The US quietly exerts Arctic influence with Ted Stevens Center

By Juliana Wheeler - June 6, 2024
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“Church” Kee, Director of the Ted Stevens Center. Photo Jaime Kuhl
With most eyes on the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, the U.S. government is quietly boosting its presence in the Arctic through the establishment of the Ted Stevens Center in Alaska.
Melting waterways and geopolitical challenges mean that both economic opportunity and international conflict could grow in the region. As more Arctic nations – most recently Sweden and Finland – join NATO, an intensified U.S. presence in the Far North is leading to greater collaboration across the entire region – with the exception of Russia.
NATO’s expansion to the north has highlighted the importance of the Arctic region – and, by extension, Alaska – on the global stage. The resulting growth of defense spending is being felt in Alaska’s economy and is spurring interest in security innovations including satellite, data and weapons systems. Companies working in these areas are becoming more connected to Alaska, and are increasingly interested in work being done by the Ted Stevens Center. While the organization is relatively new, it is becoming more influential among Alaska’s professional community.

The Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies

Operational since August 2022, the Ted Stevens Center is one of the U.S. Department of Defense’s six regional centers, each of which develops and strengthens security cooperation with U.S. allies and partners in their respective locations.
The TSC resides on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska. It is developing a network of civilian and military security focused practitioners by promoting understanding and providing collaborative security solutions for the Arctic region. It does this through research, publications, education and events. Representatives from the center are also visibly in attendance at Arctic conferences and gatherings in locations such as Reykjavik and Tromsö.
The TSC supports U.S. Northern Command’s campaign objectives through creative and innovative programs aimed at understanding and addressing the strategic implications of current and emerging Arctic security challenges.
Retired Maj. General Randy “Church” Kee, Director of the TSC, said the organization is “uniquely positioned to address the complexity of operating in the Arctic region. Our work spans from the geostrategic to the geophysical, to understand the drivers of change in a dynamic Arctic region. Our experts equip practitioners with a deep understanding of the multifaceted issues affecting Arctic security, while also emerging as a leading resource in identifying and solving complex security challenges in the Arctic in support of the National Strategy for the Arctic Region.”
Local observers in Alaska credit Maj. General Kee with bringing together people from the business community and the military community – both in his responsibility at the Stevens Center and in his former role as head of the Department of Homeland Security sponsored Arctic Domain Awareness Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Business investors, civic and military leaders have common aspirations to fill infrastructure gaps in the Arctic region. Kee has helped convene leaders to discuss how and whether there is a way for the two groups to work closely together to achieve their mutual objectives in the region. By bringing these communities together, their mutual objectives have a greater chance of being delivered.
These objectives are likely to align with the U.S. national strategy in the Arctic region, which has four pillars that span domestic and international issues. They are:

1. Security: The U.S. will deter threats to the country and its allies by enhancing the capabilities required to defend its interests in the Arctic, while coordinating shared approaches with allies and partners and mitigating risks of unintended escalation.

2. Climate change and environmental protection: The U.S. government will partner with Alaskan communities and the State of Alaska to build resilience to the impacts of climate change, while working to reduce emissions from the Arctic.

3. Sustainable economic development: The U.S. will pursue sustainable development and improve livelihoods in Alaska – including for Native communities – by investing in infrastructure, improving access to services and supporting rapidly growing economic sectors.

4. International cooperation and governance: Despite the challenges to Arctic cooperation due to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the U.S. will work to sustain institutions for Arctic cooperation. The government also seeks to uphold international law, rules, norms and standards in the Arctic.

