(CNSNews.com) - "The Arctic is the new frontline of our homeland defense," the commander of the U.S. Northern Command told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
Air Force General Terrence O’Shaughnessy said that both China and Russia are "investing heavily" in the Arctic, "determined to exploit the region’s economic and strategic potential."
"Russia has steadily expanded its military presence in the region, and by fielding advanced, long-range cruise missiles -- to include land attack missiles capable of striking the United States and Canada from Russian territory -- Russia has left us with no choice but to improve our homeland defense capability and capacity," O'Shaughnessy said.
"In the meantime, China has taken a number of incremental steps toward expanding its own Arctic presence."
According to the general, "China's rapid military modernization and efforts to extend its military’s global reach demonstrate a growing willingness to challenge the United States."
(Sen. Angus King wryly noted that China designating itself as a "near Arctic" nation is like Australia doing it.)
Arctic as an ‘avenue of approach’ to U.S.
Sen. King (I-Maine) asked O'Shaughnessy, "What does China want in the Arctic?"
O'Shaughnessy said China is interested in the Arctic's natural resources. But on a more "nefarious" note, the general said China has sent scientific research vessels to the Arctic that could pave the way for "increased submarine activity."
"And so we're looking at it clearly to understand what is it they're trying to do, but from our perspective, we're concerned about that as an avenue of approach" (to attack the U.S.).
"Do you have adequate sensors to determine if something's coming over the top (Arctic Circle)?" Sen. King asked.
"We do not, sir," O'Shaughnessy responded.
King told the general, "That's clearly a gap that needs to be addressed."
"It is, Senator," the general agreed.
In his opening statement, O'Shaughnessy said the U.S. in the past year has seen "signs of nascent but growing strategic cooperation between China and Russia."
And King noted that "Russia is being aggressive in the Arctic in terms of icebreakers, airstrips, I mean that's a--that's a big part of where they're putting some of their major investments."
Arctic and Alaska now a ‘battlespace’
Later in the hearing, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) told Gen. O'Shaughnessy, "It sounds like you're saying that the Arctic and Alaska are no longer a sanctuary from which we can safely project power. But it's more of a battlespace area. Is that correct? And what are the implications from your mindset as a NORCOM commander?
"That's exactly correct, Senator," O'Shaughnessy replied, repeating that the Arctic "is clearly an avenue of approach to our great nation."
We clearly see that avenue of approach as being critical, so we have to, one, have awareness of what's going on in that space. And then we have to be able to defend in that space. And the time that will be required to respond is short because of the pure geography.
And so, I think what we really need to think about in Alaska is how do we invest to have that awareness, that the main awareness, having the right sensors and ability to understand what's happening, but also the ability to defend immediately and what are the systems that we could invest in that would allow us to have that persistent defense in Alaska, because it is key terrain that would be important to us as a nation in any conflict, whether that be with Russia or China going forward.
Sullivan asked the general, "What specific capabilities are you advocating for to ensure that we can both protect the homeland in these avenues of approach that you talked about, but also to continue to project power from Alaska...?"
"First I'd say we have to complete the next generation interceptor,” O’Shaughnessy said:
We have literally holes in the ground right now that we need to fill with capabilities. So, we need to bring that left. And we need to bring that as fast as possible.
We need to augment that with additional ballistic missile capability that we could put in Alaska, whether that be SM32A's, whether that be the potentially THAD deployments there. We need to bring that into Alaska. And we need a sensing capability that'll be persistent, that'll be steady stake that will always be there, that we have the technology today -- we just have to deploy it to Alaska.
O'Shaughnessy also said the U.S. military "needs to train in Arctic conditions."
"If you are not training, if you don't have the right equipment and if you are not versed in operating in the Arctic, you will not effectively be able to operate there. And our adversaries are operating there. And, therefore, we need to be able to operate there as well."
O'Shaughnessy told the committee that the Arctic "is now a battlespace," which requires "continued investment."
"And so we need to be able to operate in Alaska, in the Arctic, in cooperation with Canada from the NORAD side."
O'Shaughnessy said one of his main concerns in the Arctic is "basic communication," since satellites don't operate at those latitudes. He said the military has been working with commercial companies to find a solution.
"It is my number one priority to have Arctic com's, and I think the proliferation of LEO (low earth orbit satellites) and a Starlink or a One Web type solution is the way to get it fastest.”