Editor’s note: Hours after this article was published, US aircraft again intercepted two Russian planes that had entered the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone—the third such intercept operation so far this year.


It went largely unnoticed by the public, in the midst of a growing pandemic and toilet paper battles at American big box stores, but on March 9, US and Canadian fighters intercepted Russian reconnaissance planes flying near Alaskan airspace. Two Russian Tupolev Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft flew within sixty nautical miles of the Alaskan coastline, breaching the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) barrier and triggering US and Canadian fighters to scramble to intercept the Russian aircraft. The Russian planes loitered for four hours even with US and Canadian fighters on their tails and at about 2,500 feet above an active US naval exercise in the Arctic, as Air Force Gen. Terrance O’Shaughnessy, commander of NORAD/NORTHCOM—both the US-Canadian binational North American Aerospace Defense Command and the US military’s Northern Command—recently testified to the House Armed Services Committee. Though the Russian aircraft did not enter Alaskan territorial airspace, which extends twelve nautical miles off the coast, they flew well within the Alaskan ADIZ—an area of international airspace in which the United States has clearly communicated it will intercept aircraft that breach it without identifying themselves to US air traffic control—in a brazen attempt to surveil US submarine activities in the annual ICEX.

That US and Canadian fighters intercepted Russian aircraft near Alaskan airspace is not new. In fact, this is the second such occurrence in 2020 and one of dozens of similar incidents to occur since Russia resumed long-range reconnaissance sorties in 2007. The relative frequency of these incidents over the Arctic leads many to dismiss Russian activity as routine. In past years, perhaps this was an acceptable conclusion. Given recent developments in the Arctic, however, the United States can no longer afford to adopt the notion of “Arctic exceptionalism”—the idea that it is a region fundamentally unique in its general immunity from conflict—and overlook continued Russian aggression in the high north.

Gen. O’Shaughnessy’s March 11 congressional testimony was ripe with notable and quotable comments on the evolving situation in the Arctic. While none rose to the level of Gen. Billy Mitchell’s quip to a congressional committee in February 1935 that “Alaska is the most strategic place in the world,” Gen. O’Shaughnessy’s Arctic rhetoric was anything but passive. Over the course of an hour, the general charged with defending the US homeland conveyed to lawmakers a straightforward message: that the Arctic is no longer a peaceful domain. Rather, he noted, the region is now the “principal avenue of approach we need to defend.”

At times, the tone of Gen. O’Shaughnessy’s testimony was in noticeable contrast to that of DoD’s own Arctic Strategy, which claims that “the immediate prospect of conflict in the Arctic is low.” The US defense establishment, and those writing to influence it, need to wake up and acknowledge the new reality that great-power competition, as Gen. O’Shaughnessy testified, “has arrived” in the Arctic. Anything short of this only extends the approach to the Arctic problem that has largely prevailed to date, which borders dangerously on a sense of apathy—an apathy that is not mirrored by our competitors. Since their symbolic flag planting on the North Pole seabed in 2007, Russia has aggressively built military infrastructure and deployed capabilities to the Arctic while the United States has done little more than watch. Reactivating a sub-Arctic fighter squadron and sending F-35s to Eielson Air Force Base is a step along the right trajectory, but also a step that comes nearly a decade too late and still leaves the United States in the wrong position to adequately defend the homeland.

There is a disconcertingly popular narrative on US Arctic policy and military posture that promotes a reserved approach, one that doesn’t unnecessarily provoke Russia and instead seems to almost apologize for suggestions that the US enhance its Arctic capabilities and orientation. The narrative accuses those advocating for Arctic action of being Arctic alarmists and injecting unwarranted fear of great-power conflict into the otherwise peaceful Arctic domain. The narrative sees Russian actions in the Arctic as defensive in nature and nothing more than a peaceful buildup of military capabilities and infrastructure in their own sovereign territory. In the era of renewed great-power competition and with a Russian economy dependent on access to Arctic resources, such valuable territory requires access assurances provided by military presence. Critics of this narrative, on the other hand, see Russian Arctic action as offensive, expansionist, aggressive, and thus threatening to the US homeland. Given the disparity between these two camps, one has to wonder: What does Gen. O’Shaughnessy see in the Arctic that dozens of scholars and policymakers invested in the prevailing narrative do not see? Why would the NORTHCOM commander voluntarily engage in an alarmist narrative that contradicts the dominant position of conventional wisdom surrounding Arctic security? Is it, perhaps, to inject urgency in the conversation sufficient to justify NORTHCOM’s annual budget request? Or, is it that these are legitimate concerns from the nation’s top homeland defense general and Arctic advocate warranting action?

