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U.S. Air Force Arctic Strategy International Affairs Academy, Document of the Day - Free Professional Development We review important International Affairs documents to stay current on critical discussions.

The Department of the Air Force Arctic Strategy fully supports the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and implements the 2019 Department of Defense (DoD) Arctic Strategy embracing the DoD’s desired Arctic end-state: A secure and stable region where U.S. national interests are safeguarded, the homeland is protected, and nations address shared challenges cooperatively. The strategy outlines the Department of the Air Force’s unique role and optimizes Air Force and Space Force capabilities for the region. The Arctic’s increasing strategic importance, coupled with the Services’ significant regional investment, requires the Department to have a unified, deliberate, and forward-looking approach, ensuring the Air and Space Forces can compete and defend the nation’s interests in the Arctic region. Residing at the intersection between the U.S. homeland and two critical theaters, Indo-Pacific and Europe, the Arctic is an increasingly vital region for U.S. national security interests. The Arctic’s capacity as a strategic buffer is eroding, making it an avenue of threat to the homeland, due to advancements by great power competitors. Additionally, it hosts critical launch points for global power projection and increasingly accessible natural resources. While the DoD analyzes the immediate prospect of conflict in the Arctic as low,1 the confluence of activities in the region by great power competitors with increased physical access due to receding land ice and sea ice, yields the potential for intensified regional competition as well as opportunities for cooperative endeavors with allies and partners. The Department of the Air Force contributions to U.S. national security in the Arctic are large, but relatively unknown. Given the Arctic’s vast distances and challenges to surface operations, air and space capabilities have long been essential to gain rapid access and provide all-domain awareness, early warning, satellite command and control, and effective deterrence. Offering a solid foundation on which to build and project power across the region, the Department of the Air Force is the most active and invested U.S. military department in the Arctic.2 The strategy identifies the Arctic as a region of strategic opportunity for the Air and Space Forces, Joint Force, allies, and partners. It provides recommendations in light of the Arctic’s most significant strategic threats and opportunities, based on Combatant Commander requirements and the Air and Space Forces’ missions. The Department approaches the Arctic with four main lines of effort: Vigilance, Power Projection, Cooperation, and Preparation. The strategy outlines how the Air and Space Forces will organize, train, and equip to provide Combatant Commanders with combat-credible assets capable of conducting operations throughout the Arctic into the future.

1. DoD Report to Congress: Arctic Strategy 2019.

2. DoD Report to Congress: Resourcing the Arctic Strategy 2016.

Executive Summary

First, through investments in missile warning and defense, as well as command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C3ISR), the Air and Space Forces will defend the homeland by maintaining vigilance.

Second, the Air and Space Forces will utilize unique positioning afforded by bases in locations like Alaska and Greenland to project combat-credible, all-domain air and space power. Infrastructure, focused on thermal efficiency and durability, will be combined with fifth generation aircraft and lethal capabilities to ensure the Air and Space Forces remain agile and capable in the future.

Third, strong alliances and partnerships in the Arctic are a strategic advantage for the United States. The strategy outlines ways to enhance cooperation as well as interoperability, operations, and exercises between the United States and its Arctic partners. To uphold the international rules-based order in the Arctic, the Air and Space Forces must leverage the strong defense relationships among Arctic nations and work closely with regional and joint partners.

Finally, the strategy outlines essential training and preparation for operations within this unique environment. To meet this challenge, the Department will renew focus on training, research, and development for Arctic operations, while leveraging the Arctic expertise of the Total Force. The Air & Space Forces in the Arctic The Arctic represents a cornerstone of the nation’s defense. The Department of the Air Force provides close to 80% of DoD resourcing to the Arctic region.3 Installations across Alaska, Canada, and Greenland include large bases, training complexes, satellite command and control stations, and a constellation of more than 50 early warning and missile defense radars. For reference, highlights Department of the Air Force Arctic equities. Geographically, the Arctic region consists of the Arctic Ocean, adjacent seas, and parts of eight nations: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.4 Demographically, among the millions of Arctic inhabitants, indigenous communities possess millennia of knowledge about the Arctic domain passed down through generations. Several factors make the Arctic particularly reliant on air, space, and cyberspace power to provide rapid access, reach, and domain awareness.

