The United States cannot deter what it cannot detect. Two decades of twenty-first-century national security policies and strategies identify homeland defense as the top priority. Despite commitment to defending the homeland, at least in policy rhetoric, Washington continues accepting Arctic vulnerability. Chinese and Russian Arctic activities complicate regional dynamics, necessitating a revised homeland defense posture that emphasizes integrated deterrence. This requires a layered approach utilizing all capabilities across the whole of the US government, and currently, the United States is overreliant on some capabilities and underutilizing others.

The dominant Arctic security narrative today advocates for acquiring more things—icebreakers, as an example—to enhance US Arctic capabilities, but icebreakers are expensive and take years to field. Focusing on acquiring new capabilities overlooks existent and available ones. Washington cannot sit idle while it waits for new assets to be built. To effectively detect, deter, and defend against threats to the homeland, the United States needs to continue technology investment and improve Navy and Coast Guard resourcing, but not as its only approach. To bridge the gap now while waiting for more capability later, DoD needs to better and more deliberately leverage underutilized federal assets for Arctic presence to enhance domain awareness.

A Changing Threat Environment Leads to Security Vulnerabilities

Our ability to deter threats arrayed against the homeland hinges upon our ability to detect current and future strategic competitor capabilities with urgency. To reliably defend the homeland, we need to rapidly sense, collect, process, analyze, evaluate, and exploit intelligence regarding potential adversaries operating in and around the Arctic. In any context, a capable defense begins with robust domain awareness—but the Arctic is where we need domain awareness most and have the least.

As Arctic maritime activity increases due to melting sea ice, US domain awareness capabilities elevate in importance. US detection systems are built upon ground that is thawing beneath them. As the risk to aging, static domain awareness systems increases, our ability to detect, deter, and defend decreases. Absent a reliable array of detection systems and given the glacial speeds of defense acquisitions, Washington needs to reorient its approach to Arctic security and leverage the capabilities available now while seeking to field new capabilities later. And the first step to improved Arctic domain awareness is persistent Arctic presence.

Persistent Arctic Presence for Enhanced Domain Awareness

After years of Russian Arctic military revitalization and buildup, policymakers and defense planners are returning their attention to the High North. In August, the US State Department announced plans to establish an Arctic ambassador amid tensions due to Russia’s war in Ukraine. That same month, Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced the Arctic Commitment Act, charging the US Navy and US Coast Guard with establishing persistent presence in the US Arctic. As well, the latest iterations of the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy identify the Arctic among the principal national security concerns.

As the officer charged with the National Defense Strategy’s top priority of defending the homeland, General Glen VanHerck—commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM)—has stated, the United States does not have the persistent presence needed “to compete day-to-day in the Arctic.” The general also outlined his priorities of domain awareness, communication, and data collection to enable Arctic persistence. Previous USNORTHCOM commanders have called for more Arctic ports, among other requirements, to enable Arctic maritime presence. One proposed solution centers on the Port of Nome in Alaska, but it’s not happening fast enough.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ feasibility report to improve the Port of Nome noted that “an accessible port would provide unique benefits to Homeland Defense, including a port of refuge, logistics support, and a location to loiter as the maritime situation unfolds.” Modifying the Port of Nome to support deepwater berthing and year-round access requires an estimated $491 million to complete. These modifications include potential national security benefits for the Coast Guard and the Navy as each service looks to conduct year-round maritime surface missions in the future. There is no completion date reported, however, so any intent of using this port as a base of Arctic operations is years away at best. Just as the pace for building infrastructure is lagging behind, so is our ability to rapidly acquire technology.

Industry Invests While DoD Divests

In general, since the end of World War II, DoD has divested talent while industry has invested. In the 1940s, the government developed cutting-edge technology at a rapid pace by recruiting and leveraging the sharpest minds available. Technological advancements focused toward the demands of the war. Using a whole-of-nation approach revealed that off-the-shelf products at the time could be repurposed for defense utilization. However, the slow speed at which we acquire and update domain awareness technology today means we are not keeping pace with the threat, and our acquisitions process leads to fiscally irresponsible outcomes. We need accelerated processes to modernize our most critical defense systems, many of which are nearly obsolete relative to modern offensive threats.

The outdated North Warning System (NWS) lines the High North, stretching three thousand miles from Labrador to the Alaska border. During the 1985 “Shamrock Summit” between President Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the leaders committed to modernizing the aging Defense Early Warning line, constructed in the 1950s, into the NWS. Back then, national leaders directed investment for defense systems necessary to meet demands posed by offensive threats.

The NWS is obsolete today. After the former deputy director of NORAD, Commodore Jamie Clarke, warned of the NWS’s inability to track Russian bombers, Ottawa committed $5 billion toward NWS upgrades. Washington needs to match Ottawa’s commitment to defend the High North against modern offensive threats in the long term. In the short term, however, the Pentagon cannot wait for glacial defense acquisitions programs to catch up. By the time the United States updates the NWS to meet today’s threat environment our adversaries will have developed new capabilities.

