US Army’s Special Operations soldiers conducted an exercise to protect a critical early warning radar station on a key island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain last week.
Reports claim the drill was meant to prepare for the vital facility potentially coming under attack from Russia and China, as the two countries enhance their unprecedented naval presence and maneuvers in far northeast Asia and the western and northern Pacific.
At a broader level, this also marks a paradigm evolution of the Arctic as a possible flashpoint ever since Russia and China held surprise drills near Alaska, ringing alarm bells in Washington and Tokyo.
The military significance of the North Pole had diminished following the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It emerged only over the last ten years as an energy hotspot.
Arctic nations like Russia, northern Europe, and North America (US and Canada) are engaged in a low-key contest over the resources, with a loose military undercurrent.
But Russia and China seeking to ‘give the US a dose of its own medicine’ by exercising outside its sovereign territory marked a new strategic escalation. This is beside the two countries and North Korea’s admittedly formidable military-technological development and strides in ballistic missilery, a gamut that covers the western and northern Pacific.
In this context, their naval drills near Alaska, the latest US Army exercise, and other US technological pursuits to protect Alaska can be seen.
Exercise Polar Dagger
According to pictures and information state released by the US military, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment conducted helicopter operations during Operation Polar Dagger at Eareckson Air station on Shemya Island, Alaska, on August 18.
The drill was held under the supervision of Special Operations Command North (a component of Special Operations Command) and the US Northern Command (NORTHCOM). The exercise “demonstrates rapidly deployable SOF capabilities in the Arctic and Subarctic regions,” said the statement.
While the information did not mention the agenda of the exercise, reports from American military analysis forums stated that the goal was to practice defending the AN/FPS-108 Cobra Dane early warning and missile tracking radar and an airfield with a 10,000-foot-long runway.
“The 160th SOAR, which has traditionally been known as ‘Night Stalkers’ (exercised at Shemya, which is) located at in an area that is a gateway to the increasingly important Arctic region and would likely be a major target in any future high-end conflict against a near-peer competitor like China or Russia,” said a report by The Drive.
The Special Operations Forces “will demonstrate operational reach, project the ability of US forces to defend critical infrastructure, enhance all-domain awareness, and strengthen our understanding of activity in the Arctic.”
The exercise saw the Night Stalkers being inserted on landing zones from MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, with the C-17 Globemaster III “supporting” the drills. The giant plane is presumed to have carried supplies, ration, and specialized equipment.
The report in The Drive mentioned that it was unclear where the 160th SOAR’s MH-60 Black Hawks, capable of refueling mid-air, flew to Eareckson themselves or were brought in the C-17s.
This is because the island is 1,000 miles from mainland Alaska, and the region has “notoriously bad” weather, with very few options for emergency landing anywhere along the Aleutians.
However, the unit is famous for undertaking dangerous flight missions in “unforgiving” environments. The most famous operation was flying the US Navy SEAL Team Six to the Abbottabad safe house in Pakistan during Operation Geronimo, which took out Osama bin Laden.
The Cobra Dane Ballistic Missile Warning Radar
The Cobra Dane radar began receiving a new upgrade in October 2020, when the US Air Force awarded a US$71.1 million contract. The radar is used for missile defense early warning, missile treaty verification, and space surveillance.
“The radar, which stands 120 feet tall and has a 95-foot-diameter face, became operational in 1977,” according to Military Aerospace Electronics.
The passive electronically scanned array radar received 11 new transmitter groups in the upgrade. It is a ground-based, L-band, phased-array radar that provides midcourse coverage for the US Strategic Command’s Ballistic Missile Defense System. The radar can detect sea-launched and intercontinental ballistic missiles at a range of 2,000 miles.
It can also classify re-entry vehicles and other missile objects and track threats with enough accuracy to commit to launching interceptors and update in-flight targeting data. Expectedly, it faces westwards towards Russia and North Korea, from where the US perceives ballistic missile threats.
“In recent years, Cobra Dane has taken on the role of tracking deep-space satellites as part of the larger Space Surveillance Network and provides observation data to agency command and control nodes,” the report on MAE added.
Was the Drill Worth It?
The drill at Shemya certainly improves the US’s semi-strategic capability to rapidly airlift small and highly armed teams of special operations units. But this assumes that Russia, China, or North Korea would launch a ground attack with an amphibious landing to destroy the radar, when it could be just as quickly be done with long-range stand-off missiles.
The radar and special forces teams can come under a devastating barrage of conventional air-to-ground munitions fired from land, air, and sea – or possibly all three to overwhelm American surface-to-air missiles (SAM).
But this also assumes that either of the countries would want to attack the US directly. Tensions presently are far lower than the Cold War, and deterrence kept both sides from directly striking the other directly, both back then and now.
But even in a scenario where Russia decides to target the US’s ground-based early warning systems, the fixed, large, ground-based radar does not require complicated sensor-to-shooter kill chains with elaborate methods to acquire targeting information and missile guidance. Coordinates could be fed into the missile easily before launch. Put differently, the large radar makes the easiest target.
Russian warships can fire Kalibr or Onyx cruise missiles, while the highly capable Tu-160 swing-wing strategic bomber, designed for deep strategic strike missions with a variety of conventional and unconventional missiles – one of them being the Kh-101 – can fire and turn back even before US air defense sensors cue their SAMs.
Russian MoD has already envisaged hitting US and Japanese targets in far-east Asia using this bomber, as a previous EurAsian Times analysis touched upon. Russia also possesses dedicated fighter-bombers like the Su-34 and the MiG-31. The latter’s ‘K’ variant fires the Khinzhal aero-ballistic hypersonic missile.
Goal Is To Assuage Politicians
Committing manpower and logistics to transport special operations ‘frogmen’ to take a fixed missile site, when the effort could be quickly detected and possibly beaten by other (American) special operations troops could also end in a spectacular embarrassment. The eventuality does not escape Moscow, Beijing, or Pyongyang.
A contingency on Shemya could also be challenge for the defender, the US, too. The Drive report notes (mentioned above) the exceptional weather and infrastructural challenges in carrying out an airlift to the frigid region. Thus, Russia or China could time an operation to take Shemya by land with inclement weather, when a US medium/heavy-lift helicopter-mounted counteroffensive would run into the most hindrances, if not wholly fail.
Therefore, the reason behind an otherwise futile military exercise could be political: to reassure US politicians alarmed at the rare Russo-Chinese 11-ship vital naval drills near Alaska earlier this month.
Operating near the Aleutian Islands but outside American territorial waters – according to top US military officers quoted in reports – two Republican senators, Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, still expressed severe outrage. They issued a joint news release after being briefed about the tracking operation the US Navy launched.
“The incursion by 11 Chinese and Russian warships operating together – off the coast of Alaska – is yet another reminder that we have entered a new era of authoritarian aggression led by the dictators in Beijing and Moscow,” Sullivan said.
Their joint statement said: “This is a stark reminder of Alaska’s proximity to both China and Russia, as well as our state’s essential role in our national defense and territorial sovereignty.
Incursions like this are why we are working hard to secure funding and resources to expand our military’s capacity and capabilities in Alaska. Our colleagues must join us in supporting those investments.”
If anything, such joint naval drills open up another sub-theater in the western Pacific and northeast Asia, forcing the US and Japan to commit resources while they are shoring up exercises against North Korea.
The level of politico-strategic coordination between the three has been at its highest. It reflected in Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu’s visits to Russia and Moscow’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to North Korea.