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High-level U.S., Canadian Military Chiefs Meet Again to Confer on Arctic Training, Operations

Gregory Brook/U.S. Air Force

Ten high-level U.S. and Canadian commissioned and noncommissioned officers toured the Army’s Black Rapids Training Site Tuesday. The event was part of an ongoing series of meetings intended to enable commanders of the two militaries to operate jointly in the far north.

Despite growing tensions between U.S. and Russia around the world, Air Force Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach says the Arctic for the most part is a conflict-free zone.

“We want to maintain the Arctic as a peaceful place, as it’s been for a while,” Wilsbach said. “And if anyone was to challenge us in the Arctic, we’ve got to be ready to meet that challenge.”

To help keep the peace, senior commanders of the U.S. and Canadian military and coast guard units that operate in the far north this week held another in a series of semi-annual meetings in Alaska to get to know their counterparts and capabilities of the units they command. Wilsbach says the sessions enable commanders to exchange ideas on training and operating in the vast, empty and frigid expanses on land and at sea around North America’s Arctic.

“So it’s a defensive mission that is very difficult to accomplish,” he said, “because of the size of the region, as well as the environment.”

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
A second Chinook helicopter carrying U.S. and Canadian general/admiral-ranking officers and their staffs kicks up dust Tuesday upon landing at Black Rapids Training Site after a flight from Eielson Air Force Base.

Wilsbach heads up the Alaskan Command, headquartered at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson. He says the meetings like those held Monday through Wednesday around Anchorage, Fairbanks and Fort Greely now include sessions that place greater emphasis on responding to disasters – operations Wilsbach expects will become more frequent as the warming climate melts sea ice and opens up shipping lanes around the Arctic.

“That is the most likely thing that we’ll be asked to do in the near future,” he said.

Canadian Forces Brig. Gen. Pat LaRoche, who serves as liaison and deputy for Wilbach in his capacity as head of North American Air Defense Command’s Alaska Region, says an event last summer focus greater attention on that mission.

“Perfect example – the Crystal Serenity, a cruise ship that sailed all the way across from Alaska through the Northwest Passage, and in to New York,” LaRoche said. “So, what if something happens with that ship along the way? Who’s going to be called to rescue these folks, right?”

Credit Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson
Canadian Forces Brig. Gen. Patrice LaRoche

That was the scenario behind an exercise held in September that challenged military and civilian emergency responders to evacuate passengers from a cruise ship that’d run into trouble in the Bering Strait. The exercise was held just as a real cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, was sailing through the area and on to the Northwest Passage en route to New York City – with 1,700 people aboard.

“There’s a lot of tourism in the Arctic,” LaRoche said. “So, that’s an issue.”

He says both Canadian and U.S. militaries also are called to respond to natural disasters, such as wildfires, earthquakes and volcanoes.

“We have to be ready across the whole spectrum,” LaRoche said.

Wilsbach, who also serves as 11th Air Force Commander, hosted this round of meetings and tours, part of the so-called General Officer/Flag Officer Summit. This week’s get-together included a tour of the Black Rapids Training Site, about 30 miles south of Fort Greely, where the generals spoke with media.

An Alaskan Command spokesman says the next summit meeting, scheduled for March, will be held for the first time in Canada – at Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. 

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.