Send the Marines to Alaska
Where is Alaska? In an era of strategic competition with China and Russia the answer is more important than ever. Alaska forms America’s northernmost boundary, making the United States an Arctic nation, and provides substantial strategic positional advantages as a result. Geographically, Alaska and Hawaii are nearly equidistant from Taiwan. A ship leaving Pearl Harbor and averaging twelve knots can reach Guam in eleven days, while one leaving Anchorage at the same speed takes fourteen, just three days longer.
Alaska is big. The state of Hawaii could fit into Alaska 60 times, and much of Alaska’s expanse is undeveloped, providing ample room for units to maneuver, shoot, and conduct electronic warfare training. Like the Strait of Hormuz, Alaska’s Bering Strait is also a critical energy and trade chokepoint. China is cooperating with Russia in developing large Arctic energy projects such as the Liquid National Gas facilities in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. To get there, Chinese ships must transit Alaska’s littoral through the Bering Strait. The Northwest Passage is also becoming a more attractive artery of commerce to Canada and Europe as sea ice recedes. Finally, climate change, combined with increasing demand for Arctic resources, places Alaska on the frontier of a region of central importance to strategic competition. China is increasing investments in the region while Russia is substantially expanding its Arctic commercial and military presence and currently heads the Arctic Council.
For all of these reasons, it is time to station marines in Alaska. The Marine Corps needs Alaska to train. It needs Alaska to deter aggression in vital U.S. littoral regions such as the Bering Strait and the Northwest Passage. And, most importantly, it needs a location from which it can respond in a controlled manner to crises and hostile actions in the Western Pacific.
While the Marine Corps conducts some joint training exercises in Alaska, it has no active units stationed there. The U.S. military could achieve substantial strategic benefits with a relatively small permanent force. Stationing an infantry regiment at Fort Wainwright and an aviation Composite Group at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and/or Eielson Air Force Base would create a brigade-sized force able to conduct robust exercises and deploy rapidly around the world. Stationing an amphibious ready group of three or four amphibious ships in Anchorage would further facilitate rapid crisis response across the Western Pacific.
Defense in Depth
Alaska offers substantial benefits when compared to existing outposts in the Western Pacific. Crucially, it is more distant, and therefore safer, from enemy weapon systems. Moreover, because Alaska is part of the American homeland, adversaries would be more hesitant to take the escalatory risk of attacking U.S. forces there.
There is growing recognition on the Hill and in the Pentagon that forward stationed forces in Japan and South Korea are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese and North Korean missile arsenals. Lawmakers led by Rep. Mike Gallagher have called for greater dispersion of forward stationed forces while Adm. Phil Davidson, the former Indo-Pacific Command commander, identified acquiring Aegis Ashore missiles to defend against Chinese missile attacks as his number one theater priority. More specifically, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Capabilities Assessment and Program Evaluation office has recommended reducing the density of forces within range of Chinese missiles and moving them to places like Hawaii, Alaska, and California.
Too often, administration and Department of Defense officials insist on maintaining or even increasing the U.S. military’s presence in the Western Pacific without addressing the specifics of what kinds of capabilities are needed where — making the implicit assumption that more is better. But numbers are less important than the quality of deterrence, and details matter. Large formations close to China have been made vulnerable by the expansion of China’s weapons engagement zone to include Japan and the Philippines. Now China can threaten U.S. forward deployed forces, making them assume protective postures or displace to alternate sites simply by acting in provocative ways. This is not a robust force posture and places China in the driver’s seat.
A more expeditionary basing arrangement with more marines out of range of China’s missiles would increase force protection without the need for extremely expensive fixed air and missile defense capabilities. If pursued, it would allow Marine forces to increase their contribution to deterrence while saving money and improving readiness.
