UNALASKA — Army helicopters began flying in and out of the scraggly wilderness near this fishing town in August, surprising even the mayor.
The tan, twin-rotor Chinook aircraft thumped over treeless cliffs and the historic port of Dutch Harbor, parking at a mountainside airstrip too small to land jet airliners.
Soldiers came and went, sometimes staying at the main hotel in town, across the street from a bar called the Norwegian Rat Saloon. Unalaska's mayor, Frank Kelty, said he called the military to find out what was going on but learned little.
"We have these Army helicopters here, and we don't know what they're doing or where they're going," he said after driving by the airport on the remote Aleutian island and seeing a Chinook resting near the runway.
The mysterious operation was part of the U.S. military’s gradual growth in the Arctic as it grapples with the effects of melting polar ice and Russia’s and China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. The slowly evolving plan has included stationing more fighter jets in Alaska, expanding partnerships with Nordic militaries, increasing cold-weather training and designing a new class of icebreaker ship for the Coast Guard that could be armed.
The vision could take greater shape by the end of the year: Both the Navy and Coast Guard are working on new Arctic strategies in light of the quickly changing circumstances senior U.S. military officials see.
In October, the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier and its associated ships sailed above the Arctic Circle, the first such unit to do so since the Cold War. The strike group, carrying thousands of sailors, practiced cold-weather operations in the Norwegian Sea, an area where Russian submarines operate.
"Certainly America has got to up its game in the Arctic. There's no doubt about that," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said during a visit to Alaska in June. "The reality is that we're going to have to deal with the developing Arctic, and it is developing."
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Recent upgrades include new sensors on several Aleutian islands for a radar network known as the North Warning System. It was first installed during the Cold War to watch for incoming aircraft and ballistic missiles, but the Pentagon concluded more recently that existing radar did not offer “adequate detection and identification of aircraft operating outside the continental United States,” according to an Air Force assessment.
That prompted the operation involving the helicopters in Unalaska.
A military spokeswoman, Leah Garton, said the mission allowed the aircrews to practice navigating over water and landing in mountainous areas, where the sensors were installed. The new equipment will "assist in flight safety for all civilian and military aircraft in the local area," she said.
The new Navy and Coast Guard Arctic strategies would follow the national defense strategy released by Mattis in January that made countering Russia and China a priority. Both nations have shown interest in Arctic resources as the ice melts, including fossil fuels, diamonds and metals like nickel and platinum.
Russia has more than 40 icebreakers — the U.S. military has two working ones — and stationed more troops in the region. China, meanwhile, is building its third polar icebreaker and staked a claim this year as a “near-Arctic” state, further injecting itself into policy debates.
"We're obviously watching both the Russians and the Chinese quite closely," said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, who oversees Coast Guard operations in the Arctic and Pacific. "Russia, on their side of the Arctic in sort of the Northern Sea Route, is investing heavily in commercial infrastructure and in military infrastructure."
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Coast Guard Capt. Gregory Tlapa, who commands the lone U.S. military icebreaker traveling to the Arctic each year, said waterways like the frosty Bering Strait are not yet busy with ships, especially when compared with other maritime corridors. Waters are warming, he said, but “somewhat warmer still means mostly frozen.”
But the lack of U.S. military vessels and infrastructure in the Arctic could be problematic, said Tlapa, speaking on the red-hulled USCGC Healy while it refueled in Dutch Harbor in August. Congress recently approved initial funding for six new polar icebreakers, but they are probably still years away from deploying.
"It's that school of international realism: If you're not here, someone else will be," Tlapa said. "The nation doesn't have a deep-bench strength in terms of capabilities to operate up here and project power and protect our national interests."
The potential militarization has raised hope for investment in places like Unalaska and Nome, a port town on Alaska's western coast.
Unalaska, with nearly 5,000 full-time residents, is perhaps best known as the port in Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" series. The town processes the largest volume of commercial fishing in the United States each year, with the company UniSea operating hotels, bunkhouses and bars there.
The fishing helps make Unalaska home to hundreds of bald eagles, which scavenge dumpsters, perch on lamp posts and occasionally swoop down to attack people.
The town — which takes its name from the Aleut word “Ounalashka,” meaning “near the peninsula” — has struggled with unemployment, alcoholism and bar fights. But Kelty said that has improved in recent years as the number of full-time residents increases and the success of the fishing industry has helped bankroll paved roads, schools and other municipal projects.
