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NEWS | Jan. 31, 2023

National Guard Arctic Interest Council chair highlights need for better Arctic access, unified strategy

By Alan Brown Alaska National Guard Public Affairs

Speaking as the Chair of the National Guard Arctic Interest Council, Jan. 25, Adjutant General of the Alaska National Guard, Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe addressed several challenges the Guard and other service components will face when conducting Arctic operations, and emphasized the need for a unified Arctic strategy for the National Guard.

Saxe spoke via teleconference at the council’s quarterly meeting hosted by the Minnesota National Guard at Camp Ripley, outside of Little Falls. The three-day event included National Guard participants from Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, North Dakota, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

During his opening remarks, Saxe drew parallels between the AKNG’s recent emergency response to Typhoon Merbok and a homeland defense emergency. During that response, the AKNG deployed more than 160 members across 2,400 square miles in Western Alaska to provide damage assessment, clean up and infrastructure repair.

He said the Guard’s experience after Merbok provided valuable insight into challenges a military force would face if responding to a near-peer threat in the region.

The big takeaway – military forces require better access to the Arctic.

“We do not have sufficient access to all the places within the Arctic if we need to go,” said Saxe. “We are limited in areas we need to go with fixed-wing aircraft.”

Looking ahead to large-scale contingencies in Alaska’s Arctic region, Saxe said 8,000-foot runways would be necessary to ensure military fixed-wing aircraft can access remote communities off the road system. Such a tall order for rural Alaska will require large-scale expansion across the state, he said.

For now, Saxe said that any homeland defense operation against a near-peer adversary would rely on a few hub communities with more established infrastructure. In Western Alaska, that means Bethel, Nome and Kotzebue, which not on the road system and span 417 miles (Bethel to Kotzebue). Helicopters, boats, snow machines and tracked Small Unit Support Vehicles (SUSVs) would be required to push forces and supplies to more remote areas.

Saxe said Arctic operations and defending the homeland need to be viewed as one in the same. However, he said current operational plans and doctrine don’t always align with that way of thinking. As an example, he said U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and U.S. Northern Command have competing priorities and resources that could create operational tension in the event of a large-scale conflict.

While NORTHCOM has the broad mission of homeland defense and encompasses the U.S. Arctic region, Alaska based forces fall under INDOPACOM control for any contingency operations across the Pacific and Asia. In the event of an INDOPACOM-led operation, Saxe said Alaska-based forces, to include the National Guard, could be called to fight outside the state and surrounding region.

For Saxe, that scenario reveals a serious vulnerability: what forces will defend the United States’ back door in the Arctic?

National Security Advisor to Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan, Chadd Montgomery, also spoke to the forum via teleconference and raised the same question. He highlighted the “tension inherent in the forces that are based in Alaska” who are subject to being tasked for an INDOPACOM mission away from Alaska. He said that contingency raises “doubt as to who’s conducting the homeland defense mission.”

He said this dichotomy has drawn attention among leaders in Washington D.C., particularly in the wake of increasing Chinese and Russian missile capability. One assessment, he offered: “We are not properly postured and resourced like we need to be to meet the threat.”

Part of the solution, Saxe said, is a unified National Guard Arctic Strategy to complement existing service component, DoD and U.S. strategies. Such a document would need to address the mounting threat to homeland security and provide clear guidance on mission focus, interoperability, equipping and training for Guard forces operating in Arctic regions, he said.

Saxe said the strategy should not only outline the National Guard’s unique capabilities and clearly defined role in Arctic operations, but it needs to deconflict the ambiguities within current contingency plans.

“What does the National Guard do that only the National Guard can do? What are those unique differences?” he asked the attendees of the forum. These are the questions that must be considered, analyzed and woven into a unique National Guard strategy nested within each respective service component and DoD, he said.

Saxe called on each NG-AIC state to engage their congressional delegations to address these challenges and identify key resourcing requirements necessary for Arctic mobility, equipping and training.

The NG-AIC submitted a draft Arctic strategy document to National Guard Bureau in June 2022.