Providing Backdrop for the Chinese Navy: President Obama Above the Arctic Circle

By Robbin Laird

In our book on the Rebuilding of American Military Power in the Pacific, we highlighted the impact of the Arctic opening on the evolving threat, challenges and opportunities for Pacific defense.

Arctic security is a key part of shaping any real pivot to the Pacific.

Recently, the Chinese Navy has put in an appearance in the Northern Pacific.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Chinese navy ships off Alaska in recent days weren’t just operating in the area for the first time: They also came within 12 nautical miles of the coast, making a rare foray into U.S. territorial waters, according to the Pentagon.

 Pentagon officials said late Thursday that the five Chinese navy ships had passed through U.S. territorial waters as they transited the Aleutian Islands, but said they had complied with international law and didn’t do anything threatening.

“This was a legal transit of U.S. territorial seas conducted in accordance with the Law of the Sea Convention,” said Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban.

U.S. officials said there was no known official communication to the U.S. from the ships.

 The passage was seen as significant as Beijing has long objected to U.S. Navy vessels transiting its territorial waters or operating in international waters just outside.

China’s Defense Ministry confirmed that its navy ships had sailed to the Bering Sea for training after joint exercises with Russia in late August, but said the activity was routine and not aimed at any particular country.

U.S. officials said earlier that they were tracking the five ships in the area, where they hadn’t seen the Chinese navy operating before, but they didn’t say how close the ships had come to U.S. territory.

This was part of the largest Russian and Chinese naval exercise to date in the Pacific.

The navies of China and Russia will meet this week for the two countries largest ever naval exercise in the Pacific, according to state run media in both Russia and China.

Joint Sea 2015 II is set to start on Thursday and run until Aug. 28 in the Sea of Japan and off the coast of Vladivostok and will comprise of more than 20 ships from the Russian Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and includes a joint amphibious assault drill.

“A source close to the operation said navies of the two countries will join forces to simulate anti-submarine combat and air defense and other relevant missions. A joint beach landing of troops is also planned,” read a report in the Chinese state-controlled Xinhua news service.

Meanwhile, President Obama in a move intended no doubt to enhance Arctic security ventured into territory no President had ever reached before – above the Arctic Circle.

And what was he doing?

Naturally, a key move to bolster the security of Alaskans and of Americans – changing the name of a favorite son of Ohio and a former President who served his country in many ways, including as President and brutally assassinated while serving as such.

Mt. McKinley used to be located in Denali National Park but now is Mt. Denali to honor the local natives. While the President was doing this, the Russians and Chinese were getting serious about building out capabilities for Pacific operations.

Riki Ellison, Chairman and Founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance put the President’s neglect of Arctic and Alaskan security in the proper context in a piece which he wrote on September 4, 2015.

The President of the United States, having visited the State of Alaska for the past three days, gave great credibility and visibility to climate change, national parks, natural resources and native Alaskan culture.

But in the backdrop of five Chinese warships in the Bering Sea of Alaska, overwhelming Russian military presence and expansion above the Arctic Circle, the President failed to address nor give visibility or validation to Alaska’s critical role by geography and capabilities for U.S. national security. Except for a White House statement announcing the acceleration of a new ice breaker for the Coast Guard, Alaska’s strategic military importance and increasing strategic relevancy was ignored, despite the President passing through U.S. Army/Air Force Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson no less than three times during his visit. Even the Administration’s National Strategy for the Arctic Region, published in 2013, addressed U.S. national security needs in the region in what seemed the vaguest terms possible.

Alaska stands near the top of the globe and on top of the lower 48 American states, along the shortest path between the United States and Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. Strategically located near Anchorage, Alaska, Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson is the home of the 11th U.S. Air Force, which spans across the Pacific with squadrons of the United States’ most modern and sophisticated military aircraft, the F-22. Alaska’s Fort Wainwright, in Fairbanks, is home to the Army’s First Stryker Brigade Combat Team, available to be rapidly inserted around the world.

