“The homeland is no longer a sanctuary.” U.S. Northern Command (NorthCom) Commander General Terrence O’Shaughnessy’s remark resonates and are especially profound where the homeland is also an outpost—Alaska. Alaska is strategically located at the nation’s northern-most flank and offers unique challenges. Changes both to the national defense strategy and to the environment require that the United States reevaluate its Arctic strategy to ensure the homeland remains secure.
In 2014, the subunified Alaskan Command was reassigned from Pacific Command to NorthCom. Alaskan Command owns the joint force activities in the land and air domains over Alaska and the Arctic and coordinates with Naval Forces Northern Command (NavNorth)—based some 4,500 miles from Alaska—for maritime joint operations. The Alaskan Command commander also is responsible to North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) for the Alaskan region’s air defense and identification zone (ADIZ), which extends to the North Pole and along the eastern border of Russia. Currently, the maritime warning responsibilities in the Arctic are held at NORAD headquarters in Colorado, and maritime domain awareness responsibilities are retained with the NavNorth Commander in Norfolk, Virginia.
With three different chains of command, none of which own surface vessels around the waters of Alaska, Alaskan Command’s ability to conduct homeland defense is at risk because of a cumbersome command-and-control structure beset with the challenges of distance and limited expertise in operating in the Arctic. There is a more effective command-and-control structure to protect the homeland in the Arctic: establishing the U.S. Coast Guard as the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander of Alaskan Command.
Great power competition forces the U.S. Navy to concentrate efforts in places such as the South China Sea, leaving limited advocacy and presence in the Arctic. The U.S. Coast Guard, however, operates expansively throughout the area. The Navy’s Arctic Roadmap, published in 2014, is devoid of commitments for a maritime force posture or rotation plan, apart from those required for its biennial Arctic exercises—ICEX. And the Navy’s minimal involvement in the region is for good reason: the Navy has limited Arctic capability, apart from submarines and patrol aircraft. Essentially, there are no current requirements levied on the U.S. Navy necessitating an Arctic presence.
The main operator in the maritime environment around Alaska and in the Arctic is the U.S. Coast Guard. Until 2011, the Coast Guard’s District Seventeen (D17) was designated “U.S. Naval Forces Alaska.” Essentially, D17 was the joint forces maritime component commander (JFMCC) to the then U.S. Pacific Command-owned Alaskan Command. However, Alaskan Command’s reassignment to NorthCom severed its relationship with D17. While D17 and Alaskan Command still coordinate and work closely together, they no longer share a formal command-and-control relationship.
D17 is a two-star Coast Guard command headquartered in Juneau, Alaska. It is responsible for the law enforcement, search-and-rescue, and homeland security missions in the waters surrounding Alaska, to include the Arctic. In 2014, the SECDEF formalized the maritime command-and-control arrangements for homeland security and homeland defense missions, as well as maritime domain awareness requirements for the Navy and Coast Guard, in the Maritime Homeland Defense Execution Order. In theory, the order allows for the seamless transition of Navy and Coast Guard forces between the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security for homeland defense and security missions. However, it does not provide a mechanism for training and equipping forces for Arctic operations at steady state. Nor does it describe what routine presence operations should look like in U.S. Arctic waters.
Presence is vital for co-opting, coercing, and deterring adversaries in the Arctic. From the early 1900s, with the deployment of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, to the past six decades of aircraft carrier deployments around the world, the Navy has maintained the ability to display resolve through presence. The Arctic is no different. U.S. submarines have routinely deployed to the Arctic to demonstrate presence and capability. But the situation is changing. The Navy is not tasked or funded to provide the same level of presence in the Arctic it has in the Middle East or Western Pacific. The Coast Guard remains the maritime force with the experience and capability necessary to operate as a maritime component command in the region. It is time to formally designate D17 as the Alaskan Command JFMCC and assign it the maritime joint operations area.