Echoes of World War II are still obvious across Unalaska. The hull of the SS Northwestern, a ship bombed during a Japanese air raid in 1942, rests upended in a bay, and many World War II-era buildings have been repurposed by the fishing industry. The ruins of an old Army installation, Fort Mears, overlook Dutch Harbor.
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Though nothing is planned, Kelty argued that an influx of U.S. troops could bring infrastructure projects that could benefit residents, such as the installation of undersea fiber-optic cables from mainland Alaska that could bring more affordable internet and cellphone service.
In Nome, the Army Corps of Engineers is studying whether the small city's port can be dug deeper to handle large vessels. Doing so would add another deepwater port on the Bering Sea, 730 miles closer to the Arctic Circle than Unalaska. Both towns are below the circle but are considered a part of the Arctic by the U.S. government because of how connected they are to it.
Despite its distance from the Arctic, Unalaska is the last deepwater port where large ships heading to the Arctic can refuel in the western United States, and the first when returning. However, it is not considered ideal by mariners and pilots because of its limitations, which include no highway connecting it to mainland Alaska, limited communications and wild weather in which thick fog and high winds are common and can maroon visitors for days.
Elsewhere in the Arctic, the Pentagon has begun to expand its presence through training exercises with partner nations. In Europe, the Marine Corps is deepening relationships with Norway, Finland and Sweden, training units of rank-and-file troops in the shadow of Russia. In June, Norway's government asked the United States to increase the number of Marines there from about 330 to 700, with plans to base them on a rotational basis in the Norwegian Arctic.
Russia vaguely warned Norway that there will be "consequences" to the decision, and U.S. and Norwegian officials have sought to stress that the arrangement is meant to deepen their security partnership and build expertise on existing Arctic training ranges, rather than deter Russian aggression.
Col. John Carroll, the deputy commander of Marine Corps Forces Europe, said commanders want to make sure service members are familiar with the biting cold and can move through the countryside on skis or snowshoes.
“Everything is hard. Everything is more difficult,” Carroll said. “When the wind is blowing at freakin' 30 miles per hour, it’s dark 24/7, and it’s minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit, and you’ve got to put your gear in your pack, get out of your rack, get out of your sleeping bag, get outside the tent and go do something — everything is hard.”
The Air Force also has sought to strengthen its relationships with Arctic allies, said Iris Ferguson, a civilian analyst for the service. That includes the formation of the Arctic Challenge exercise over Europe that will probably test air-to-air combat and other skills and involve Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the United States at some point in the future.
"The demands of the region make alliances and partnerships all the more vital," said Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force's top officer.
The Air Force is planning to base two squadrons of advanced F-35A fighters in Alaska by 2022, supplementing a fleet of jets that already includes two squadrons of F-22 Raptors, considered the Pentagon's best in air-to-air combat. The decision will allow the Air Force to take advantage of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, a sprawling installation that includes 65,000 square miles of space for pilots to train.
"Air power, in particular, plays such a crucial role in this region," Ferguson said. "The ice is melting, absolutely, but the reality is that it's incredibly difficult to operate from a surface perspective, either on ocean or on land. That is certainly the case in the near future, and I would argue probably much farther afield as well."
The Army and Marine Corps increasingly have trained ground forces in Alaska. In March, a joint force of about 1,500 U.S. troops trained together in an exercise known as Arctic Edge, with some driving armored vehicles across frosty terrain and others moving on foot through frigid, snowy conditions.
Army Maj. Chad Peltier, the commandant of the school at the Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids, said instructors stress to students the things that change when working in extreme subzero temperatures.
“If you bring your weapon from the temperature into a warmer environment — say, inside of a tent — and then you bring it back out into that negative-40, negative-60 temperature, the condensation that has built up is enough to freeze that weapon up,” he said. “That’s a simple thing that can disable a warfighter.”
The elevated profile of Arctic operations at the center has raised the possibility that the Army will replace a tracked personnel carrier known as the small-unit sustainment vehicle, or SUSV. The vehicle, first fielded in the 1980s, rides high on snow and sometimes tows a squad of soldiers on skis behind it, said Jared Sapp, a science adviser to U.S. Army Alaska.
At sea, the Navy has operated submarines in the Arctic since the 1940s and carries out a large training every year with them known as ICEX north of Alaska.
In April, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the recent decrease in polar ice has prompted the Navy to begin preparing a new Arctic strategy just four years after the last one was released.
The plan will incorporate "blue-water Arctic operations," in which ships without icebreaking capability sail in areas that were once more frozen, he said.
Asked by reporters after the hearing what triggered the new review, Spencer was blunt.
“The damn thing melted,” he said.