Military leaders in Hawaii look to strengthen forces in Alaska
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser April 10, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — As U.S. relations fray with China and Russia, American military leaders in Hawaii are increasingly giving attention to their forces in Alaska.
Recently, U.S. Army Pacific's Oahu-based commander, Gen. Charles Flynn, visited Alaska to observe training at the Alaska portions of the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center — a series of training ranges in Hawaii and Alaska the Army is using to train troops for potential combat operations amid rising geopolitical tensions in the Pacific.
The training also takes place amid increasing concern by some American policymakers about China's aspirations in the Arctic.
Paratroopers with the Army's newly reorganized 11th Airborne Division in Alaska trained with the Air Force, practicing jumping into the tundra to fight battles in the winter. Flynn said JPRMC ranges allow "the opportunity to train as a joint force because we're surrounded by joint assets, both here and Hawaii, and of course in the region."
Alaska is home to several bases as well as airfields regularly used by the military. Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commander of the 11th Airborne, said bases in Alaska serve not just as a training ground, but as an important "strategic location" that allows his troops to serve as "a deterrent where we're at."
Though the frigid tundra of Alaska stretches into the Arctic, U.S. Army and Air Force personnel in Alaska answer to commanders in Hawaii. The Oahu-based U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at Camp Smith is the nerve center for all operations across the region. Commanders there describe their area of operations — the U.S. military's largest — as spanning "Bollywood to Hollywood and polar bears to penguins."
Throughout its history, Alaska has been as much tied to the Pacific as to the Arctic. In the days of the Hawaiian kingdom, whalers set up shop in the islands while sailing north to hunt in the cold waters off Alaska. During World War II, Alaska became a battlefield when Japanese forces pushed into the Aleutian Islands, bombing Dutch Harbor and landing troops on the islands of Kiska and Attu — the latter becoming the site of a bloody battle between U.S. and Japanese troops as they fought in the bitter cold.
Today the Air Force has stationed its newest fighters — the F-35 and F-22 — in Alaska. Over the years American fighters have had occasional run-ins with Russian planes near U.S.-controlled airspace around Alaska, so far without serious incident. But American fishermen working out of Alaska have also reported increasingly tense encounters with Russian ships and warplanes while fishing in the Northern Pacific.
Lately, U.S. Pacific Air Forces under Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach has sought to spread out its forces across the region through a strategy the Air Force calls Agile Combat Employment. The idea is to shuffle planes to different airfields across the Pacific to make it harder for Chinese forces to wipe them out with missiles. Alaska is an area of interest for the strategy, as well as airstrips across Pacific island countries and territories.
But the U.S. Army Pacific's renewed interest in Alaska is relatively recent. Eifler, who previously served under Flynn in Hawaii before he was appointed head of the Army's Pacific forces, arrived in Alaska in 2021 when most soldiers in the state were still under the banner of the Oahu-based 25th Infantry — the "Tropic Thunder Division" — but in name only.
The Army's brigades up north were in reality under the umbrella of U.S. Army Alaska, a patchwork of forces stationed in the tundra using equipment ill-suited for the environment in which they trained. Eifler said the Army had essentially "abandoned" its soldiers up north — even though Alaska is home to some of the Army's only airborne troops positioned to quickly deploy in the Pacific region. U.S. Army Alaska had the highest suicide rate of any part of the Army.
In 2022, after Eifler pushed for reforms, U.S. Army Alaska was reorganized under the banner of the 11th Airborne Division — taking on the legacy of a unit that had fought in the Pacific during World War II and later pioneered helicopter "air assault " operations.
But even before reorganizing into the 11th Airborne, paratroopers in Alaska had already begun training to more quickly deploy in the Pacific. In summer 2020, Air Force C-17s made a direct flight from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska to Guam, dropping paratroopers on the island, where they practiced seizing an airfield in one the largest airborne exercises in the Pacific region in recent history.
"We are a response force across the Indo-Pacific, so we have to be ready for all contingencies," Eifler said. "If we have to defend Alaska, yeah, we'll be ready to do that. But our primary mission is to be able to provide forces across in the Pacific."
