Alaska: “The Most Important Strategic Place in the World,” Part III

EARLIER IN THIS SERIES, I REVISITED THE LIFE and times of William “Billy” Mitchell (1879-1936), an early advocate of air power and the father of the U.S. Air Force. In 1935, Mitchell spoke about air power and strategy before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. This was Mitchell’s last public appearance before he died. Mitchell pleaded with Congress to recognize the strategic importance of Alaska:

“I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world… I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”

Mitchell must have had pretty good eyesight. He certainly saw something in Alaska that few others in that era could visualize. In 1935, Alaska was home to almost no industrial development. There was barely a working coal mine in the entire territory. A single-track railway — hurriedly built during World War I — connected Seward, on the Pacific coastline, with Fairbanks, deep in the interior. And although Alaska had been picked over by fur trappers and gold prospectors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were still parts of the place that no human being — native or otherwise — had ever seen. In terms of space, Alaska was just plain faraway.

In terms of time, it took a heck of a long while and effort to get there. And once you arrived, you were transported into a resource-based economy and existence. There was not much to do in Alaska besides chop firewood and go fishing. Or you could just find a spot near a stream and pan for gold nuggets in the glacial till. So Billy Mitchell or no, how “strategic” could Alaska be?

Strategically Insignificant?

To American strategists of the 1930s — living and working in the politically and financially constrained times of the Great Depression — Alaska was just not terribly important. Alaska might have been a good place to go fishing or to pan for gold. But Alaska was “not a major anxiety of the War Department,” according to a 1939 letter from Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall to President Franklin Roosevelt. And in his masterful study titled War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945, historian Edward Miller concluded, “In both Plan Orange and World War II, mainland Alaska was strategically insignificant.”

Some places are just more important than others. But importance often depends on time and events. In 1935, what did Mitchell mean? In 1939, what did Marshall mean? If Alaska were strategically insignificant in the short and medium terms, was Alaska significant over the long term? So which was it? Or more appropriately, what is it?

Like many things of this nature, it depends on your perspective. When Mitchell talked about the strategic importance of Alaska in 1935, he knew that even the best aircraft on the drawing boards could carry effective payloads out to only 1,000 miles or so of combat radius. And Mitchell was an old Alaska hand, from his days stringing a telegraph line across the Chugach Mountains. He surely knew that 1,000 miles was just a short hop in the vastness of Alaska. But when Mitchell testified to Congress in 1935, he was speaking in broad, forward-looking geographic and geopolitical terms — “great circle” thinking by an imaginative student of air power. In Mitchell’s vision, futuristic aircraft that did not yet exist would fly from Alaskan airfields that had not yet been built. These aircraft could and would roam far and wide and shape events on distant horizons.

A Jet Fighter Like No Other

And so we now move from the strategic perspective of 1935 to that of the present. In August 2007, six Air Force F-22 aircraft landed at Elmendorf Air Force Base, outside Anchorage. The airplanes were brand-new, just off the Lockheed Martin assembly line. The gray aircraft, called Raptors, taxied toward a crowd of dignitaries. There was a short ceremony that marked the official commissioning of what one senior officer called “a new day in the Land of the Midnight Sun.”

The F-22 Raptor is Billy Mitchell’s kind of airplane, a bird of prey like no other. Yes, on the outside, it looks like an airplane fuselage, complete with two wings and two engines. But on the inside, the Raptor offers a revolution in technology. The capability of the F-22 far surpasses that of the venerable F-15 Eagle, and simply eclipses the capabilities of all earlier generations of fighter-bomber aircraft. The F-22 is a stealthy electronic machine that is both an intelligence-gathering device and a long-range hunter-killer. All but invisible to radar, the F-22 can fly at twice the speed of sound and altitudes greater than 12 miles above the Earth. Its electronic suite can tap into the most secret emissions. Its onboard systems can track a cruise missile flying just above the weeds, if not in the spray of the ocean waves. Or the F-22 can attack both air and ground targets before those targets even know it’s there. In war games against frontline aircraft from both Western and non-Western powers, the F-22 has been all-but-unbeatable. (In one exercise, the F-22 racked up a kill ratio of 144-to-0 against top-line opposing aircraft.) In many respects, the F-22 changes the strategic equation every time its wheels leave the runway.

