Eleven foreign military vessels from China and Russia patrolled off the Alaska coast last week, prompting a response from U.S. Navy vessels, according to military officials.
The operations, first reported over the weekend by the Wall Street Journal, remained in international waters off the Aleutian Chain in Western Alaska, and have since concluded. In a Monday statement, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said they and the U.S. Northern Command monitored the Russian and Chinese naval patrol, which operated near Alaska “earlier this week.”
“Air and maritime assets under our command conducted operations to assure the defense of the United States and Canada,” according to the statement. The patrol “was not considered a threat.”
Alaska’s two U.S. senators, both Republicans, issued a joint statement Saturday saying the incident is a reminder of Alaska’s role in national defense and called for expanding the military’s presence in the state.
“Incursions like this are why we are working so hard to secure funding and resources to expand our military’s capacity and capabilities in Alaska, and why our colleagues must join us in supporting those investments,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Sen. Dan Sullivan said the incident was “another reminder that we have entered a new era of authoritarian aggression” led by China and Russia.
Sullivan said that the U.S. response to similar operations conducted by the Chinese and Russian navies last year, when a Coast Guard cutter responded to seven foreign vessels, was “tepid” and that he was “heartened” by the response to the recent operation, which included four U.S. Navy destroyers.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the four destroyers that responded to the flotilla were the USS John S. McCain, the USS Benfold, the USS John Finn and the USS Chung-Hoon.
Troy Bouffard, director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said that the Russian and Chinese joint operation was part of a larger pattern of joint exercises between the two countries.
“In recent years, China has been allowed to participate incredibly in Russia’s largest annual military exercises,” he said. “Each year there’s a little bit more participation, a little bit change in how they do partner and work together militarily. So this maritime effort now is also not surprising.”
Bouffard said the operation is also tied to interests of foreign powers in the Arctic, and to Russia’s war in Ukraine, with Russia “wanting to demonstrate that they can still conduct force projection elsewhere in the world.”
“These are the kinds of reminders that we can’t wait for the enemy to fully engage, to start our own preparations,” said Bouffard.
“The U.S. Navy right now is not really set up for Arctic waters. Anything that has sea ice — we don’t really have ships that are ice-hardened yet — so the ability of the U.S. Navy to have a surface presence in parts of the Arctic with sea ice is pretty limited. And that’s something that just has to be dealt with at a strategic level. We’ll have to figure out a solution to that some day,” Bouffard said.
But he added that without a concrete threat on the horizon, it is difficult to convince Congress to divert funding from elsewhere to the Arctic and to Alaska, and the state still lacks the infrastructure for Navy ships to be permanently based in its waters.
“Russia has always had a massive presence in the Arctic with the northern fleet. China just build a navy faster than anywhere seen in the world. And it makes us wonder as a global maritime security lead — what should we be doing in the Arctic? That has been a difficult question. There’s been a lot of pressure about that,” said Bouffard.
“When we see these semi-provocative moves by our adversaries — it keeps the dialogue going. It keeps us engaging and checking ourselves.”