DoD needs to identify quicker, more cost-effective measures for Arctic security. If not, the department will continue to pursue solutions tomorrow for problems today rather than pursuing solutions today for problems tomorrow. For the sake of national defense and security, Washington must do better.

Flipping the Script on Resource Acquisition and Integration

To combat this challenge, DoD can flip the cost curve, promote responsible budget spending, and accelerate capability fielding by more deliberately integrating preexisting—but underutilized—resources. The United States is an Arctic nation, yet DoD isn’t properly resourced to provide communication, domain awareness, and persistent presence in the High North. Referring to smart investing and avoiding a capabilities lag, Lieutenant General David Krumm, commander of Alaskan Command, 11th Air Force, and the Alaskan NORAD Region, said that “what happens in our Arctic . . . we want to be by choice, not by consequence.”

Similarly, former 2nd Fleet commanding officer Vice Admiral Andrew “Woody” Lewis warned that the Arctic will become contested if the United States lacks continued presence. To this end, the US Navy and US Coast Guard called for increased presence in their Arctic strategies. In particular, the Navy’s 2021 “Blue Arctic” strategy states that Russia and China will challenge stability in the Arctic “without sustained American naval presence” there.

Like the Navy, the Coast Guard’s Arctic strategy identifies the need for “physical presence, at will, to uphold sovereignty,” among other requirements. Both the Coast Guard and Navy participate in annual Arctic events such as Operation Arctic Shield, the Arctic Edge exercise, and ICEX. But these are temporary scheduled events falling short of persistent maritime presence in the North American Arctic.

There’s a reason why the Arctic Commitment Act charges the Navy and Coast Guard to provide persistent presence in the Arctic. Arctic shipping routes are now open year-round—a commercial ship sailed the Northern Sea Route in February 2021 from Jiangsu, China to a gas plant on the Russian Arctic coast. The cold temperatures, volatile seas, and unpredictable ice flows usually make much of the Arctic impassable, but the environment is changing.

While the US Navy and US Coast Guard participate in seasonal exercises and operate in the Arctic occasionally throughout the year, we miss the mark when it comes to persistent presence and, consequently, domain awareness. The new service Arctic strategies are good in theory but useless if not properly resourced to achieve intent. Neither the Navy nor the Coast Guard is capable of or resourced for—and both are therefore unwilling to conduct—year-round operations in the North American Arctic. Fortunately, there is a viable solution for Arctic presence now that does not rely on more icebreakers later.

The Interagency Partner We Should be Utilizing

The vessels of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are part of the Federal Oceanographic Fleet. NOAA ships are commanded by commissioned uniformed NOAA Corps officers and operated under the direction of NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO). NOAA Corps is a small service of a little more than three hundred officers operating within the larger NOAA structure. The NOAA fleet is more active in the US-defined Arctic region than the US Navy and US Coast Guard.

Since 2015, NOAA has been underway thirty times with a total of 489 planned days at sea in the US Arctic, in comparison to the US Navy’s and US Coast Guard’s seasonal sailings. NOAA’s fleet of fifteen research and survey ships collect data for nautical charts, storm surge modeling, climate research, and fishery quotas, and sail the more than four million square miles of the United States’ exclusive economic zone. Six NOAA white hulls are ice hardened for first-year ice conditions while the Navy has no ice-hardened gray hulls and Coast Guard has a two-vessel icebreaker fleet.

To enhance the United States’ integrated deterrence, maritime presence, and domain awareness, USNORTHCOM and NORAD should utilize NOAA vessels operating in the Arctic to aid in maritime warning. Information sharing is the bedrock of this mission and NOAA can contribute. USNORTHCOM touts its relationship with interagency partners like the Federal Bureau of Investigations, US Customs and Border Protection, the US Maritime Administration, Canadian Marine Security Operations Centres, and many more, to share information; yet there is no mention of NOAA—despite this federal partner being arguably the most robust provider of critical environmental intelligence for the Arctic.

According to its $6.9 billion requested budget for fiscal year 2023, NOAA intends to implement an interagency mapping strategy to explore and characterize the US Arctic exclusive economic zone, including 3D coastal modeling. NOAA plans to survey an additional 460 square nautical miles of Alaskan Arctic waters per year. This will require an increase in Arctic maritime presence, which DoD should leverage for enhanced Arctic domain awareness. The use of passive systems to collect information from an area beyond national jurisdiction, such as an exclusive economic zone, is lawful. NOAA vessels could utilize capabilities such as active low-frequency sonar arrays to detect and track undersea threats and send the sonar data back to NORAD for underwater surveillance.

