By Lt. Gen. David A. Krumm
The 49th State, the Last Frontier, and the Land of the Midnight Sun are just a few of the monikers for the State of Alaska. For many, Alaska represents pristine wilderness filled with glaciers and an abundance of fish and wildlife. It is also known for its vast expanses, its remote locations, and its status as the northernmost state that makes the US an Arctic nation. What isn’t so well understood is what Alaska’s position on the globe means in a larger context. In 1935, when testifying before Congress, General Billy Mitchell, the “Father of the Air Force” stated he believed Alaska “is the most strategic place in the world” and “whoever controls Alaska controls the world.” Not only is Anchorage closer in straight line distance to most of the world’s major cities than Washington, DC, but at Alaska’s northwestern coastline, there are only 55 miles of ice or water that separate the state from the northeastern coastline of Russia. These two factors make Alaska both a power projection location for the United States and a potential approach to the homeland.
With the unprecedented reduction of sea ice in the Arctic, Alaska is more strategically important than ever before. The Arctic region has drawn the attention of our global competitors who are eyeing the Arctic to further their own strategic and economic interests. Our competitors continue to invest in technologies, such as air, sea, and ground-launched missiles that are no longer inhibited by what used to be considered the natural buffer offered by the Arctic. They are posturing forces further north for longer periods and investing in infrastructure that permits them to have a year-round, high-Arctic presence. A more open Arctic has also resulted in new, shorter shipping routes for the worldwide transportation of goods, bringing maritime traffic in the region to an all-time high. A reduction in ice coverage also means increased access to natural resources in the region. Even nations who do not have a coastline bordering the Arctic are looking north at these natural resources and their potential. The Arctic is opening at an accelerating rate, and the United States and our allies need to do our part to ensure that it is an orderly opening. To do so means a resilient, persistent presence and the ability to operate from both main operating bases and more austere locations across Alaska. This is known as Agile Combat Employment (ACE).
Agile Combat Employment is how the Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Region maintains resilient and persistent operations. Recently, the Alaskan NORAD region employed the ACE concept in May of 2021 during Operation Noble Defender, a NORAD air defense operation, by forward-deploying F-22 Raptors to the community of King Salmon, Alaska. For more than a week, this community of less than 500 people became a small version of an air base for the members participating in Operation Noble Defender. Through a combination of pre-event planning and positioning of resources; personnel and equipment deployment; air transport and re-supply; and by leveraging the local area knowledge of King Salmon residents, aircraft from both NORAD and the 3rd Wing stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), Alaska, were able to operate from King Salmon as if it was the normal day-to-day operating airfield. The success at King Salmon clearly demonstrated our ability to disperse assets and to operate at remote locations with reduced infrastructure. It proved, should our main operating bases located at JBER and Eielson become unusable for any reason - be it earthquake, wildfire, or enemy action - NORAD and the air wings are able to maintain continuity of operations. The success recently achieved at King Salmon has led the Alaskan NORAD Region to move to reinvigorating other remote Alaskan communities that have supported operations in the past through the ACE concept.
Why is this so important? As “the most strategic place in the world,” we must always be able to defend Alaska. Defending Alaska means defending North America. Through the ACE concept, we ensure continuity of resilient, persistent operations.
The desired end-state for the Arctic is a secure and stable region where the interests of all are safeguarded, our homeland is protected, and where nations address shared challenges cooperatively. Reduced sea ice, international interest in the Arctic’s natural resources, and the advances being made by our competitors in the realm of military technology and forward basing means it is now more important than ever to demonstrate our resolve to defend the Arctic and the approach to North America. Agile Combat Employment ensures we meet the mandate set out in the DoD Arctic Strategy which states “The U.S. Arctic deterrent will require agile, capable, and expeditionary forces with the ability to flexibly project power into and operate within the region, as the Joint Force must be able to do elsewhere globally.” Continuous development of ACE capabilities, combined with the help of communities such as King Salmon, will improve our nation’s ability to secure and defend our northern borders while ensuring a free and open Arctic.
Lt Gen David A. Krumm is the Commander, Alaskan Command, United States Northern Command; Commander, Eleventh Air Force, Pacific Air Forces; and Commander, North American Aerospace Defense Command Alaskan Region, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. He is the senior military officer in Alaska, responsible for the integration of all military activities in the Alaskan joint operations area, synchronizing the activities of more than 21,000 active-duty and reserve forces from all services. As Commander of the Alaskan Region of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, Lt. Gen. Krumm directs operations to ensure effective surveillance, monitoring and defense of the region’s airspace. He is also responsible for the planning and execution of all homeland defense operations within the area of responsibility, including security and civil support actions.