Changing conditions in the Arctic are causing problems for the defense of Alaska and Canada as ice thaws and the previously impassable areas become passable. For instance, if an enemy took advantage of these changes, it could more easily send fleet of cruise missile-armed enemy attack submarines to launch missiles at Alaska and Canada. An enemy could also send a large naval force to encircle the Alaskan coast or even cargo planes filled with enemy soldiers could descend quickly and with little warning upon the North American continent.
New waterways are opening up in the Arctic at staggering speeds given the pace of melting ice, a strategic circumstance which continues to rapidly ignite increased global competition for resources, access, territory and, perhaps most of all, tactical military advantage.
The ongoing tension and competition between great powers now fast-increasing their Arctic presence continues to accelerate, yet there are other equally pressing and extremely vital aspects of the changing Arctic landscape. Simply put, the U.S. homeland is potentially becoming more vulnerable to attack. A country with a logistical and strategic foothold in the Arctic, including equipment, assets and even weapons, instantly places itself within a much different striking range or military proximity than would otherwise be the case.
More open waterways brings new opportunities for submarine and surface ship attack from the Northern shore, threatening Alaska and Canada. Should Russia or China have a substantial force presence in the Arctic, it would introduce the tactical possibility of a fast, linear “straight down” assault upon the Canadian shoreline. This new threat scenario is exacerbated by what one former Commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command calls “capability gaps” making the United States and Canada more vulnerable to a range of enemy attacks from the ocean, Arctic shelf, air and even space.
“There are new threats to the homeland that can come through polar approaches, and some are even more problematic from aerospace,” Ret. Gen. Chuck Jacoby, Senior Strategic Advisor, Quintillion, and former Norad Commander, told The National Interest in an interview. “We have gaps in our capability that have existed since the end of the Cold War. There are systems which are still inadequate to address the new weapons that are available.”
Global threat circumstances, and the growing extent to which China and Russia are expanding Arctic operations, is generating a heightened sense of urgency. Congress’ most recent defense bill mandates a review of the United States “North Warning System” and asks about plans for improving satellite connectivity capability in the coming decade.
The challenges have been long standing, Jacoby explained, in part because technical operations in the Arctic, particularly satellite communications and information networking, are extremely challenged in the Arctic.
“Communications in the Arctic is tough because the electromagnetic spectrum makes it scientifically very difficult. Radar does not work as effectively and RF communications such as UHF and VHF can have problematic ranges that are shortened and satellites have increased latency,” Jacoby said.
To address this predicament, a company called Quintillion is working to expand broadband connectivity by adding miles of fiber optic high-speed cable to enable faster digital data transmission and install new ground terminals and new 3.7 meters tall S and X band antennas at latitudes greater than 72-degrees North. The goal is to connect polar orbiting satellites to regional and global data organization and distribution processing centers at speeds and volumes exponentially greater than what is possible today.
“Any polar orbiting satellite passes over the pole about 13 to 14 times every 24 hours. At lower latitude you will only get data downloads six or eight times a day. With our antenna anyone that utilizes a polar orbiting satellite will be able to download data to our antenna once every two hours,” George Tronsrue, Quintillion CEO told The National Interest in an interview.
Quintillion, which already builds much of the existing fiber optic infrastructure, is working to expand networking connectivity to new locations throughout the North American continent, and the world. The intent is not only to add new fiber optic cable networks across the ocean floor and even across the Pacific to allied countries like Japan, but simply move more new high-tech ground terminals and antennas farther up north to much higher latitudes. Quintillion, which engineers fiber optic cable as well as high-latitude antennas, partners with Atlas Space Ops to integrate with ground terminals and bring faster reception and processing speed to fruition.
This introduces a substantial tactical change because it brings the prospect of greatly reducing latency when it comes to downlinking crucial data from polar-orbiting satellites, some which of course introduces significant defense and national security implications.
“Most ground terminals are not above 60-degrees latitude, whereas if we put a data center at the point of the antenna, we can download a dozen or more times a day,”
Then, Jacoby explained, necessary subsequent steps include not just receiving and storing the data but also quickly migrating it to a cloud environment for rapid, ubiquitous data sharing across vital networks.
“We are working with cloud providers to put processing power data centers at the download location, to make data available immediately anywhere that cloud provider has connectivity,” Jacoby said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.