NORAD Fighters Are Using Arresting Gear For Year-Round Ops At Greenland’s Thule Airbase

Amalgam Dart 21-2, which is running from March 20 to 26, is a wider Arctic air defense exercise involving the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and USAF at various northern locations, including Whitehorse in Yukon, Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, Edmonton in Alberta, Goose Bay in Newfoundland and Labrador, plus Iqaluit, Nun, and Thule in Greenland.

The area of the exercise extends from the Beaufort Sea off the north of Alaska, to Greenland and then south down the Eastern Atlantic to the coast of Maine.

The availability of the MAAS to provide year-round operations at Thule is significant. As we have discussed in the past, this airbase already serves as a vital outpost for early warning of a potential nuclear as well as providing a major logistical hub in a remote but strategically important region. MAAS-enabled fighter operations from Thule, within the context of Amalgam Dart, provides an additional operational node that helps expand the defensive bubble around the United States and Canada from aerial threats, even in the winter.

NORAD officials have spoken of wanting greater situational awareness against various potential threats, including cruise missiles, and extending defensive coverage further out into the Arctic supports that aim. “We don’t want to be in a situation … where end game defeat is our only option,” Air Force General Glen D. VanHerck, commander of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month, referring to the growing cruise missile threat from Russia.

Indeed, such is the strategic value placed on Greenland that President Donald Trump even said his administration was looking to purchase it from Denmark. That proposal, of course, was turned down by the Danish government, but the United States retains access to the strategic military outpost at Thule Air Base, now home to around 600 USAF personnel, civilian contractors, Danes, and Greenlanders.

The U.S. military, in general, is becoming ever more interested in austere airfield operations, in Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and elsewhere. There may also be an argument that the CF-18 is better adapted to these particular kinds of operations than some other land-based fighters, thanks to its pedigree as a carrier-capable jet, built for the rigors of arrested landings. The same would apply to the F-35C carrier variant of the Joint Stike Fighter, which the U.S. Marine Corps is now also testing for arrested recoveries on land, as well as at sea. 

For its part, the ability to deploy detachments of fighters to the High Arctic, all year round, is a powerful counter to Russia’s increasing air and naval power in the region. Moscow, for its part, has been establishing new bases in the Arctic as well as stepping up its own fighter deployments to remote bases, including Rogachevo, in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, which hosted MiG-31BM Foxhound interceptors earlier this year. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, 19 airfields of this kind have been repaired or reconstructed in the Arctic in recent years.

As well as being the likely route for a potential attack on Canada or the United States, the Arctic also has great significance for its natural resources and shipping routes, both of which are being expanded as the polar icecap continues to retreat in the face of climate change. For this reason, the United States is also forging increasingly closer links to strategic partners in the region, including Norway, which is currently hosting its first deployment of USAF B-1B Lancer bombers, and Iceland, where B-2 Spirit stealth bombers operated from last year.

Thule Air Base can also serve as a stepping stone for offensive operations in Europe, especially in areas of Northern Europe just below the Arctic Circle. Thule could be a valuable base for land-based anti-submarine and other maritime patrol operations, as well, which could in turn benefit from having fighter cover during a major conflict.

Previously, Russia was seemingly forging ahead when it came to expanding its military footprint in the Arctic. This latest exercise, however, with its promise of year-round fighter operations in Greenland, clearly points to America and Canada seeking to redress the balance.

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