On April 14, 2022, the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) hosted the latest in a series of meetings focused on national defense at the Nation’s northernmost border, with a focus on the North Slope region of Alaska.
The series of events hosted by AFN have highlighted the central role that Alaska Native institutions and leaders play in understanding and responding to national security challenges faced by the United States in the Arctic, including infrastructure, domain awareness and communications, energy and mineral security, partnerships with private industry, food security, and climate change.
As noted by AFN President Julie Kitka:
This is a time of great uncertainty and potential for escalating conflict. The full implications of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and unprecedented sanctions, amplified by the private sector are very complex. We have to be clear on our state and national priorities. And we need to be unified in purpose.
AFN’s Focus on National Security in America’s Arctic
AFN’s April 14 event was held in the community of Utqiaġvik on the North Slope of Alaska. The North Slope region is the northernmost region of the state, spanning an area the size of Minnesota and stretching from the narrow waterway that divides Alaska from Russia in the west to Alaska’s border with Canada in the east. The event was co-hosted by the North Slope Borough, the regional municipal government; the Inupiat Community of the Arctic, the regional federally-recognized Alaska Native tribal government, and Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the regional Alaska Native corporation. Also present as co-hosts were the region’s state representatives—Senator Donny Olson and Representative Josiah Patkotak.
The event featured presentations by senior U.S. defense officials, members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation, members of Alaska’s legislature, the governor of Alaska, representatives from the White House and State Department, and representatives of key energy and defense industries in Alaska.
The history of the U.S. military in Alaska is one that has seen generational shifts defined within the last century by the defense of the Nation during World War II, including the occupation of two of the Aleutian Islands by Japanese forces and the movement of supplies by land and air to aid the Soviet Union’s war effort in Europe; the fortification of the state during the Cold War, including the development of extensive communications and air and missile defense systems; and the ongoing realignment of geopolitical power, most notably to counterbalance the influence of Russia and China. It is a history of service and sacrifice, most notably among the Alaska Native community, where Alaska Native individuals have served at levels higher than any other group of Americans. It is also a history that demands acknowledgement and redress for grave mistakes, including the bombing of three Native villages in Southeast Alaska, the demolition of Kaktovik, the internment of Alaska Natives removed from western villages during Worth War II, the testing of radioactive Iodine 131 on Inupiat and Athabaskan individuals, and the legacy of contaminated lands.
AFN’s leadership seeks to learn from this history, recognizing the shared responsibility of securing our Nation’s borders, and bringing key stakeholders together to pursue a collaborative approach to defining the future of national security in America’s Arctic.
AFN’s April 14 event provided an opportunity for military and civilian leaders to provide an overview of their roles and obligations on matters related to national defense in the Arctic region. Although the event largely focused on the North Slope region, military and civilian leaders alike spoke at length about the relationship between activities in Alaska and economic and political developments around the world, particularly within the circumpolar Arctic region and in relation to the ongoing war in Europe.
Craig Fleener Introduces The Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies
Following the AFN event, I had the opportunity to follow up with Craig Fleener, who capped off the event with a discussion focused specifically on “How Can We Work Together?”
Mr. Fleener was recently appointed to serve as Deputy Advisor for Arctic Security Affairs at the newly formed Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies (“Ted Stevens Center”), one of just six Department of Defense (DoD) Regional Centers for Security Studies. The establishment of the Ted Stevens Center was, notably, a recommendation by AFN to the DoD and Congress.
Mr. Fleener’s career is defined by public service, including, most notably, 35 years of service in the U.S. miliary. Originally from Fort Yukon, Mr. Fleener is a Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal member. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1986 and continues to serve in the Alaska Air National Guard. Among other positions, he has served as the Director of the Division of Subsistence, the Deputy Commissioner of Wildlife, Subsistence, and Habitat Divisions at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as the Governor’s Arctic Policy Advisor, and as Director of State and Federal Relations for the State of Alaska in Washington, D.C.
In his various roles, Mr. Fleener has developed a unique perspective on a wide range of public policy priorities that reflect the objectives of the Ted Stevens Center, including the ability to understand the capacity of government and other partners to collaborate to strengthen national security. He has worked on Alaska Native tribal and village corporation land issues, wildlife and fisheries issues, environmental stewardship, climate change research, vocational training, and healthcare. “Experiences that I’ve had as a permanent participant of the Arctic Council, evaluating the effect of changing Arctic habitat conditions on people and wildlife, working with Arctic tribal governments, and serving as the state’s lead on Arctic issues are instrumental in this new role.”
The Ted Stevens Center Mission
Mr. Fleener’s comments at the April 14 AFN event addressed the mission of the new Ted Stevens Center, which, he noted, will provide executive-level education programs and workshops and support research to support DoD priorities, gain understanding of and responses to transnational threats, foster common perspectives on regional security challenges, and strengthen binational and multinational institutional relationships to meet Arctic challenges through networks and solutions underpinning full-spectrum security cooperation. By doing so, the Ted Stevens Center will build our Nation’s and our partners’ capacity to collaborate against shared threats. The prioritized areas of focus include territorial security, transnational and asymmetric threats, and defense sector governance.
Mr. Fleener stated that the Ted Stevens Center will focus on developing and strengthening networks of government agencies and non-governmental organizations to support a stable, rules-based order in the Arctic:
When we look at what is going on in in the world today and the circum-polar vision of the Arctic, we understand that the rule of law is fundamental to our national security and that our national security is, in turn, fundamental to the rule of law. As such, our national security framework is tied to the governing bodies and organizations outside of the traditional defense framework. The Ted Stevens Center, like the other DoD Regional Centers, will provide an opportunity for military and civilian policymakers and practitioners to come together, to educate and to be educated, and collaborate in support of our rules-based order.
Mr. Fleener noted that many of those who participated in the April 14 AFN event are familiar with longstanding efforts to support a rules-based order in the Arctic, including the Arctic Council and Arctic Economic Council. Alaska’s indigenous communities also regularly participate in cross-border scientific and resource management activities organized through multilateral (e.g., the International Whaling Commission) or bilateral forums (e.g., the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission, the International Porcupine Caribou Board, and the Polar Bear Technical Committee).
Mr. Fleener also commented on the broader importance of businesses and nongovernmental organizations that support the economic, social and cultural landscape within which the U.S. military and it allies operate. Alaska Native corporations (ANCs) play an important role in Supporting and partnering with the U.S. military, including at Fort Greeley, Fort Wainwright, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and the Air Force’s Long Range Radar Sites. Tribal governments are investing in critical infrastructure, including roads, broadband, and ports. Alaska Native communities know how to operate without critical infrastructure, constructing seasonal ice roads, operating search and rescue teams in severe weather, and providing remote medical assistance in the absence of urban facilities. “The future of Arctic preparedness would be best served by a strong partnership between the services and tribes and ANCs, especially for Arctic operations where indigenous peoples have first-hand experience with the challenges of extreme cold, extreme dark, extreme wet and extreme wind, and who have lived and thrived in these conditions for millennia.”