The Warming Arctic: Implications for U.S. Regional Defense Assets

The U.S. Air Force simulated attack exercise “Arctic Gold” took place in Nov. 8, 2018, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Photo Credit: 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs, U.S. Air Force

By: Ezra Shapiro, Columnist

On land and at sea, a warming Arctic is eroding US strategic force posturing and readiness in the High North. Melting permafrost and receding natural coastal barriers threaten existing defense infrastructure, while diminishing sea-ice is pushing regional US naval strategy into obsolescence. The Arctic’s strategic importance increases as it becomes more navigable. As such, the US should aim ready itself for the future challenges presented there. Alaska has long been critical to US defense strategy. Since the Cold War’s end, early warning systems, missiles, forward-based bombers and surveillance planes have been routinely stationed across the last frontier.[i] Today, Alaska is taking on renewed significance for US regional and global strategy. Across the narrow Bering Strait, Russia has bolstered its Arctic military presence in recent years; the US regularly intercepts Russian bombers flying off the coast of Alaska.[ii] Recognizing the need to balance the Russian buildup, the US Air Force recently announced that two squadrons of F-35s will be stationed at Eielson Air Force Base by 2020. Bases in Alaska also enable rapid deployment of American forces to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, an exigency increasingly important as the U.S. shifts its strategic focus there. Moreover, early-warning radar sites are just as critical for detecting attacks from North Korea, Russia and other adversaries.

Thawing Permafrost

While Alaska grows in strategic importance, the infrastructure that sustains US assets there is degrading. Bases, runways, radar stations and the roads that connect them are built upon permafrost, ground cover which remains frozen indefinitely and covers 85 percent of Alaskan land.[iii] With the Arctic warming at twice the speed of the rest of the world, permafrost is melting rapidly.[iv] As permafrost thaws, its load-bearing capacity decreases drastically as well, weakening foundations and damaging existing infrastructure such as buildings, pipelines, and transportation facilities. Permafrost also causes runways and roads to contort. In the first case, deformed runways affect air asset readiness. In the second, degraded roads reduce the serviceability of radar sites in remote locations.

Receding Landfast Ice

Coastal defenses in Alaska are vulnerable to diminishing sea-ice coverage. Coastal landfast ice—sea ice that fastens to the coast—is a crucial bulwark against rising waters, powerful storms and erosion. The Pentagon maintains 15 long-range radar sites across Alaska, many of which are situated along the coastline. This $7.1 billion-dollar early-warning system is “the primary way of consistently monitoring airspace over a huge swath the continent.”[v] Maintaining and supporting these sites requires airstrips, roads and personnel—all of which are threatened by the increasingly exposed coastline. In recent years, rising seas have started to submerge an airstrip in Point Hope, and a $47 million sea wall was erected in order to protect it. While sea walls might provide temporary relief, they act as band-aids, rather than true solutions to the problem. Coasts are continuing to erode much faster than anticipated. Eventually, radar sites along these coasts may have to be shuttered, as the Pentagon did to three early warning systems in 2007 after coastal erosion significantly degraded their utility. The U.S. may continue to lose strategic assets until it finds a suitable alternative.[vi]

Naval Strategy

While a warming Arctic presents challenges for existing US defense assets on land, it also transforms the strategic environment at sea. Coastal waters are patrolled largely by the US Coast Guard. While the US Navy recognizes that it will need to play a larger role in the region, entrenched resistance has frustrated any real re-focus. The Arctic Ocean has been the Coast Guard’s bailiwick since 1867, when Alaska was first purchased from Russia. Its main function, as elsewhere, is performing search and rescue (SAR) and enforcing US laws and regulations.[vii]

As the Arctic changes, the mission set required at sea is expanding beyond SAR and law enforcement, and less-icy waters offers opportunities. Up to 22 percent of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas reserves are in Arctic waters. Trade routes across and around the Arctic Circle save shipping companies significant time and money, while tourism, commercial fishing, and scientific research are also benefits offered by the expanding open waters.[viii] As such, the US, Russia, Canada and others have laid claim to overlapping sections of these valuable areas. States adjacent to and beyond the Arctic are drawn to these new opportunities, and while interstate interactions have thus far been marked by cooperation, the US would be wise to maintain a sufficient naval presence to protect its sovereignty. The US Navy has maintained an Arctic presence through “undersea and air assets,” but its last published Arctic strategy recognized that the “expanding open water areas” will require blue-water naval assets. Its timeline for accomplishing this, however, is quite long: it will not establish such capabilities until 2030.[ix]

Though the Pentagon may be pursuing its Arctic strategy on a long time horizon, Russia is not. In more recent years the Kremlin has “unveiled a new Arctic command, four new Arctic brigade combat teams, 14 new operational airfields” and moved to expand its already impressive fleet of icebreakers.[x] And while Russia has stressed its interest in multilateral cooperation on Arctic issues, its rapid military buildup indicates that it is willing to enforce its territorial claims.[xi]

Maintenance and Adjustment

As the Arctic land and seascapes change, its salience for interstate relations will as well. Whether or not the region will continue to be defined by cooperation remains to be seen, but the U.S. should elevate its prioritization of the Arctic while shortening its strategic time horizons. On land, solving infrastructural challenges will mean committing to ongoing repairs and innovating solutions to mitigate future damage. Both of these will entail expensive and ongoing processes. At sea, the Department of Defense (DoD) should consider that delaying deployment of blue-water navy assets for too long could leave the US unprepared for new maritime realities. These challenges could render the U.S. unable to respond to crises and outmatched to defend its own interests.


 [i] Streletskiy et al., “Permafrost, Infrastructure, and Climate Change.”

[ii] Travis Khachatoorian, “Report: Alaska Warming Twice As Fast As Global Average”, Ktuu.Com, 2019,–439353963.html.

[iii] Travis Khachatoorian, “Report: Alaska Warming Twice As Fast As Global Average”, Ktuu.Com, 2019,–439353963.html.

[v] Ibid

[vi] Zachariah Hughes, “Military’s Remote Alaska Radars Face A New Threat: Climate Change”, KTOO, 2019,

[vii] Testimony of Vice Admiral Charles D. Michel, Vice Commandant, US Coast Guard, on “Arctic Operations,” Before the House Foreign Affairs Committee—Western Hemisphere & Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats Subcommittees, November 17, 2015, p. 1.

[viii] Scott Borgerson et al., “The Emerging Arctic”, Council On Foreign Relations, 2019,!#!/emerging-arctic?cid=otr_marketing_use-arctic_Infoguide%2523!.

[ix] US Navy, US Navy Arctic Roadmap 2014 – 2030, February 2014, pp. 3-4.

[x] Robbie Gramer, “Here’s What Russia’s Military Build-Up In The Arctic Looks Like”, Foreign Policy, 2019,

[xi] Pavel Devyatkin, “Russia’s Arctic Strategy: Military And Security (Part II) | The Arctic Institute”, The Arctic Institute, 2019,

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