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Part 1: Lt. General Russell Handy On Arctic Strategy

By | December 30, 2013

Last month, the Department of Defense released an eight-point Arctic Strategy. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel presented the document at the Halifax international security forum in Nova Scotia. It is a military blueprint for managing the future of international shipping, territorial sovereignty, tourism and security in a rapidly changing Arctic. In the first of a two part interview, Alaska’s top military official, Lt. General Russell Handy says what stands out from the plan is how much is yet unknown.

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When you saw Hagel’s strategy, were there elements that stood out as more challenging to accomplish? Are there areas of the Alaskan Arctic that are of greater concern than others?

I think the biggest challenge is to look into our crystal ball on what our requirements will be. There’s not total agreement on the ice melt and the rate at which that is occurring or the impact that’s going to have on increased econ development in the arctic. We’re responsible to maintain an awareness of that domain and try to ensure with partnership with the international community freedom of navigation in international waterways in accordance of international norms, but how much of that is there going to be? And then how much infrastructure do you have to put there, if there’s going to be a lot of tourism in the arctic for example, well, we and state and local officials need to be ready for that. If there’s some sort of a search and rescue requirement that we over land in Alaska command or admiral Ostebo in US Coast Guard district 17 over water, we need to have thought through that in advance, so that’s the most challenging is envisioning what will the arctic look like in 20 or 25 years.

Are there elements of the Arctic strategy that will be implemented immediately?

There are, in fact there’s elements of that strategy that are ongoing right now. Which is why it was so exciting for us to offer input because it allowed us to say, that’s a great idea, let us show you what we’re already doing. So our team has been conducting many things that you sort of read between the lines in that arctic strategy for some time. We have a series of working groups, where we bring together public and private partners where we talk about activities that are ongoing. We brought everyone together and we’ve learned quite a bit, up at the UAF for example, nationally, internally recognized as a center of excellence for arctic studies. What’s going on in the corporate world up on the northern slope and we’re learning many things that we can capitalize on from a defense department perspective from the people who have been doing this for a number of years.

In fact my predecessor signed an MOU with President Gambell from the University of Alaska that outlined areas that we will partner and we have an active partnership going in everything from arctic awareness, maritime domain awareness, how you might employ remotely piloted vehicles for command and control purposes, so we’re actively partnering with them and others.

As you’re probably aware, there is a lot of controversy over unmanned arial vehicles, how could that be a way to enhance surveillance in that area?

I think there’s tremendous growth opportunity for unmanned aerial vehicles, but we have to carefully look at what, how and who is doing it. There’s a big difference between a private corp looking at their facilities, or UAF doing research or even the CG who has law enforcement authority. Big difference between that and the DOD, a title 10 activity. As you know we have legislation that protects our citizen from the military doing things that looks like civilian law enforcement.  So we have to be very careful to be sure we’re doing it for the right reasons. That said, we’re will partner with our public and private partners that we’re working with to insure we help each other, the DOD has tremendous capacity in remotely piloted vehicles, we’ve got a lot of experience with them so we can work together with them or pass on our expertise to those that will use them.

Secretary Hagel said the DOD must evolve its Arctic infrastructure at a pace with current conditions. That would seem to suggest a nearly immediate start considering how quickly the Arctic is changing and the lack of facilities there now, and where. Kotzebue? Barrow? Nome?

As I indicated earlier, Sec Hagel did say that but he also emphasized a cautionary note and that is let’s be careful and analyze where we need investment so we take taxpayer dollars that we really need when it lines up against other needs. I read in that he is going to be very careful in large scale investment. That said, we can get a lot done with a very small investment with partnering, partnering with UAF, other private organizations, our international partners. I think that’s a key area for growth. When you look at the Arctic Council and others that want to be on the Arctic council, I think that’s our center of gravity. You continue to evolve capabilities together. So to do that you need to understand what international norms are and so talking often in forums like the arctic council, is important and then working to build those capabilities. I wouldn’t say there’s a total lack of infrastructure and equipment. If you look at everything that is in place in the public and private world and with international partners, it might surprise you to know what capabilities does exist or could with a reasonable investment, in the near term to satisfy the DOD strategy. In the far term, the trick will be understanding what the arctic will look like in 2030. The DOD doesn’t build anything quickly. If we’re going to field programs we need to look in advance and build a program to be able to fund that and understand where those capabilities need to be in 2025 or 2030 will be the cornerstone to any investment strategy.

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