JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- When delegates of the National Guard Arctic Interest Council (NG-AIC) representing six states visited the arctic city of Kotzebue March 29, they witnessed a still-frozen landscape showing few signs of spring besides the sun still hanging in the sky at 9 p.m., previewing the coming summer’s midnight sun.
Taking a bus tour of the community, the group stopped at the seawall and seized the unique opportunity to snap photos of the Chukchi Sea, covered in snowpack and frozen solid for as far as the eye could see and beyond.
The city provided a host venue for the NG-AIC with representation from the Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire and North Dakota National Guards as well as the Northwest Arctic Borough, Kotzebue city, NANA Arctic Regional Corporation, Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation and the Maniilaq Association.
According to the NG-AIC charter, the council stood up in 2017 to provide a forum of representatives and subject matter experts from states with arctic interests, capabilities and resources that include the following objectives:
• Establish and codify the National Guard’s place as a premier force provider for the Arctic.
• Serve as a channel of communications for shared situational awareness on Arctic topics and activities.
• Conduct joint integrated planning for the Arctic for National Guard stakeholders.
• Develop arctic expertise and knowledge for the National Guard in order to facilitate responses to senior leader or organizational requests for information with respect to the Arctic.
• Coordinate with Department of Defense, interagency and international partners and act as the National Guard representative to their arctic planning/working groups.
• Identify gaps and pursue potential sourcing solutions. Advocate and pursue future capabilities and funding.
• Conduct joint integrated arctic exercise planning for the National Guard.
Member states include Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Army National Guard Col. Matthew Schell, Alaska National Guard strategic advisor to the adjutant general, explained how other state National Guards have a stake in the council and why it was important they visit an arctic community.
“We have these other northern-tier states that recognize there is an interest in understanding our capabilities and capabilities gaps in cold regions, mountainous regions and polar regions,” Schell said. “To build that caucus, we invited members of the Arctic Interest Council to Alaska, and we thought that getting them north of the Arctic Circle to a real arctic community would be valuable for them to understand the operational challenges.”
Army National Guard Col. Brock Larson, North Dakota National Guard director of Strategic Plans and Policy, said he found great value for his state’s understanding of the Arctic.
“Each state has its strengths and weaknesses that fit into this council,” he said. “Coming up here and seeing Kotzebue’s challenges and opportunities, and being able to link them with our state’s capabilities is really helpful.”
People and Partnerships – The keys to Arctic Operational Success
Maj. Gen. Torrence W. Saxe, the Adjutant General, Alaska National Guard and Commissioner, Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said while understanding the material challenges of weather, distance and infrastructure, people are the key to implementing an effective arctic strategy.
Saxe said Kotzebue, referred to as the “gateway to the Arctic,” is an important hub community serving villages throughout the borough.
“We want to get back in this area of Alaska in greater numbers, and we want to do it quickly,” he said. “Kotzebue is a critical hub armory, and we need a significant number of soldiers in this area of the state.”
Saxe and the council delegation toured Kotzebue’s National Guard armory and a state-owned hangar, which is shared by the U.S. Coast Guard for search and rescue operations. The partnership provides critical coverage beyond military bases clustered in Southcentral, Interior and Southeast Alaska.
Saxe said community members are essential partners for understanding how to successfully operate in the region.
“There is recognition in our arctic strategies of the traditional and inherited knowledge that you all have and will help us better operate in the Arctic,” he said to several of Kotzebue’s community leaders. “The Department of Defense Arctic Strategy, and the Army and Air Force Arctic Strategies identify that partnering with local communities help us understand how to survive and meet our mission objectives in the most austere conditions. Learning about your culture and meeting with all of you is the beginning of this effort.”
Saxe said it’s important to continually work with community members to prepare for disaster response. In addition to operating with civic leaders, the general said it would be beneficial to have more Alaska National Guard members in the community who can provide their expertise during an earthquake, flood or fire. Local knowledge is vitally important to mission success.
“We don’t want to introduce ourselves in a crisis, and established relationships matter,” Saxe said.
Climate change, key infrastructure and critical resources
A key concern voiced during the Kotzebue meeting is the effects of climate change.
A half-mile sea wall constructed for $34 million buttresses Kotzebue against catastrophic soil erosion due to rising sea levels affecting so many of Alaska’s coastal communities. Pete Schaeffer, Kotzebue Tribal Council chairman, credits the wall with protecting Kotzebue from the effects of more frequent and increasingly powerful winter storms.
Schaeffer highlighted how critical subsistence hunting is to the region’s people, citing they have been doing it for more than 11,000 years to feed their families.
“Up until about 100 years ago, we were pretty much a totally independent people that relied on each other and did all of our hunting with rather primitive tools no different than people with Native heritage throughout the state,” he said before explaining how rifles and all-terrain vehicles changed the hunt. “One of the things that hasn’t changed is the spirit of our people that still relate to that independence that existed a long time ago.”
Reliant on annual patterns observed over thousands of years, subsistence hunting is under threat as climate change disrupts game animal migration.
“When I was a young man in the 1950s and 60s, the ocean almost always froze by the middle of September,” Schaeffer said. “Now, in September and October we have monsoon season, and it rains a lot. This year, it finally froze in December, though sometimes it’s late November.”
According to the NG-AIC charter, the ill effects of climate change make for commercial opportunities but also create significant operational challenges. The National Guard is uniquely situated to lead the way in overcoming those challenges.
“Ice-free sea routes are increasingly becoming available and great reserves of previously unreachable oil, gas, and mineral deposits are progressively becoming available for development,” the charter reads. “As human activity increases in the region, the likelihood and possible severity of man-made disasters or incidents also increases. The National Guard shares a rich history of arctic operations and experience; and possesses unique capabilities in both equipment and personnel in the arctic environment.”
Schell said the DoD acknowledges the strategic value of military bases and units staged across Alaska, and he highlighted the value of the state’s output of critical resources citing the Northwest Arctic Borough’s Red Dog mine. According to the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, the mine is the world’s largest producer of zinc.
“I talk to people in the DoD about the value of Alaska,” Schell said. “They look at Alaska as an aircraft carrier. It’s about force projection. We want the brigades in Anchorage and Fairbanks to fight the away game, and we want the F-35 [Lightning IIs] and F-22 [Raptors] to do Agile Combat Employment. Let’s look at the strategic value of Alaska not just as a force-projection platform, but as a resource for the nation.”
Schell explained how the governor’s office asked the Alaska National Guard to provide input for arctic strategy to the National Security Council. He said the input went beyond immediate military matters.
“It’s centered around redundancy and resiliency because we looked at it as not just an opportunity to talk from a military perspective, but from a sense of giving the governor the best military advice and also, as the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, we talked about big things like the deep-water port and rail through Canada,” Schell said.
Saxe said the doctrine generated from the council’s collaboration and foresight will be far reaching.
“What you’re working on is historic,” he said to the council. “This is not just Alaska. We are stronger working together. This is about the 54 [states and territories] not just about one state, and I appreciate all the military expertise being brought to the table to discuss and implement this ground-breaking strategy.”
Saxe concluded the meeting with Kotzebue leadership by explaining the importance of Alaska’s critical civil-military relationship.
“The military doesn’t exist to serve itself,” he said. “The military, especially the National Guard, has to be a part of the community, and we are here to serve and protect you.”