Chairman Green: “The Alaskan Arctic Remains Strategically Vital”
November 29, 2023
Delivers opening statement in hearing on U.S. strategy in the Arctic region
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Mark E. Green, MD (R-TN) delivered the following opening statement during a hearing to examine the present and future challenges in the Arctic region and evaluate the United States Coast Guard’s (USCG) unique role in maintaining freedom of movement, defending vital U.S. national interests, and protecting U.S. sovereignty in the region. Watch the full hearing here.
As prepared for delivery:
The United States faces a world fraught with peril.
We have an unprecedented crisis at our Southwest Border with illegal immigrants crossing at an average pace of 8,000 per day, overwhelming our border security apparatus and inflicting a severe toll on the U.S. economy.
Israel—our closest ally in the Middle East—endured the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust, and its ongoing war against Iranian-backed terrorists is threatening to send the entire region into a conflict.
Russia’s ongoing and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II.
East Asia is on a hair-trigger because of the expansionist tendencies of the Chinese Communist Party in the South China Sea and throughout the region.
So, you might be asking, why is the Committee on Homeland Security having a hearing about the Arctic?
In Congress, our daily business is often dictated by the latest disaster or most recent crisis—and to be sure, there are plenty of crises.
However, during my time at West Point, I was taught to view the battlefield through a strategic lens and step back from the tactical situation to examine the whole operating environment.
In this spirit, I believe it is time for the Committee to examine the strategic and critical role of the Arctic region.
The story of how the United States became an Arctic nation explains why the Arctic matters so much. In 1867, Secretary of State William Seward secured a treaty with Russian Tsar Alexander the Second for the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire for a modest 7.2 million dollars. Many U.S. Senators were skeptical of Seward’s vision when the Treaty arrived in the Senate for ratification. However, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Charles Sumner, ushered the Treaty through his committee, helping to secure ratification. In his research, Sumner realized both the economic potential of Alaska’s bountiful natural resources and the territory’s strategic geographic position to the shipping routes of Asia.
Nearly seven decades later, the founding father of the U.S. Air Force, Billy Mitchell, declared in testimony to Congress, quote, “I believe that in the future, whoever controls Alaska controls the world. I think it is the most strategic place in the world.” Mitchell’s vision for the eventual 49th State proved shrewd.
The U.S. Air Force based early warning radar stations, long-range bombers, and missile defense capabilities in Alaska during the Cold War due to its proximity to the Soviet Union. Passenger airlines also utilized Alaska as a global hub so planes from Western Europe, East Asia, and North America could avoid traveling through restricted Soviet airspace.
Today, nearly 150 years since the purchase of Alaska, the world has changed dramatically. Not surprisingly, though, the Alaskan Arctic remains strategically vital to the United States.
The airspace in Alaska is the United States’ first line of defense against intrusions by aircraft or missiles, as we were brazenly reminded earlier this year with the Chinese aerial surveillance balloon.
U.S. military forces based in Alaska stand ready to deploy quickly to any theater of operations in the world, from Eastern Europe and the Middle East to the Western Pacific.
As the sea ice recedes and the waters of the Arctic Ocean become traversable for longer stretches of the year, civilian and military maritime traffic has increased significantly in the region.
This trend will only make Alaska more strategically important to the United States, as Alaska lies at the confluence of the two major shipping routes through the Arctic to East Asia—the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage.
Our geopolitical adversaries recognize that control of the Arctic region is essential.
Russia, which has the most territory and largest Arctic population, maintains a robust military presence in the region. Russia has 51 icebreakers whereas the U.S. currently has two. Russia’s proximity to Alaska makes its concentration of forces appear even more menacing. The Russian mainland lies less than 60 miles away from the west coast of Alaska. Additionally, just 2.4 miles separate the Russian island of Big Diomede and the American island of Little Diomede in the Bering Strait.
To make matters worse, the People’s Republic of China has absurdly claimed itself to be a, quote, “near Arctic state,” and is attempting to impose its will through diplomatic pressure and increasing maritime transits by PRC vessels in Arctic waters. The PRC is also actively building out its own icebreaker fleet, and its two existing icebreakers have operated in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
Therefore, the United States must prioritize the Arctic as a region of national importance and one that is vital to our homeland security. And this Committee has a crucial role to play in securing our strategic interests in the Arctic.
The United States Coast Guard has operated in Alaska since the U.S. purchased the state. Today, with its icebreaker fleet and assets based around Alaska, the Coast Guard is a critical component of the U.S. national security posture in the Arctic, performing search and rescue operations in austere environments and enforcing U.S. laws in our waters off the coast of Alaska. As maritime traffic increases, we must ensure that the Coast Guard maintains the ability to protect our coastline, enforce our laws, and save lives at sea.
The Department of Homeland Security has a responsibility to protect our transportation sector and critical infrastructure from physical or cyber threats.
Alaska hosts a multitude of important military bases and critical infrastructure sites. Sites such as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the Port of Alaska, and Ted Stevens International Airport—in addition to several military installations in Alaska and critical undersea cables connecting Alaska to the continental U.S. — are crucial to our economy.
It is vital that the Department of Homeland Security works to deter potential attacks or attempts by adversaries to degrade or disrupt the operation of this critical infrastructure.
Secretary Seward, Senator Sumner, and Colonel Mitchell recognized the enormous potential of Alaska in their time. We must not lose sight of their prescient vision in our time.
I thank our witnesses for appearing before the Committee today, and I look forward to their testimony.