During Eielson visit, Defense Secretary Mattis highlights Alaska’s strategic military role

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis speaks with Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan on June 25, 2018 on the Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, flight line. Mattis and Sullivan held a joint press conference after a visit to Fort Greely, Alaska.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Eric M. Fisher)

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says the U.S. military increasingly relies on Alaska, both to provide a base of operations to maintaining dominance of the Indian and Pacific oceans to the south and to enable the Coast Guard and Navy to maintain control of U.S. Arctic waters, to the north. Mattis spoke at a news conference this morning at Eielson Air Force Base, after a tour of the missile-defense facility at Fort Greely.

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Mattis stopped over at Eielson on the first of a five-day trip to Asia, where he’ll meet separately with Chinese, South Korean and Japanese officials. He told reporters at Eielson this morning before resuming his trip that the military sees Alaska as the key to the U.S. military’s policy of maintaining dominance of what he calls the Indo-Pacific region.

“It is probably the gateway to the Pacific in many, many ways,” Mattis said.

Mattis has just returned from a quick tour of the missile-defense base at Fort Greely. He says the interceptor missiles there constitute the cornerstone of the defense of the homeland – and two adjacent and increasingly important regions.

“The interceptors we have up here – I will just tell you ladies and gentlemen that Alaska is in many ways the absolute center of the defense of our country, for the Indo-Pacific region and certainly over the polar ice cap,” Mattis said.

The secretary says the Pentagon is challenged to respond to the opening of the Arctic Ocean due to retreating sea ice, which has opened sea lanes and access to resources in the region. He says other nations, especially Russia and China, are taking advantage of that and are increasingly active in the Arctic, which the Pentagon now considers a region of growing strategic importance.

“It’s cited as an area of concern with our national-security strategy, as it looks more broadly,” Mattis said. “And then as a national defense strategy, it looks more specifically how we deal with certain other countries in the world.”

Mattis says he appreciates Congress’s efforts to support construction of six icebreakers, three heavy vessels and three medium, to replace the nation’s two aging heavy icebreakers – one of which has been in drydock in Seattle for eight years now. And he says the U.S. needs more infrastructure to support the new vessels, including a deepwater port on the Bering Sea coast. But Mattis says the nation has a ways to go to acquire the assets needed to protect U.S. interests in the Arctic.

“So the reality is that we’re going to have to deal with the developing Arctic – and it is developing. It’s also going to open not just to transport, but also to energy exploration,” Mattis said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, who accompanied Mattis on his flight to Alaska, says the Senate last week approved a provision in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act to fund construction of the six icebreakers. The senator says he’ll work to keep that provision from being stripped out of the final version that’s now being worked on in a conference committee. And he says Congress has already authorized a federal study on a Western Alaska port to support the new icebreakers.

“Two years ago, we did get a provision in there – again, into law – for the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security to look at the need and characteristics of what we determined was called a strategic Arctic port,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said in a followup interview that the Senate also has authorized a study of further expansion of the missile-defense base at Fort Greely beyond the project now under way that would boost the number of interceptor missiles there to 60.

“Last year’s bill, we did put in a provision for them to look at a study for a hundred silos there – so that would be total, a total of a hundred,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan says those additional interceptors would still be needed even if U.S. negotiators secure an agreement with North Korea to give up its nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, the nation’s defense would still require the additional interceptors.

“You still have Iran,” Sullivan said. “You still have other rogue nations.”

Sullivan predicts continued expansion of the base at Greely and other missile-defense facilities, including radar sites at Clear and Shemya, and more testing at the Pacific Space Launch Complex in Kodiak.