US must invest to close security gaps in Arctic
Several artifacts of the United States’ successful participation in the Cold War are still with us. Remnants of the Berlin Wall can be found in museums, while empty ICBM silos have been transformed into trendy luxury homes. One Cold War holdover, however, cannot be confined to the dustbin of history: the Distant Early Warning line.
Stretching from Greenland to Alaska, the DEW line provided early warning of a Soviet aerospace attack. Along with associated interceptors, missile defenses, and command and control facilities, it was the backbone of our successful deterrence approach. Today, these systems have largely been abandoned or reincarnated as the North Warning System, a system dangerously outdated for the current threat environment facing the United States and Canada. But there is renewed will and hope for its resuscitation, and the key lies in modernizing the telecommunications infrastructure on which advanced defensive capabilities depend.
Arctic realities are opening space for greater economic, political and security competition than even during the Cold War era. Once-distant adversaries are increasingly present and seeking influence in the polar region. While purporting to support a demilitarized Arctic, Russia is quickly building its regional military and political capabilities. Recent satellite imagery shows the lengthening of a runway at its northernmost military outpost and the establishment of a special commission on the Russian Security Council focusing on the region, headed by a “security strongman.” Russia also routinely probes and collects information along the Canadian and U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone, often forcing a response from NORAD.
Likewise, China is investing heavily along the Arctic periphery, testing routes for robust future commercial sea lanes and building significant trading and operational capacity in order to eventually become a major power in the Arctic. Of course, our “friends” in North Korea and Iran continue to develop missile and weapons technology that already poses a threat to our homeland.
The U.S. does not yet have the military presence or systems in place to effectively protect our current national interests, sovereignty, citizens and allies. Just this week, the U.S. lost one of its two icebreakers, the USCGS Healy, when a fire onboard forced it back to port for repairs.
So, how do we protect our interests, preserve a unique geopolitical environment, and take advantage of the opportunities our geographical position affords us? Must we embark on an arms race like we did in the 1950s and ’60s? Do we even have the political will and the necessary resources to compete effectively?
Rather than getting pulled into a reactionary race, we can use this moment to act strategically, on our own terms. We must identify our security gaps in the Arctic and invest in the foundational capabilities that will enable us to close our deficiencies in Arctic communications, domain awareness, enabling infrastructure, and general presence.
Broadband connectivity is the necessary underpinning for a modern Arctic defense infrastructure. Today’s state-of-the-art ground-based systems for national defense — ground station antennas, sensors and Long-Range Differentiating Radars — transmit gigabits of data per second to secure data centers or cloud environments. By comparison, the DEW Line systems, and today’s North Warning System, rest atop infrastructure that maxes out at around two megabits per second — slower than the connection a consumer would use to stream music.
A robust and resilient communications network will also be an economic driver for a region that has been largely ignored in the age of globalization. Outside of the High North, high-speed broadband, and the networks through which it is transmitted, support local populations, schools, colleges, hospitals and major commercial industries. They allow citizens to connect to the information economy, the Internet of Things, and the incredibly important electronic commercial sector, all in addition to empowering national defense capabilities in their regions.
Thankfully, hopeful signs have emerged. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Copenhagen, Denmark, underlined the tardiness of our entry into Arctic development programs, and the U.S. desire to accelerate building up its presence. The fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act included a 90-day review requirement for the North Warning System. The Air Force and Space Force both have focused planning and programs to enhance Arctic-based capabilities. This kind of interest and urgency has been missing over past decades and is necessary to get in front of potential national security threats. However, we must also pursue prudent, actionable initiatives. Certainly, an expanded broadband infrastructure should near the top of the list. It is an imperative in order to develop a foundation that can support national security and defense initiatives for the U.S. and its allies in a region that is critical to global commerce and security.
Charles H. Jacoby Jr. is a retired U.S. Army general who served as commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command. He is a senior strategic adviser to the Alaskan-based telecommunications company Quintillion. George Tronsrue III, a retired U.S. Army officer, is CEO of Quintillion.