But Arctic and Pacific issues have in recent years begun to blur together.
On April 3 the Pentagon said that an alleged spy balloon that made its way across the United States in January before being shot down and recovered by the U.S. military off South Carolina was able to be remotely steered and transmit real-time data back to operators in China as it transited over U.S. military installations. The balloon first entered U.S. controlled airspace in the Aleutians before making its way across the mainland.
Chinese military forces aren't strangers to the Aleutians. In 2021 the U.S. Coast Guard encountered Chinese warships moving near the island chain, and in September the Coast Guard again saw Chinese vessels near the Aleutians — this time joined by Russian warships. Though American forces watched them closely, U.S. officials stressed they did not violate any rules.
The U.S. military also regularly conducts operations near China, including the South China Sea — a critical trade route that more than a third of all international trade travels through. Beijing claims nearly the entire waterway as its exclusive territory and is locked in a series of disputes with neighboring countries over territorial and navigation rights.
But as polar ice caps thaw, Beijing is looking at the possibility of new trade routes in the Arctic opening up along with other opportunities. In 2018, China declared itself a "near Arctic" country and has sought greater involvement in the region.
"The Arctic is a competitive space, and it's competitive for a wide range of reasons," Flynn said. "You can see countries working to increase their competitiveness in that space. … I think that Russia is in the Arctic Circle looking out. I think that China is actually outside the Arctic Circle looking in."
Even as fossil fuel emissions heat up the climate — contributing to rising seas and increasingly intense weather and natural disasters — corporations around the world are already eagerly exploring the possibility that there could be newly accessible deposits of oil, natural gas and minerals under the melting ice to extract. Chinese companies are among those seeking to get in on the action.
The Pentagon has expressed concerns in reports to Congress that Chinese commercial and scientific activity in the Arctic could in some cases be a cover for developing military systems and conducting surveillance. In 2020, Canada rejected on security grounds a bid by Chinese company Shandong Gold Mining to buy an Arctic gold mine, and in February the Canadian government said it had found Chinese buoys in Arctic waters that it believes are intended for surveillance.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping share a close relationship and recently pledged to cooperate on opening pathways for goods to flow through the Arctic, but other Russian and Chinese officials have been at odds. Though cooperation between China and Russia has continued to deepen, some Russian officials are also suspicious of China's intentions in an area that Russia has long considered to be its area of influence.
"(The Arctic) is one of those global commons, where we want it to remain free and open, just like the Indo-Pacific," Flynn said. "We want the global commons to be secure, stable and protected so that every nation has a right of passage through them."
During a panel in October hosted by the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., Liselotte Odgaard, a professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, argued that Beijing's attention remains focused on the South China Sea — where the Chinese military has built bases on disputed islands and reefs to assert its territorial claims — and that China likely has "little interest in establishing a military presence" in the Arctic, at least for now — though she noted that China might be willing to partner more with Russia on development and excavation projects.
The convergence of Arctic and Pacific politics was on display at JPMRC in Alaska. Canadian and Italian troops joined the 11th Airborne in the U.S. military's Yukon Training Area while military observers from Japan, Mongolia, Nepal, Chile, Germany, Finland and Norway watched.
As the Army's training ranges in Hawaii such as the 25th Infantry Division's Lightning Academy on Oahu attract attention of troops wanting to train for jungle operations in the tropical regions of Asia and the Pacific, Alaska's winter ranges prepare others to operate in Asia's colder corners. In 2022 the 11th also trained with Indian troops in the Himalayas — not far from where Indian and Chinese troops have engaged in a series of deadly skirmishes — and with Japanese forces in Japan's colder northern territories.
"This year we're training all over the Indo-Pacific with other nations that have cold, high mountain, high-altitude terrain, as well as other Arctic nations," Eifler said. "So we're seeing this as a great opportunity as a joint environment, not just an Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, Marines, but also in a multinational environment."
Mongolian army chief Gen. Bujiinov Amgalanbaatar stopped in to watch the JPRMC training in Alaska and meet with Flynn and Eifler. The 11th Airborne is slated to conduct exercises in Mongolia — which is sandwiched between Russia and China — later this year.
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