In April 2019, during Alaska Command’s joint task force validation exercise (Alaska Shield 2019), D17 was pulled in as the JFMCC to respond to a simulated maritime threat. During Alaska Shield, U.S. Army Alaska and D17 provided the notional land and maritime component commands to complete mission assignments and immediate response authority requests from the lead federal agency. As the scenario progressed, the gray area between homeland security and homeland defense made the involvement of Coast Guard forces even more crucial. The Coast Guard, uniquely authorized to serve in both a homeland defense and law enforcement capacity, maintains the preponderance of maritime forces in Alaska year-round. When defending the portion of the homeland that is also an outpost, the burden of remoteness is the greatest challenge, and the Coast Guard’s presence and experience are the United States’ greatest assets.
Since 2006, after the closure of Adak Naval Base, the U.S. Coast Guard has maintained the largest maritime footprint in Alaska. It also retains the highest percentage of cold-weather trained operators who understand the risks and complex operational requirements associated with the Arctic.
Strengthen Existing Relationships
D17 as Alaskan Command’s JFMCC would be a force multiplier for the U.S. Coast Guard. Having a joint three-star subunified commander advocating for D17 with NorthCom creates a greater opportunity to integrate Arctic capabilities and use exercise funds for maritime homeland defense. In addition, formalizing the C2 relationship between D17 and Alaskan Command would create better linkages between intelligence-sharing mechanisms within the Coast Guard intelligence community and the intelligence directorates from three combatant commands. Finally, Alaskan Command can help establish a more formal tie between the personnel recovery/search-and-rescue requirements of the Alaska National Guard, the 611th Air Operations Center, and the Rescue Coordination Center for search and rescue throughout the region, which has become more complex with the increase in vessel traffic and passenger travel through the Arctic.
For almost a decade, planners have assessed the feasibility of establishing a joint interagency task force (JIATF) in the North. Yet recognizing that D17 already has much of the desired authorities and capabilities of an interagency task force, the solution might be far less complicated than anticipated. The Coast Guard is, after all, one of the “other” agencies sought after within the DoD’s JIATF construct. D17 has the established legal framework to mobilize reserves, and they routinely coordinate with local and federal law enforcement agencies under their Homeland Security umbrella. D17 also has a track record of positive interactions with the Russian coast guard equivalent in the Bering Sea for fisheries management.
The changing environment in the Arctic does not allow for simple maintenance of the status quo in command-and-control or in force structure related to U.S. waters around Alaska. In response, some may argue the U.S. Navy should allocate more resources to the Arctic. However, the unintended consequence of a U.S. Navy buildup may be that Russia then increases its own Arctic activities. An Arctic arms race with Russia would pull resources away from more pressing threats to the United States, and also would degrade the Navy’s ability to support the National Defense Strategy.
Another argument against D17 as the JFMCC for Alaskan Command is that D17 is not properly postured for high-end conflict in the Arctic. This is true. U.S. Navy submarines are an asymmetric advantage and force multiplier for Arctic operations. But the military’s job is not only to win wars, but also to prevent them. Strategic messaging with subsurface Arctic presence is different than a consistent maritime surface presence. Having observed operations in Alaska for the past two years, it is our assertion that the likely sources of conflict will be protein wars in the waters around Alaska, natural resource competition, search-and-rescue operations, or natural disaster response. All four of these areas should have the Coast Guard as the lead for operations in the waters around Alaska. In other words, to prevent conflict in the Arctic, D17 is the best solution as a JFMCC to Alaskan Command in the Arctic because of its expertise and presence.
A subunified command’s responsibilities for domain awareness in the Arctic cannot be achieved without owning the maritime joint operations area and having a JFMCC that has the expertise, presence, and capability to operate in the Arctic. The relationship between Alaskan Command and D17 currently exists as a dotted line (coordinating) on a command-and-control chart, but it is time to explore a better way of consolidating maritime operations in the vicinity of Alaska. To reestablish the homeland as a sanctuary, NorthCom should coordinate with Headquarters Coast Guard to establish the formal designation of D17 as the JFMCC for Alaskan Command.