The best way to reassure allies and partners is with a smaller and more dispersed force. An expeditionary presence coupled with highly capable and responsive forces farther away is better than large garrisons that offer easy targets and little if any immediate response capabilities. Reducing the number of troops stationed in range of China’s missiles will provide greater effectiveness while also reducing burdens to host nations. This should be an easy sell to U.S. allies. Regional governments are unlikely to object to a change of posture that makes U.S. deterrent forces more effective while reducing host nation burdens that contribute to domestic tensions, such as those between Okinawans and the U.S. Marine Corps. While the forward stationed forces that remain would be smaller, they would perform critical logistics, reconnaissance/counter reconnaissance, and command and control functions that would inform forces outside the weapons engagement zone. The goal should not be about mere presence, but rather presence for purpose.
In short, increasing Marine Corps presence in Alaska would align with the priorities of Congress and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. It would also save money, improve readiness, increase deterrence, and reduce friction with U.S. allies.
Okinawa, Guam, and Hawaii lack the undeveloped areas necessary to accommodate the full range of military operations (kinetic fires, cyber, electronic warfare, maneuver, etc.). In the long term this harms force readiness. Alaska by contrast, offers an ideal training location.
Operations in the Western Pacific will necessarily include forces from the different services, and marines in Alaska would develop the joint competencies they need for higher-end missions. The U.S. Army is planning to upgrade its Northern Warfare Training Center into a Joint Multinational Arctic Readiness Center to work with partners like Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Given the Marine Corps’ historic mission on NATO’s northern flank, it should also plan to be a partner in the Northern Warfare Training Center.
The Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, which encompasses all the land, air, sea, space and cyberspace used for military training in Alaska, provides opportunities unlike anything available in the Pacific. The complex has 65,000 square miles of airspace, 2,490 square miles of land space with 1.5 million acres of maneuver land, and 42,000 square nautical miles of sea and airspace in the Gulf of Alaska.
Fort Wainwright, near Fairbanks, also provides a predominately lowland environment that is amenable to ground-based cold weather training in winter. Cold weather operations are rigorous and test leaders physically and mentally. Given the ease with which current sensors can detect thermal signatures, these conditions also allow forces to train for controlling signatures. More broadly, this challenging environment focuses attention on logistics, cover, and concealment and military deception better than any other terrain or climate. Having a Marine regiment stationed in Fort Wainwright would allow for regular joint training with Army and Air Force units while providing easy access to training areas.
The training opportunities accessible at Wainwright’s doorstep would take months of planning for a unit in Guam or Okinawa to access, assuming transportation funding was available. Expanding training infrastructure further west in the Pacific would also be much more expensive. Construction costs are substantially higher in Guam, for example: According to a Department of Defense Facilities Pricing Guide, Alaska has an area cost factor of 2.0 whereas Guam has an area cost factor of 2.71. Additionally, obtaining environmental clearances in Guam requires a lengthy approval process — current Marine development on Guam took eight years for environmental approval — while climate change makes current planned facilities increasingly susceptible to storm surge and flooding.
Alaska’s training areas would facilitate complex fire and maneuver training that would allow units stationed there to be deployed globally for any crisis requiring full spectrum forces. The size, relative isolation, and expanse of Alaska uniquely enable training for long-range reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and signature management activities. U.S. forces in the Pacific today simply do not have the space or resources to conduct the level of training they could in Alaska.
Stationing marines in Alaska provides geostrategic, operational, and fiscal benefits that can’t be ignored. Moving marines to Alaska is not about abandoning commitments to allies and partners in the Pacific, it is about providing them with forces trained and relevant to deter and respond to any aggression. Simply relying on a certain number of forces being stationed west of the international date line is a lazy and unexamined approach. Threats have changed and so should America’s force posture. The Marine Corps needs Alaska to improve its training, readiness, and deployment posture. The nation needs marines in Alaska to ensure its Arctic security while also ensuring Marine units are prepared for combat in any clime or place. Alaska’s wintery isolation is ending. The Marine Corps has an important part to play in this transition.
Noel Williams is a fellow at Systems Planning and Analysis and provides strategy and policy support to Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s.