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Changing Arctic

Increased Arctic Shipping, Access to Resources Underscores ‘Relevance’ of Military Readiness

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A binational meeting of military minds …

The soldier operating a tracked vehicle that was transporting reporters up a steep ski slope at the Army’s Black Rapids Training Site didn’t have to worry about losing traction – because there was hardly any snow on the ground at the facility, part of the Army’s Northern Warfare Training Center that prepares soldiers to operate in what is usually a cold and snowy area.

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Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Army tracked vehicles stand by in a landing zone at Black Rapids Training Site Tuesday as U.S. and Canadian military and Coast Guard personnel offload from two Chinook helicopters that transported them from Eielson Air Force Base. The group toured ski-training facilities at the site, which had hardly any snow on the ground.

The visit to the training site in Alaska’s eastern Interior was part of a meeting of senior U.S. and Canadian military officers that command units the operate in the far north. It was hosted by Air Force Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach, who says such changes as sparse snowfall and warmer temperatures haven’t changed the ways the U.S. military trains soldiers for duty in Alaska

“Although the relevance of that training, especially in the Arctic, seems to have changed,” he said.

Wilsbach, who heads the Alaskan Command and two other agencies that operate in the region, says changes around the far north brought on by warming have increased activity in the region, especially in waters around Alaska, where the shipping lanes are becoming increasingly busy due to the near-absence of sea ice.

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Credit John Gordinier/U.S. Air Force

“Because of that receding ice, we’re seeing a lot of countries that are much more interested in the Arctic than they used to be,” he said.

Canadian Forces Brig. Gen. Pat LaRoche, who serves as a liaison and deputy for Wilsbach, says the ships that are plying the waters mainly are there to explore and develop resources around the region that are have become more accessible as the sea ice has receded.

The resources driving much of the increased activity in the Arctic include “minerals, gas, oil,” LaRoche said. “And there’s a lot of tourism in the Arctic. So, that’s an issue.”

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Credit U.S. Air Force/John Gordinier
During the previous General Officer/Flag Officer summit in March, participants toured the Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility, near Fairbanks, that's operated by the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab. The participants learned about permafrost and how to deal with operating and building on it as it thaws, due to the warming climate.

He and Wilsbach both say their countries need more icebreakers to patrol the busier sea lanes in the years ahead. The governments of both countries each own only one heavy icebreaker, the type that’s able to operate in pretty much any conditions in the harsh Arctic environment. And both the U.S. Polar Star and the Canadian Louis S. St-Laurent are showing their age.

“The Louis St-Laurent is actually coming up on its 60th anniversary pretty soon,” LaRoche said.

The Polar Star is only 40 years old. U.S. leaders have pledged support for a Coast Guard recommendation to build two new heavy icebreakers, at a price of about a billion dollars each. If Congress appropriates the money, the 10-year task of building the ships would begin around 2020.