Alaska is the most strategic place on Earth. I believe in the future, he who holds Alaska will hold the world.” (Brig. General Billy Mitchell, Testimony to Congress, 1935)
Alaska became a part of the United States of America as a territory on October 18, 1867 after the U.S. purchased it from Russia. The territory played an integral role in the WWII Pacific theater. In 1942, months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they began striking U.S. Army and Navy outposts in Alaska and occupied part of the Aleutian Islands. In 1942, the U.S. developed the Alaska Territorial Guard, the forerunner to the Alaskan National Guard, in which thousands of native Alaskans joined the ranks to defend Alaska.
Alaska’s geographic proximity to Russia during the Cold War enabled it to play a critical strategic role, defending against Soviet Bombers with nuclear weapons. Between 1954 and 1959, the U.S. developed the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a chain of 63 radar facilities that stretched 3600 miles across the Arctic Circle, to defend from a potential Soviet air attack. The DEW Line served as warning and sensors, providing critical information to effectors arrayed against the Soviet threat. Today, 21 of these radars across Alaska are operational doing the same mission.
With the Soviets’ Sputnik launch in 1953 and the launching of the “space race”, ICBM offense and ICBM defense, rather than air defense against nuclear bombers, became a priority concern to the U.S., much the same as it is today with hypersonic glide weapons. The first successful test of a Soviet ICBM was on August 21, 1957. On January 3,1959, Alaska became the 49th State of the Union and later that year, the Nike Hercules air defense system was deployed for point defense of Anchorage. Three years later, today’s Clear Space Force Base became operational as a Ballistic Missile Early Warning (BMEWS) site, with a constellation of three AN/FPS-50 radars to detect and warn the threat of Russian ICBMs coming over the North Pole to the United States Homeland. This was upgraded in 1981 to an AN/FPS-123 Solid State Phased Array Radar System (SSPARS).
In 2001, in response to the growing ICBM threat from North Korea, the United States deployed a new and more discriminating ICBM radar, the upgraded PAVE PAWS at Clear Air Station and Beale Air Force Base, California. This new radar would be a critical component supporting the Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs) deployed in Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg AFB in California.
In 2022, the United States will add the Long Range Discriminating Radar (LRDR) in full operational deployment with the Solid State Array Radar System to enable and force multiply in the magnitude of 30-plus times the discrimination of ICBMs coming from North Korea across Alaska for the current GBI Fleet and for the baseline for the upcoming Next Generation Interceptor. This is a game-changer for reliability and significantly increases the efficiency of the limited number of GBIs and NGIs defending the U.S. Homeland.
Today the States of Alaska and Hawaii, and the Territory of Guam, find themselves at the forefront for homeland defense against the growing strategic threats of China, Russia, and North Korea. Our Missile Defense systems and operations must be effective across these strategic locations to advance our integrated strategic deterrence. The clear lack of integrated air and missile defense capabilities and architecture for operational deployment to Guam and Alaska has to be addressed. Our IAMD capabilities must be integrated geographically and adapted to defend against the modern day over the horizon air, cruise and hypersonic missile threats to the United States Homeland. This must be implemented with the same speed and resolve that once defined our “strategic will” during the Cold War.
Operating newly developed air and missile defense systems for the United States Homeland naturally falls into the roles and responsibilities of the National Guard, as it can be synthesized with the Guard’s current National Capital Region missile defense, Homeland Ballistic Missile Defense, and unit level air and missile defense responsibilities. The United States force projection capabilities emanating from Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam are not comprehensively defended and this invites offensive overmatch from China, Russia, and even North Korea, which can in turn destabilize the balance of power. Building and deploying a strategic Integrated Air and Missile Defense architecture across Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam will serve to change the strategic calculus of our adversaries.
New Roles and Responsibilities of Integrated Air and Missile Defense for the United States Homeland also need to be explored. Congress must play a critical role as a forcing function for change. We must set National Policy for defining what we must defend within our United States Homeland and who is best postured to defend it. We must also be clear-eyed about the defined capabilities we should have the Services develop, and then integrate those capabilities with the right systems and forces. The National Guard has a demonstrated capability and capacity to play a significant role in executing homeland defense that will endure with greater synergy, effectiveness, and efficiency.
As a strategic visionary, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell was correct in 1935, and he is even more so, today. Geography matters and the strategic terrain of Alaska, Hawaii and Guam matters most for the forward defense against the aggregated threats of China, Russia, and North Korea. The past is prologue. Like General Mitchell, our visionary leaders today also speak truth-to-power for our homeland defense.
“We have to change that structure. And I know that we can, because I’ve looked at the fifties and the sixties, and I’ve looked at the history of this organization and almost every organization we have, I look at How Bernard Schriever built a Minuteman ICBM a three-stage ICBM out of nothing. When he had to invent the propellant, invent the guidance, invent everything, build the entire infrastructure, the command and control, and he did it and filled 800 in less than six years from start to finish. Hyman Rickover built a submarine that went around the world, a nuclear submarine, went around the world when at the beginning, he had to fit a reactor that was the size of this room into a ship that was 20 feet wide. How do you do that? And he did it. Five or six years. He absolutely changed everything. This country can change everything. All we have to do is decide that we want to and make sure that when we do that, we get the bureaucracy out of the way.” (Gen. John Hyten, SMD Symposium, Huntsville, Alabama, 8/11/2021)