Service liaison officers facilitate information sharing within the combatant commands. NOAA Corps currently has only one combatant command liaison officer, who resides at US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). USNORTHCOM and NORAD need a resident NOAA Corps liaison officer to execute this and other valuable national defense and security capabilities. NOAA’s data collection efforts can directly benefit NORAD and USNORTHCOM’s pursuit of domain awareness. Similarly, NOAA’s operations elevate US Navy and US Coast Guard Arctic readiness through improved information sharing, thus contributing to information dominance. Because information dominance enables decision superiority for senior leadership, this relationship’s capabilities in turn facilitate joint all-domain command and control. These are not merely academic suggestions—they are rooted in law and interdepartmental regulations, and must be followed now for future Arctic security.

Follow the Law for Homeland Defense

The preamble to the US Constitution requires the government to “provide for the common defence” of the nation. In keeping with this requirement, all uniformed service officers, including NOAA Corps, swear to support and defend the Constitution. As one of eight uniformed services, federal law and the NOAA Corps’s mission statement require it to provide officers to the “Armed Forces during times of war or national emergency.” Outside of war or national emergency, federal law also mandates NOAA Corps–DoD regulations “providing for the cooperation of the [NOAA] with the military departments in time of peace in preparation for its duties in time of war.” The president can also arm NOAA vessels pursuant to a national emergency declaration.

In compliance with federal law and mandated interdepartmental regulations, NOAA Corps Directives state officers “may serve with DOD during peacetime or during national emergency.” Federal legally mandated joint regulations govern DoD–NOAA Corps cooperation and outline NOAA Corps’s cooperative peacetime mission responsibilities with DoD. Specifically, the regulations state NOAA Corps shall:

  1. “coordinate . . . with programs of the Department of Defense . . . and provide assistance in matters relating to national defense”;
  2. “undertake such training programs as may be considered desirable by the Department of Defense”; and
  3. “maintain liaison with the Department of Defense, as necessary, to assure prompt and orderly utilization of its facilities and personnel in support of national defense.”

In essence, federal law and the NOAA Corps mission require cooperation with DoD during peacetime, national emergency, and war. Federal law requires NOAA Corps–DoD interdepartmental regulations to prescribe these cooperation duties and functions. Legally mandated regulations require NOAA Corps to maintain liaison with the armed forces, as necessary. The Arctic is a national vulnerability such that this liaison arrangement is necessary to reduce risk and improve national defense and security through enhanced domain awareness. This should happen through NORAD and USNORTHCOM, not just USINDOPACOM, where NOAA Corps’s only current combatant command resident liaison officer resides.

The nature of NORAD and USNORTHCOM’s mission requires a whole-of-government approach with strong interagency partnerships and daily coordination with onsite liaison officers from over sixty federal agencies. USNORTHCOM claims that “uniformed members representing all service branches work at USNORTHCOM’s headquarters.” This is true. All five DoD services and the Coast Guard are represented at the command. Even the seventh uniformed service, the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, is. But the eighth uniformed service, NOAA Corps, is not. Instead, the position of NOAA Corps’s liaison officer to USNORTHCOM is a nonresident, ancillary duty. Despite objective legal, regulatory, and mission requirements, there is no functional liaising occurring such that we are missing opportunities to improve homeland defense and domain awareness.

NOAA Corps is a small service with just over three hundred commissioned officers. It takes vision and a willingness to accept organizational risk to pursue new opportunities. The potential national defense and security contributions of enhanced DoD partnerships should compel OMAO leadership to reassess and repurpose current officer billets and realign them to the NOAA Corps mission and directives requiring such partnerships.

Moreover, formalized DoD partnerships that enhance NOAA’s and OMAO’s contributions to national security will broaden organizational visibility and generate increased appropriations opportunities that will tangibly advance the US national defense posture. To policy analysts, strategists, and operations planners, the need is obvious, the contribution is undeniable—so the decision is clear. It is a winning proposition all around. USNORTHCOM leadership wants it. So why isn’t it happening?

While we wait for ports to be finished, icebreakers to be built, and policies to be made, we need to capitalize on available federal resources now to bridge the gap between current and future challenges. The ability to garner complete domain awareness in the Arctic and to detect, deter, and defend against threats centers on deliberate Federal Oceanographic Fleet asset utilization in the maritime domain through liaising and integration of a critical, force-multiplying federal partner into NORAD and USNORTHCOM’s operational picture. These are logical and efficient suggestions also rooted in federal law, interdepartmental regulations, and missions. All we need to do is follow the law, apply the regulations, and pursue the stated missions; anything short of this needlessly risks homeland defense.

Major Kristen M. Heiserman is a fellow at the Institute for Future Conflict and an instructor of management at the United States Air Force Academy. She is a senior AFSOC pilot with over 2,300 flying hours in the MQ-1B, PC-12 and U-28A. Prior to USAFA, she served as the speechwriter for the commander of NORAD and USNORTHCOM.

Dr. Ryan Burke is a professor of military and strategic studies at the US Air Force Academy, codirector of Project 6633 at the Modern War Institute, affiliate professor at the University of Alaska’s Center for Arctic Security and Resilience, and research director for the Homeland Defense Institute at USAFA and USNORTHCOM.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (adapted by MWI)