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Alaska’s Growing Strategic Importance | Washington Examiner

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When Secretary of State William Seward made the agreement to purchase what was then known as “Russian America” ​​from Tsar Alexander in 1867, he knew he had succeeded in the real estate theft of the century. . It was 586,000 square miles of virgin land rich in natural resources at a bargain price of $ 7.2 million, or just 2 cents an acre.

Although widely mocked at the time as President Andrew Johnson’s “Seward’s Folly”, “Seward’s icebox” and “polar bear garden”, ratification of the treaty was passed by Senate 37-2, largely due to public speaking skills. of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. He had defended the acquisition in an epic winder on the Senate floor, arguing at one point that it would give the United States more control over the next “great theater of action.”

And in this speech, it was Sumner who first referred to the new territory as “Alaska”, from the indigenous Aleut word for “great land”.

But as prescient as Seward and Sumner are, they could never have imagined how vital Alaska would become in the 21st century, as America enters a perilous new era of great power competition, in which the military America must deter, or be able to defeat, two close adversaries, China and Russia.

To appreciate Alaska’s unique geographic advantage, you must view Earth as if you were in space above the North Pole.

From there you can see that all of America’s potential adversaries, not just Russia across the Bering Strait, but also China, North Korea, and Iran, are in the hundreds. or thousands of miles closer to Alaska than any other point in the continental United States.

The polar route is the route incoming missiles would take to reach major cities in the United States, or as former Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in 2015, Alaska is “sort of on the way. from and to many difficult places “.

That’s why Alaska is at the heart of US missile defense, with 40 interceptor missiles waiting in silos at Fort Greely, and 22 more missiles will be added this year.

This is why the United States decided to base 100 of its best fighter jets, a mix of F-35 and F-22, in Alaska, making it home to more advanced fighters than any other place in the world. the world.

During a recent inspection tour of Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he left with a “vivid reminder of the strategic importance of Alaska to our security. national and territorial defense ”.

“We are an Indo-Pacific nation, and we are an Arctic nation, and here in Alaska these two critical regions intersect,” Austin said at a press conference. “This is where we can project power in both regions and where we need to be able to defend against threats from both places.”

Republican Senator Dan Sullivan, a Marine Corps Reserve Colonel, accompanied Austin on his priority tour after the end of the Cold War.

“You’d be surprised how many very senior military officials haven’t spent a lot of time in Alaska,” Sullivan told the Washington Examiner in an interview. “And then when they go up there the same thing happens – you can just see their eyes literally open.”

One of the first things Sullivan did as he took his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee was to review the Pentagon’s Arctic policy developed in 2013.

Sullivan said it was “a strategy joke”. Then, during the hearings, he grilled Pentagon leaders over the lightweight document, which he said was only 13 pages long, six of which were pictures, with Russia only mentioned once, in a footnote.

But in the years that followed, Sullivan said the Armed Services Committee, “in a very bipartisan way,” pushed the Pentagon to get serious. The Army, Navy, and Air Force have all released overhauled strategy documents over the past year.

The Army’s strategy is focused on a power projection crisis response with forces such as the 1st Striker Brigade, based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, the only airborne brigade combat team in all of Asia -Pacific and the reserve force for a Korean contingency.

“These units can be anywhere in the northern hemisphere from Alaska in seven hours,” Sullivan said.

The Navy’s strategy is focused on expanding its presence and building a “more capable Arctic naval force” as the rapid melting of sea ice over the next decade results in arctic waters of more and more navigable.

The Air Force views Alaska’s proximity to potential enemies as a double-edged sword.

While “Alaska offers the fastest air access to strategic locations in the Pacific region and western Russia,” the strategy notes, “it is also the shortest distance for adversaries threaten the homeland with air attacks and strategic missiles ”.

“If you look at recent Arctic service strategies, they’re all good,” said Sullivan, who drafted an amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act to create an Arctic security initiative. , which is inspired by similar legislation for Europe and the Pacific region and would fund new service strategies.

As the Army’s strategy emphasizes, building new bases and upgrading old ones are high on the list of priorities.

“The infrastructure in many austere places has already deteriorated due to extreme environmental factors,” including repeated cycles of freeze and thaw and degradation of permafrost, the report warns.

“We need infrastructure. We need military means. We need presence. It is starting to happen, but we have a long way to go,” Sullivan said.

A big step forward will be the planned construction of an Arctic deepwater port in Nome, Alaska, near the Bering Strait, the gateway to the Arctic Ocean, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has dubbed “the new canal. de Suez “and undertook to control.

“Right now, the only ports in Alaska that could accommodate a destroyer or icebreaker are either Anchorage or Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian Islands chain,” said Sullivan, who pointed out that Anchorage is located. 1,500 nautical miles from the Bering Strait.

“Think about it. Having Anchorage cover the Bering Strait area, where all shipping takes place, would be like Miami covering Boston,” he said. “We wouldn’t accept this on the east coast, and we shouldn’t accept this in the arctic region of America.”

When Sullivan teaches insiders about the strategic value of Alaska, he has a favorite quote he likes to trot from aviation visionary Billy Mitchell, the One Star Army General considered the father of the US Air Force. .

In testimony to the House Committee on Military Affairs in 1935, Mitchell said, “I believe in the future whoever owns Alaska will hold the world … I think it is. the most important strategic location in the world.

As for Seward and Sumner’s foreknowledge of Alaska’s value 154 years ago, Sullivan said they “knew what they were doing.”

Jamie McIntyre is the Washington Examiner senior editor on defense and national security. His morning newsletter, “Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense”, is free and available by email at dailyondefense.com.

Original location: Alaska’s growing strategic importance

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