The area above the Arctic Circle (above 66 degrees North latitude) is vast, almost 2.5 times the size of the continental United States. Lacking the climate-moderating effect of the warm Gulf Stream, the North American Arctic hosts a much harsher environment than the European Arctic and significantly less road and maritime infrastructure. Alaska epitomizes this geographical disparity in infrastructure. It is the largest state (twice the size of Texas) covering 586,000 square miles, but offering only 5,600 miles of highway.5 The Arctic is a region of immense geostrategic significance and a key location for global power projection. With two large Alaska air bases, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Eielson Air Force Base (AFB), and other strategic facilities, the Air and Space Forces project power into two critical theaters: Indo-Pacific and Europe.

Often unrecognized, Alaska offers the quickest flight access to strategic locations across the Pacific region and western Russia. As evidence of Alaska’s strategic location, once the planned F-35 bed-down is complete, Alaska will be home to more advanced fighters than any other location in the world. As strategic as the Arctic is to power projection, it is equally critical to deterrence and U.S. defense. From an air and space power perspective, it is the shortest distance for adversaries to threaten the homeland with strategic air and missile attacks. The Alaska Radar System and the 50-plus radars that comprise the North Warning System across Canada provide vital early warning for homeland defense and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Locations like Clear, Alaska and Thule, Greenland uniquely enable missile warning and defense in addition to space domain awareness, helping USSPACECOM track tens of thousands of objects daily. From aerial refueling tankers to the Air National Guard’s ski-equipped aircraft, the Air Force brings mobility capabilities that provide access to some of the harshest and most remote locations in the Arctic. Meanwhile the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center and affiliated rescue squadrons work closely with partners, including the U.S. Coast Guard, on hundreds of search and rescue missions annually.

Changing Physical Environment

Changes in the Arctic environment are transforming Arctic ecosystems.6 The environment is often cited as the greatest adversary to Arctic operations. Variations in weather and climate forecasting hamper missions and long-term planning for Joint Force needs and capabilities. Thawing permafrost affects infrastructure across the region, including Department of the Air Force hangars and runways. Reductions in single and multi-year polar ice are accelerating the rate of coastal erosion, putting Air and Space Forces’ already sparse infrastructure at risk.

Increasing Access & Human

Melting ice, transportation advances, and extraction innovation are exposing resources once thought inaccessible. The Arctic is estimated to harbor over 90 billion barrels of oil reserves, 30% of the world’s untapped natural gas, and around one trillion dollars’ worth of rare earth minerals.7 Extended seasonal access, growth in commercial traffic, and an uptick in tourism increase international competition and the potential need for disaster response.

Great Power Activity in the Arctic

Russia is an Arctic nation. No other country has as much permanent military presence above the 66th parallel. Russia’s recent Arctic initiatives include refurbishing airfields and infrastructure, creating new bases, and developing an integrated network of air defense, coastal missile systems, and early warning radars to secure its northern approaches. Further, Russia seeks to regulate maritime traffic on the Northern Sea Route in ways that may exceed its authority permitted under international law. Close to 25% of Russia’s gross domestic product comes from the Arctic region. Reflecting this, Russia is expected to continue investing in the region to advance its economy and bolster national identity. The Russian military plays a significant role in securing these interests and may leverage ostensibly defensive capabilities for other purposes. Finally, Russia tightly manages its Arctic messaging to highlight its capabilities and control. China is not an Arctic nation (its northernmost city, Mohe, shares roughly the same latitude of Philadelphia and Dublin), but it sees the region as important to its long-term economic and security interests. China’s Arctic narrative attempts to normalize Chinese presence in the region, enhance polar operating capabilities, and gain a regional governance role. In 2018, China linked its Arctic activities to its One Belt, One Road initiative underscoring its strategic ambition toward the region’s vast quantities of rare earth minerals, hydrocarbons, and fisheries.


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