Alaska’s geopolitical importance in the age of Great Power competition
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine is not only horrific, but also a strategic blunder that is undermining Russia on the world stage, as it strengthens the American-led alliance opposing his brutal actions. Putin’s strategic misstep follows in the tradition of Russian Czar Alexander II, who by selling Alaska to America in 1867 similarly weakened Russia while significantly strengthening America. A recent visit with United States Air and Space Forces Civic Leaders to bases in Alaska led by Lt. Gen. Jake Jacobson made clear to me that Secretary of State William Seward’s purchase of Alaska for $7 million was far from being folly, as it was called at the time. There are four reasons why Alaska is of growing importance to America’s strategic competition with rival powers.
America’s high ground: It is a precept of military strategy to gain the high ground, the elevated terrain where you can best defend your position and easily advance. Echoing the view of Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell in 1935 that “Alaska is the most strategic place on earth,” Lt. Gen. David Krumm, the Air Force leader in Alaska, emphasizes that looking at the globe from above makes clear how all locations in the Northern hemisphere are close to Alaska, pointing out that Alaska is closer to Tokyo than Hawaii and closer to Moscow than Washington D.C.
Recognizing Alaska’s proximity, Japan captured a couple of the Aleutian Islands during World War II, seeking to prevent this high ground position from being used to attack across the northern Pacific. Today, the importance of Alaska’s key position is reflected in the Air Force positioning four squadrons of fifth-generation fighter jets in Alaska — two squadrons of F-22 Raptor jets at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson in Anchorage and two squadrons of F-35 Lighting II jets at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks.
Expanding Arctic commerce: Arctic ice melting has profound consequences for the environment, but also for commerce. Alaska gives the United States membership in the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum to address issues facing the Arctic, including overlapping territorial claims and whether to — and how to — access resources in the region. The council has been disrupted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; nevertheless, the region’s importance will grow as newly open Arctic sea routes expand as the sea ice recedes.
Consider the significant savings of Arctic routes. Shipping cargo from Asia to Europe through the Arctic can save about 10 days of sailing, a reduction of about 50 percent, compared to the traditional route through the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. With Russia’s military buildup in the Arctic and China’s plan for a “Polar Silk Road,” the geo-political importance of Alaska increases with accompanying tensions with the great powers.
Training range: Alaska is more than twice the geographic size of Texas. With its immense size, Alaska provides a million cubic miles of training in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, substantially larger than any other range. This permits large training exercises including RED FLAG-Alaska and Northern Edge. These are realistic, multi-day combat training exercises held several times annually. They are multi-service, multi-platform and include NATO and Asian allies, allowing teams to engage against live and synthetic threats. Investments in digital, multi-array radars allow pilots to face realistic electronic warfare threats in density. New threats can be rapidly programmed into the system to ensure that pilots called into action have experience in mitigating the threats they will face. The range’s remote location makes it harder for prying eyes to observe the training or the technology.
Missile early warning/interception: Having the ability to place a radar site for missile warning and interdiction so far North allows earlier awareness and action than if the site were in the lower 48 states. The Clear Space Force Base with its new massive Long-Range Discrimination Radar that “merges the long-reach capability of lower-frequency radars with the high-resolution of high-frequency radars” and its dedicated guardians provide such capability. The Ground-Based Interceptors at the Army’s Fort Greely provide an early opportunity to interdict any incoming missiles.
Time will tell whether Putin’s assault on Ukraine will tilt the arc of history as negatively away from Russia and toward America as did the sale of Alaska.
There is little doubt that without the high ground of Alaska, a seat on the Artic Council, a training range at scale and early missile warning, America would be in a far weaker position as it faces today’s great power competitors.
Thank you, Czar Alexander II.
Mark R. Kennedy is a global fellow at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, a U.S. Air and Space Forces Civic Leader, president emeritus of the University of Colorado, and former U.S. Representative (2001-07) from Minnesota.
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