WASHINGTON – Alaska is a strategic hotspot for the defense of the United States, the Indo-Pacific region and the Arctic, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said yesterday during a visit to the Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.
The secretary met with troops and leaders in Eielson and Fort Wainwright, Alaska. He referred to his visit at a press conference in an Eielson hangar.
“We are an Indo-Pacific nation and we are an arctic nation,” the secretary said. “And here in Alaska, these two critical regions intersect. This is where we can project power into both regions and where we need to be able to defend against threats from both places. This is also where we can better position ourselves and prepare for the climate changes that will impact our future. ”
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Climate change is already changing the strategic image in the north. The pack ice melts and a viable Northwest Passage crosses the Canada-US Arctic coast for much of the year. Permafrost is not that permanent, and Austin has warned that the change could lead to a scramble for resources in the region. He said this could mean the Arctic could become “a theater of competition for resources and even instability, and we need to stay ahead of that”.
Austin spoke to army leaders at Fort Wainwright and came away impressed with the thinking on the issue and how the service – which has two brigades in Alaska – is applying operational concepts to the Arctic.
While Austin has visited Wainwright and Eielson on a beautiful summer day, the winter weather in the area is brutal. It regularly has temperatures well below zero degrees Fahrenheit. A member of the Northern Warfare Training Center in Fort Wainwright said he worked outside when the temperature – not the wind chill – was 50 degrees below zero. “You don’t get used to the cold,” said the Army Staff Sgt. Brant Faus, one of the instructors at the center. “You get used to dealing with it.”
The instructors discussed the challenges of operating in the environment and the means they have designed to continue the missions. They also discussed the equipment needs of troops operating in such extreme conditions.
On the way to Eielson in army helicopters, local commanders took Austin on an aerial tour of Clear Space Force Base and the missile fields that protect the homeland from rogue state missiles.
Eielson is the Alaska operations center and training center for the Indo-Pacific Command. The base hosts four Red Flag exercises per year. Participants include United States, Japan, South Korea, United Kingdom, Canada, Philippines; others are also participating. During Austin’s visit, Airmen from Australia were working with officials from Eielson to prepare for their Red Flag exercise later this year.
Airmen at the base said there were more than 120 aircraft at the base, including F-22 Raptors, F-35 Lightning IIs, F-15 Eagles, F-18 Super Hornets, A- 10, tanker planes and more. “It looks like ants are running around the air base,” said one airman. “There are planes everywhere.
All of these airmen take advantage of Alaska’s 77,000 square mile training area. The instrumented area allows Airmen to practice any number of real world missions.