The Wall Street Journal

Inside the Arctic Military Base at the Center of U.S.-Russia Tensions

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Melting sea ice in the Arctic is spurring a scramble for resources, shipping routes and strategic strongholds in the region. WSJ's Michael M. Phillips travels to Tin City, Alaska, to see what that means for the U.S. military's strategy in the far North.

Photo: Robert Alcaraz/The Wall Street Journal

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(dramatic music)
- Decreased Arctic sea ice has resulted in increased
human activity, both from Russian and from China.
- We're really on the front lines of what I would consider
kind of a red dawn or Cold War type mindset.
- The Russians are pushing and probing
and seeing what they can achieve here.
The U.S. is trying to figure out
how best to defend against that sort of aggression.
- The need for the ice breaker
is both from a commercial side,
from a search and rescue side, and from a military side.
- 24/7, 365, we're here with pilots and maintainers,
ready to get these airplanes airborne on a moment's notice.
- [Michael] Melting sea ice is changing the nature
and politics of the Arctic Ocean.
New sea passages opening through international waters
are spurring geopolitical competition
for resources and strategic strongholds.
Now, the U.S. military is revising its arctic strategy.
- During the Cold War, we saw a significant amount
of activity in the arctic, all the way
from aircraft activity, for example
flying the Russian bombers, as well as
on both sides having a increased military capability.
We see some of that activity happening again today.
- So, what do the Russians actually do?
- Well, we see multiple different things.
We see them practicing attacks
on the U.S. and Canada through the Arctic.
- And what are they trying to achieve?
- The first is clearly strategic messaging, right?
They're flexing their muscles, if you will.
And then we also see that they're practicing.
They're exercises and training.
- Is there a thought that if there actually were
a conflict in the U.S. and Russia
that the bombers would come over the Arctic,
that that would be the route to the United States?
- Absolutely.
As the closes avenue of approach,
we do see that as a frontline of defense
and something that we are making sure
that we are able to defend.
You can see the operating environment in here
is just incredibly harsh.
This is actually from the Cold War era.
These are radars that were installed in that timeframe.
But the basic system remains the same.
You'll get to see some of that.
- I traveled north with the Air Force
to see how the U.S. is confronting
Russian military advances in the Arctic.
This is Tin City, Alaska, which is the closest point
in the mainland United States to Russia.
There's a radar station here at Tin City.
Its job is to look out for Russian bombers
that might be trying to push the limits of U.S. air space.
Built during the Cold War,
long-range radar stations like Tin City
are suddenly on the front lines again.
- I've been working for the Alaska radar system
for about 24 years.
The radar looks for bogies, unidentified aircraft,
which just occurred like a month ago.
- [Michael] What happened a month ago?
- They spotted Russian fighter planes and bombers.
There was two of each.
So I think the Russians, they like to do that
while they're doing their training missions
so they see how quickly we respond.
- The big landmass on the left is Little Diomede Island.
It's U.S. territory.
On the right, a little bit further away,
is Big Diomede Island.
That's Russian territory.
And way along there, just above the waterline,
you can see a strip; that's Siberia.
So this is really the front line
in what is an increasing competition for the Arctic.
Commercial, military competition.
Several times a year, the long-range radar sites
pick up Russian Bear bombers,
sometimes escorted by jet fighters,
penetrating the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone.
That's where the U.S. expects all planes
to identify who they are.
The Russians don't always do that.
U.S. jets scramble and fly alongside
the Russians until they leave.
Overseen by Lieutenant General Tom Bussiere,
long-range radar sites act as a tripwire
to deploy U.S. jets.
- We can't do without 'em.
There's no gap in requirements for our 24/7, 365 mission.
- How are things changing, and why are they changing?
- The decreased arctic sea ice has resulted in
increased human activity, both from Russia and from China.
And that's presented unique opportunities
for national security concerns, environmental concerns,