Current Situation in the Arctic

An assessment of the contemporary Arctic security environment highlights a great deal of Russian action. The most frequently cited data point is that Russian icebreakers outnumber US icebreakers twenty to one. We also read about Russia’s continued military buildup north of the Arctic Circle. According to some estimates, Russia has built some five hundred military structures in the Arctic since 2014. Additionally, Russia has created a new military command focused on Arctic operations, conducted thousands of Arctic exercises, and committed to priority modernization of its northern forces above all others. Beyond this, Russia asserts aggressive (and only questionably legal) control over foreign ships transiting the Northern Sea Route (NSR) by requiring passing vessels to host a Russian pilot during the transit. With these controlling claims to the NSR, Russian president Vladimir Putin has quipped that it will be the new Suez Canal. Though the NSR is a long way off from supplanting the Suez (thirty-seven ships transited the NSR in all of 2019 compared to up to seventy-one ships in a single day in the Suez), Putin’s emphasis on the Arctic and continued Russian investment in the high north speaks volumes about its future significance for Russian ambition and influence. Moscow displays an unwavering commitment to the Arctic by way of military and economic investment that the United States, as an Arctic border state, must not dismiss, especially with some of the recent Arctic developments adding further tension to the region.

The high north in April 2020 is not the high north of even a year ago, and despite the long period of strategic apathy toward the Arctic, the United States is beginning to take greater action, as well. Last year, media talking heads and national security experts scoffed at President Donald Trump’s stated interest in purchasing Greenland and generally dismissed the broader geostrategic implications of the suggestion. Whether the president was genuinely serious about the acquisition is anyone’s guess; but the mere fact that the Greenland suggestion circulated the newswire was indication enough that the administration considers the evolving Arctic an area of concern. Trump’s interest in Greenland was, at the time, something of a gentle wakeup call about Arctic influence. Since then, the United States has developed plans to open a consulate in Greenland. One day after that announcement in December 2019, Russia’s top general confirmed Russian deployment of so-called “unstoppable” hypersonic missiles to the Arctic. Given the airbase locations of the Kinzhal missiles, Russian MiG fighters with these air-launched ballistic missiles now pose an indefensible threat to a major portion of the Arctic Circle and NATO allies. According to Gen. O’Shaughnessy during his March congressional testimony, these Russian missiles can “strike Alaska with little indication or warning.” If the Greenland conversation last August was a gentle wakeup call about Arctic influence, the Russian deployment of unstoppable hypersonic missiles coupled with continued sorties in the vicinity of Alaskan airspace should serve as a blaring alarm.

Technological Upgrades and Enhanced Presence

With this evolving concern in the high north, the logical question to ask is what the United States is doing to ensure defense of the homeland. US northern defenses as woefully obsolete. The North Warning System, a northern-tier radar array in Alaska and Canada designed to identify incoming missile threats, was last updated in the 1980s. This system is incapable of providing sufficient warning to defend against modern Russian air- and sea-launched cruise missiles with standoff ranges that enable them to strike North American targets from beyond the extent of our existing radar coverage. The Russian Avangard, an intercontinental ballistic missile–deliverable hypersonic glide vehicle, is one of several such weapons systems keeping US planners up at night. The North Warning System is also an inadequate defense against the newly deployed Kinzhal hypersonic missiles in the Arctic. The situation is no better in the maritime domain. Current US undersea surveillance capabilities cannot reliably track newly developed Russian submarines, which means that they can maneuver undetected throughout the Arctic Ocean. As Russian twenty-first-century capabilities advance both in speed and distance, the vast Arctic—as a new “battlespace”—begins to compress. Battlespace compression leads to reduced reactions times and—given US twentieth-century technology—an inability to defend the US homeland against a modernized Russian Arctic force that may well seek to exploit US complacency in future great-power competition. DoD tells us that the 2019 Arctic Strategy is rooted in and informed by the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. The first pillar of the NSS is to “protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life,” and the first sub-pillar of this priority focus is to “secure US borders and territory.” Despite this charge, we can logically conclude that the United States cannot meet this intent on its northern Arctic border given the current technological disparity noted. This is a critical vulnerability that the United States must address. In Gen. O’Shaughnessy’s words: “We cannot defend the Nation against 21st-century threats with 20th-century technology.”

