benefit.

However, while Alaska is critical to intercontinental shipping now, emerging routes due to shrinking ice impediments could raise the state's economic stature to even greater heights. The retreat of ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean has opened up the potential for shipping along the Northern Sea Route and the fabled Northwest Passage (see figure 3, page 116). (6) The Northern Sea Route parallels Russia's Arctic coastline, as much of it is within the country's exclusive economic zone. In the past few years, shipping along this route has increased, topping out with seventy-one passages in 2013. (7) Moving goods along this route cuts off thousands of miles, saving money on fuel costs and insurance (since there are no pirates along this route). (8) Moreover, Russia is facilitating passages through the use of its large icebreaker fleet, making her an indispensable player in shipping through the High North while profiting from such transit by charging fees for services akin to a toll. (9)

Thus, the emerging Northwest Passage has recently become a possibility for shippers. For centuries, explorers and adventurers sought a route from Europe to Asia across Canada's High North. Most of these individuals failed in this attempt, but now the dream is nearing reality. In 2017, the luxury cruise liner Crystal Serenity made a trip through the Northwest Passage starting from Seward, Alaska, and terminating in New York City. …

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