The F-22 Raptor is the replacement for the F-15 Eagle. It is the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, providing U.S. forces with a revolutionary leap in aviation technology. USAF photo.

The Vital Center of U.S. Resource Security

At the Elmendorf welcoming event, a high-ranking officer had some words to say. While most such welcoming speeches are perfunctory — even downright forgettable — this one was different. Some things are true, and truth, by definition, does not change. Thus, the words of Air Force Gen. Paul Hester, commander of Pacific Air Forces in 2007, could just as well have been spoken by Billy Mitchell in 1935.

Hester stated that the Pacific arena is critical for the next 100 years. Hester expanded on this theme, saying, “When you don’t know where the fight is going to be, then you need to balance all of the pieces…Alaska is the place.” Here is the essence of strategic thinking and planning, distilled to a few words at a public welcoming ceremony.

Hester went on, speaking in terms of time, space, and force, the trinity of the strategist and planner. “If I need F-22s somewhere deep in the Pacific, I can get there the fastest from Alaska. If I need them in Europe, they go right across the pole and jump into Europe. And in the Mideast, if they’re needed there, I can get them there.” Hester’s point was that by starting from Alaska, U.S. air power can reach those distant strategic points —the ones Billy Mitchell called the “vital centers” — upon which great events pivot.

At the same time, Raptor aircraft in Alaska can defend the home turf, as well. Alaska is, of course, a key part of U.S. national security today. Alaska is a vital center of U.S. security, both geographically and geologically. After decades of hard work and tens of billions of dollars of capital investment, Alaska now holds immense and proven energy wealth. This treasure is contained in the form of known reserves and additional measured and inferred resources. This wealth begins with the oil and natural gas of the North Slope, which moves south every day through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

And beyond the known areas of the North Slope, Alaska holds much more in terms of energy and mineral wealth. From the National Petroleum Reserve west of Prudhoe Bay to the gold of Donlin Creek, and much more, Alaska is a fabulously rich land. There is more of pretty much everything in the almost endless valleys and mountains of Alaska. In 100 years, people will still be making new discoveries.

Strategic Alaska

So yes, as the general said last August, “Alaska is the place.” Alaska is important. Alaska is strategic to the U.S. And as Alaska is the back door to North America, so it is strategic to our Canadian friends, as well. Alaska may have been “strategically insignificant” during World War II, but it sure is worth defending today. This is the strategic reality. And it is important to know and appreciate this reality. It has now been 73 years since Billy Mitchell told Congress that Alaska is “the most important, strategic place in the world.” So was Mitchell correct? Yes. From the standpoint of long-term security, Mitchell was absolutely correct.

If U.S. policymakers — let alone the U.S. public — have finally come to appreciate how important Alaska is, then the realization comes not a moment too soon. But next comes a question that touches on a different sort of resource, namely the national budget. Alaska may be worth defending, but is it worth defending with F-22s? Some people argue that the F-22 is an expensive military relic. The Air Force began to design the F-22 during the days of the Cold War, and the Cold War is over. So who needs F-22s, right? Aren’t the Raptors just legacies of a U.S.-Soviet confrontation that has passed? Why buy Raptors? And why deploy them for “make work” jobs in Alaska, right?

The Cold War Has Evolved Into…What?

So is the Cold War really over? Have two great nations moved past the bad old days of U.S. airplanes and Russian bombers chasing each other across the skies near Alaska? Or has the Cold War evolved into something else? Is there another confrontation going on? This is not just some misplaced nostalgia for the good old days of eyeball-to-eyeball military stalemates. It is certainly not an atavistic desire for national leaders to revert to the behavior of Dr. Strangelove in the war room.

Of course, the world has changed from a few years ago. But as the world changes, it is not moving backward. The Cold War has passed, but it is not over. The Cold War has evolved into a new, world-spanning strategic game that is just beginning.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
February 22, 2008