In pursuit of twenty-first-century defense technology and improved homeland defense, the United States has its sights set on the Strategic Homeland Integrated Ecosystem Layered Defense (SHIELD). According to Gen. O’Shaughnessy, SHIELD is a defense and defeat mechanism that will enable multi-domain threat detection and elimination via coordinated command and control and rapid resource deployment. From sensing grids capable of detecting and tracking incoming threats to improved cruise- and ballistic-missile defenses, NORTHCOM’s SHIELD sounds like a winner. The problem: even with a catchy and deliberately themed acronym, SHIELD is an ill-defined and unfunded request still at least a year from realization. Until then, the United States will continue to rely on conventional forces and limited cold-weather capabilities to defend against “advancing adversaries” in the Arctic.

To succeed in the Arctic the United States must actually be in the Arctic. While each of the four services has increased its cold-weather training and presence in recent years, the military needs more. Along with greater investment in more robust and modern technology, each service’s cold-weather readiness must be better developed and maintained. The United States must continue sending Marines to the “snow of far-off Northern lands,” and specifically to Alaska’s northern slope to further the Corps’ ongoing Arctic training and immersion efforts. The US Army must keep preparing for the Arctic fight, and do so as vigorously as it has trained for Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. And though US Navy submarines have operated in Arctic waters for years, the Navy needs to build on the recent Arctic deployments and maintain more surface presence in the high north—specifically in the relatively populated North Atlantic—to be a visible deterrent to Russia and ensure freedom of the seas. The US military does not require ice-hardened vessels to sail in an economically significant region with year-round ice-free ports. To this point, the reactivation of the Navy’s Second Fleet in 2018 is in direct response to increased Russian activity off the US East Coast. If Russian activity there can compel this sort of response, the same can be said for Russian activity in the Arctic. Finally, the Air Force, as the preponderant US military force in the Arctic, should continue its force investment and bring more capabilities to its sub-Arctic bases in Alaska and Greenland. Extending and expanding US conventional force presence in and around the Arctic is a step in the right direction. Additionally, the United States must maintain its commitment to joint-force and international military exercises in both Alaska and Northern Europe. These exercises demonstrate visible willingness of the US military to engage in extreme cold-weather environments and serve as necessary posturing and presence deterrents for an increasingly confident Russia.

There is nothing new in these suggestions other than continued advocacy promoting Arctic awareness and calling for action. Russian activity and advancement in the Arctic constitute an evolving threat to the homeland. Moreover, all of this says nothing about China’s active interest in Arctic governance and influence, which further compounds the high north challenge. Regardless, some look at the vast Arctic and the challenges of operating militarily in such extreme conditions and mistakenly assume those conditions will forestall conflict—there “ain’t no war comin’ up here,” they say. They read articles like this and others promoting military presence in the Arctic and dismiss the notion of a new Cold War in the high north as ludicrous alarmism. This view, though—of “Arctic exceptionalism”—assumes benign Russian intent, even ignoring objective evidence of Moscow’s malign purposes in the region. But this Arctic apathy cannot remain as the prevailing position influencing the conversation today.

Of course, this is not to say the United States should go to war in the high north. Rather, it is an argument that the United States cannot afford to dismiss Russian Arctic advancement and aggression as routine, for doing so may prove to be a grave strategic miscalculation. Gen. O’Shaughnessy minced no words when asked what he thinks about recent Russian activity in the Arctic, saying that their behavior to date indicates “their capability, capacity, and intent to hold our homeland at risk below the nuclear threshold.” We need to recognize this new reality. Just like the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans have long since transitioned from “protective moats” on either of America’s flanks to “avenues of approach to the homeland,” the Arctic has now become such an avenue, as well. To meet this evolving threat, the United States must pivot its strategy and extend its military capabilities to the high north. If 2020 truly is the “year of homeland defense,” then the United States needs more Arctic awareness and greater Arctic action, because the Arctic is a twenty-first-century battlespace and the region most closely linked to the security of the US homeland.


Dr. Ryan Burke is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute. He is an associate professor of Military & Strategic Studies at the US Air Force Academy, a DoD Minerva-funded researcher, and a veteran Marine Corps officer. He is a member of the North American Defense and Security Academic Alliance and writes broadly on homeland defense issues. His book, The Polar Pivot: Great Power Competition in the Arctic and Antarctica, is forthcoming with Lynne Rienner Publishers in 2021.


Image credit: John Pennell, US Army