WASHINGTON — A compromise $858 billion national defense bill is poised to authorize spending millions on Arctic security measures in Alaska.
Leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate Armed Services Committees released the FY2023 National Defense Authorization Act on Tuesday. Alongside a 4.6% pay raise for military service members, the bill authorizes dozens of Arctic security and Alaska-related provisions like boosting pay for cold weather military personnel, increasing federal funding for Port of Nome expansion and procuring an icebreaker.
The House passed the NDAA on Thursday 350 to 80, with Alaska Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola’s support. The Senate will vote on the bill as early as this week.
This year’s Arctic-minded NDAA comes as tensions have ratcheted up in the region. Russia has built up military capabilities in the Arctic, and China has signaled interest by dubbing itself a “near-Arctic state” in 2018. Alaska Republican U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have spent much of their congressional careers lobbying the federal government to bolster military capacity in Alaska.
Sullivan, a Marine reservist who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he sees the FY23 NDAA as a positive step for Arctic security and currently intends to vote for it.
“We think it’s a good bill,” he said, referring to his office. “It’s a really good bill for Alaska. It’s a good bill for the country.”
Elements of the Arctic Warrior Act
The latest version of the NDAA includes provisions from the Don Young Arctic Warrior Act, a bill championed by the Alaska congressional delegation to improve the quality of life and mental health resources for cold-weather military personnel.
Murkowski, Sullivan and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., introduced a freestanding version of the Arctic Warrior Act this summer, and not all of the provisions made it into the NDAA. However, several initiatives are in the bill, including compensation boosts for service members who perform cold-weather operations, travel allowances that cover a trip home for military personnel stationed in Alaska and a car-sharing pilot program.
Other Arctic Warrior Act provisions in the NDAA attempt to tackle a behavioral health shortage felt acutely in Alaska by piloting a scholarship program for behavioral health providers at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences and requiring the Department of Defense to release a report about the behavioral health workforce in the department.
Last year, at least 11 service members died by suicide at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks. A 2019 Army study found that more than a quarter of soldiers surveyed said they were worse off financially after moving to Alaska and 10.8% had suicidal thoughts, according to a USA Today investigation.
Port of Nome cost sharing
Efforts to expand the Port of Nome to accommodate an Arctic deep draft port have been underway over a decade. The project has endured design modifications, environmental reviews and funding battles. The latest NDAA bill would authorize increasing the federal government’s share of the project’s costs from 65% to 90%.
The project, with a price tag of more than $600 million, is anticipated to be an economic boon for Nome, creating jobs and driving tourism, shipping and defense work through the port.
In January, the Army Corps of Engineers announced $250 million to fund the first phase of construction. In turn, the City of Nome had to come up with an additional $175 million as part of an earlier cost share agreement. The Alaska Legislature included the funds in an operating and capital budget in May.
However, Sullivan has been pushing for the federal government to shoulder more of the financial burden. In its current form, the NDAA authorizes the federal government to cover 90% of the project’s costs.
“I think it’s very important,” Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman said of the new cost share arrangement. “This helps make it a real possibility that this project will be completed in its entirety by helping to lessen demand on the local side to have to keep on coming up with additional funding.”
Sullivan said the Port of Nome is the first step in a broader vision to have a series of ports along the west coast of Alaska.
“We have no infrastructure that can handle assets that can protect our economic, environmental and national security interest in the Arctic,” he said. “We need a strategic Arctic port, my view is we need several. A series of ports.”
Another longtime priority for the Alaska delegation has been building a fleet of icebreakers.
Russia has 54 icebreakers while the U.S. has two, one of which is out of service, according to Sullivan. The FY21 NDAA authorized building six icebreakers, but Congress has only appropriated the funding for three. As those vessels are being built, the FY23 NDAA authorizes $150 million for the Coast Guard to purchase another.
“We’ve been working this really, really hard,” Sullivan said, “on the authorization to purchase and convert a commercially available icebreaker which, I don’t wanna jinx it, but it’s very, very likely to be home-ported in Alaska.”
A Coast Guard assessment found that Juneau is the ideal location for the icebreaker, Sullivan said. The defense bill provides for land transfer of 2.4 acres from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the city of Juneau next to the Coast Guard dock at Auke Bay. Sullivan told the Juneau Empire that the land would be used for buildings and other infrastructure to support the influx of enlistees and dependents resulting from the icebreaker.
Beyond the icebreaker, the defense bill also authorizes $286.2 million for military construction in Alaska, including big-ticket items: $100 million for a runway extension at JBER, $68 million for dormitories at Clear Space Force Station, $63 million for the Alaska Air National Guard aircraft maintenance hangar at JBER and $50 million for a Fort Wainwright physical fitness annex.
Murkowski, a senior member of the appropriations committee, has advocated to secure funding for the projects in the omnibus government spending bill, which is still being negotiated.
Erin Eaton, a JBER spokesperson, said in October — when the NDAA negotiations were underway — that the military construction projects help the base deliver Arctic combat support and develop military personnel in the region.
“Protecting the homeland, projecting Joint forces, and powering the base requires our focus on resources to modernize and harden our defense,” Eaton said in a statement. “Maintaining JBER’s role as a leader in the (United States Indo-Pacific Command) theater requires us to always find ways to modernize and improve the way we do business.”