as well as economic concerns in the Arctic.
The mission's absolutely essential
so that we can maintain our situational awareness
to defend North America.
- Who sees the images that are gathered by the radars?
- All our long-rang radar sites
provide information to our
command and control facility here in this building.
And then, if necessary, we'll launch aircraft
to go intercept anyone that's approaching our air space
that hasn't been properly identified.
- The closest point of approach to Russia is two miles away.
We're really on the front lines of what I would consider
kind of a red dawn or Cold War type mindset.
And in some way, the Cold War
still exists here in Alaska every day.
- [Michael] This year, Russian bombers have doubled the pace
at which they've attempted to penetrate
the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone.
Moscow's embassy in Washington
says Russian long-range pilots make regular flights
over neutral waters in the Arctic,
flying in strict accordance with international norms.
Lieutenant Colonel John Krellner
is one of the fighter pilots
who scrambles to intercept Russian planes.
- We're standing at the combat alert cell
with our F-22s that are on alert here.
We are here 24/7, 365, ready to respond to any incursion
into our Air Defense Identification Zone
by unidentified, foreign military aircraft.
- Tell me about the time that you went up
to try to intercept a Russian plane.
- We got the order to launch our aircraft.
Clock someone off, we got into our flight gear,
hopped in the airplanes, taxied out
right in front of here of the combat alert cell,
and we took off, and we positioned ourselves into a position
where we felt the Bears were approaching, and we waited.
And with our sensors we were able to see and identify
a couple of Russian Bear aircraft
that were operating just on the west side
of the Air Defense Identification Zone.
That particular day, they never crossed the line.
So, between Alaska and Russia right here,
this black line represents
our Air Defense Identification Zone.
These stars are all representative
of intercepts that have happened throughout the years.
Many of these go back well into the Cold War era.
Those black dots represent the long-range radar sites,
like Tin City.
- [Micheal] So, effectively, here at this base
there are guys who are looking at screens
and interpreting what those bleeps are,
and that then get passed on to the people
who make the decision about whether to scramble jets.
- Absolutely.
They're identifying everything.
And anything that's not identified,
they start to pull the string on that.
- Now we're heading to Eielson Air Force Base, by Fairbanks.
They're holding aerial combat exercises,
where half the planes are American.
The other half of the pilots are pretending
to be enemy fighters, probably Russians.
The airmen trained here are some of the pilots
who scramble to intercept Russian fighters
on the Arctic border.
Beyond sharpening their dog fighting skills,
these combat exercises also help them
better understand the tactics of their potential rivals.
(jet whooshing)
- [Pilot] How you feeling there in the back?
- [Michael] Colonel Shawn Anger is Vice Commander
of the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson Air Force Base,
near Fairbanks, Alaska.
- We try to replicate Russian tactics
and Chinese tactics as best we can.
The tactics that our adversaries typically fly
are more reliant on controllers on the ground
to direct their maneuvers.
I would say the the U.S. Air Force
has always been on the leading edge of tactics,
and we have tried to drive the autonomy to the cockpit
and allow the pilot, who's there, present,
to make as many decisions as he can,
based on the information he has available to them.
- We thought that the Arctic was a bit of a buffer.
It provided us a little bit of insolation from the threat.
Currently, the one iceberg that we have
is a very old polar star.
I've been on it myself.
And it's clearly not giving us
the capability and capacity we need
to operate in the Arctic environment.
But as we've seen the increased activity in the Arctic,
we are responding in kind with a corresponding increase
in the resources being applied to that.
- [Michael] At the heart of the new U.S. Arctic strategy
is more: more ice breakers,
which help keep commercial routes open
and serve in rescue operations.
More advanced planes.
Russian pilots venturing toward U.S. and Canadian air space
can expect to see Eielson's new cutting edge F-35s
pulling alongside them in the near future.
One thing that isn't changing?
The Arctic rivalry between the U.S. and Russia.

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