In the center of the state there is Eielson Air Force Base and its F-16 Fighter wing, the Early Warning Radar at Clear Air Force Station for the tracking of incoming threats coming over the North Pole, and the U.S. Army post at Fort Greely that houses the silos for 26 Ground-Based missile defense interceptors with capability to destroy incoming ICBMs headed towards North America. Added to all of this capability is an intelligence and tracking radar at the very edge of Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain on Shemya facing Russia, as well as a launch site for polar orbits and hypersonic weapons testing on Kodiak Island.

Border security is a tremendous challenge. Including its boundary with Canada, Alaska’s borders stretch 8,178 miles.  Alaska’s coastline alone is 6,640 miles, of which 1,060 miles is along the Arctic Ocean. This needs to be monitored, protected and defended if necessary. With increasing frequency, Russia has been routinely pushing and intruding upon the air space of this vast frontier. As the Arctic ice melts, natural resources and a much shorter sea route between Asia, North America and Europe is opening up.

With forward thinking and strategic calculus, Russia has been building up its Arctic military forces and is projected to have at least 16 major military bases in the Arctic by 2017, six of which are situated on the northeastern tip of Siberia, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska. Russia’s Northern and Pacific fleets have more than 60 warships with quick access to the Arctic, and 40 icebreakers (United States has only two) to facilitate movement in the Arctic region. China too is exploring its bounty for those precious undiscovered resources off the Alaskan coasts.

China’s five military vessels currently in the Bering Strait sent a strong visible message to the President while in Alaska. In regressive non-action to these well calculated strategic movements, the United States in Alaska has failed to build a deep water Arctic port, nor has an Arctic Navy, and recently reduced its Stryker Combat Brigade. Another glaring gap for Alaska, its borders and the overhead gateway to the lower 48 states are the quantity of sensors to gain complete situational awareness of activity on land, sea, and air coming towards Alaska.

To the President’s credit, in his FY 2016 budget, he put forth a $1.2 billion Long-Range Discriminating Radar (LRDR) to be built in the middle of Alaska at Clear Air Station. The LRDR capability spans thousands of miles outward providing much needed critical discrimination of ballistic missiles and objects in space to force multiply limited interceptors deployed at Fort Greely.

Construction is scheduled to begin later this year with upgrades to the civilian power for the residents in the area. It is a challenge to understand why the President over the past three days in Alaska would not choose to acknowledge one of the biggest construction projects (and accompanying new jobs) for the state of Alaska using federal funding that he has approved.

Missile defense in Alaska has been hard for the President to ignore over his two terms. In the “reset” with Russia initiative by the State Department when the President first came to office, President Obama chose to reduce the original goal of 50 Ground Based Interceptors and silos at Fort Greely to 26 with an additional 4 in Vandenberg, California and canceled the program to deploy multiple kill vehicles on each of the interceptors.

During his first term, the U.S. Ground Based Interceptor Fleet and system was neglected and went two and half years without testing. In the President’s second term his appreciation for Alaska changed by understanding the threats to the United States and the importance of the missile defense system in Alaska. President Obama reversed his decision and is now adding 14 additional Ground Based Interceptors in Alaska, reopening research and development on a Multiple Object Kill Vehicles, and building a 1.2 Billion dollar radar in Alaska to enhance the capabilities and reliability of the interceptors. Furthermore, the President has invested much needed funding into the ground-based missile defense system to bring reliability and confidence back into a system that was neglected in his first term.

Today and in the near future, the United States faces the clear and present near-peer threats of China and Russia to its most northern state for the precious resources and strategic geographical dominance that the Arctic uniquely provides. This is a team game and the formation of an Arctic coalition for military cooperation with NATO’s Arctic nations to at least share situational awareness from their combined sensors and work together on exercises to demonstrate strength and unity to deter aggression is needed. An allied effort that is focused on strategic deterrence and border control is in the best interests of preserving peace and the status quo.

With their overt military intrusions towards Alaska and in the Arctic Circle, Russia and China are sending strong strategic messages. Not responding, ignoring your military assets in Alaska, and being timid also sends a strategic message.






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