At a North American Arctic Security Workshop hosted by the TSC in last month, Mead Treadwell, former Lt. Governor of Alaska (and board member of Arctic Today), said he would “urge NORAD (and Northcom) to create an Arctic civil council – much like the Alaska Command’s Civilian Advisory Board. Formally – even just once a year, get together to compare investment aspirations in our domain and learn where we can help each other.”
Areas where Treadwell said civilian and military leaders must work together are:
  • Transportation and telecommunication for air, sea, land and space. He pointed to technology including cargo drones and airships that would benefit both the Arctic civil economy and the military.
  • Energy and climate, which both have security implications, including commercializing Arctic natural gas, plus wind, solar, tidal, hydro, geothermal and biomass and microreactors.
  • Intelligence, given the Arctic’s proximity to Russia and China, and the fact that Arctic businesses in aviation, fishing, mining, and oil and gas have customers in China and competitors in Russia. During the post-Cold War period, many Russians studied in Alaska, established residence in the U.S. and maintain family ties in Russia.

Trade and military support

Trade is one example where the TSC’s efforts to engage with like-minded Arctic countries can play a role in setting objectives. Trade routes can be rerouted via Alaska to help alleviate current issues facing other trade routes. These include the prolonged climate-change drought at the Panama Canal not seen since the canal opened, while the Suez Canal is suffering from regional tensions, with rebel groups attacking ships passing on the Red Sea.
Arctic trade routes can be cleared with the aid of much-needed ice breakers, though the U.S. has only two  (Russia has more than 40, including some that are nuclear powered).
The Arctic is also ideally located to support the U.S. military because its jets can reach Europe, the Middle East and Asia faster from Alaska than from mainland U.S.’s east coast. The arrivals of the newest NATO members from the Arctic only increases this accessibility.

Rules-based order

Matthew Hickey, Associate Director for Strategic Engagement at the Ted Stevens Center, said the TSC’s mission is to ”build strong and sustainable domestic and international networks to promote and conduct research on Arctic security to advance the Department of Defense’s security priorities in the region.”
To do this, the TSC teaches a range of executive-level courses through its School of Arctic and Climate Security Studies to promote networking and collaboration among participants, while deepening their understanding on Arctic security-related topics. This helps the TSC to build a network of like-minded security practitioners, leaders and decision-makers to reinforce the rules-based order in the Arctic.
The TSC also helps to strengthen security cooperation in the Arctic by developing a network of civilian and military security-focused practitioners by promoting understanding and providing collaborative security soervices  in the region. Hickey said: “As an Arctic nation, we have taken steps to preserve a rules-based order in the Arctic region.”
This strategy enables regional resources to support global trade, shipping and – if needed – the U.S. military, he said.
The concept of a rules-based order has been around since World War II and broadly addresses a set of multilateral relationships between institutions based on politics, economics and internationalism. It can mean different things to different actors in the international discourse. In this case, the Ted Stevens Center aims to support stability in the Arctic region.
Since the Arctic geographically connects all northern hemisphere continents, trade relationships are also important to deliver the U.S. national strategy and maintain stability in the region.

Education

To deliver its focus on education, the TSC publishes research papers including the Journal of Arctic and Climate Security Studies and delivers projects through its Research and Analysis Division.

“Our No. 1 mission at the Center is education,” Hickey says. “We want to educate people about the challenges and opportunities in the region.”

The TSC’s team produces publications with international government partners, U.S. government organizations, business organizations, educational institutions and others. This broad collaboration ensures that these publications include a wide range of perspectives on Arctic security to help allies and partners find innovative solutions to support the well-being of the Arctic region.

The Center holds events to discuss Arctic security topics that address both the unique challenges and opportunities in the Arctic region. These events include panel discussions, roundtables and workshops, which are managed by the Center’s Strategic Engagement Division. These events bring security practitioners together to discuss Arctic security topics that address the unique challenges as well as opportunities in the Arctic region.
Hickey says the TSC also works on issues that have uses beyond the military, including food security and energy security. For example, it looks at sustainable fishing to ensure future generations can attain food from the sea. Energy security can help improve the cost of living and quality of life in rural areas where power might not come from a central source. These variables are interrelated and impact Arctic security at the individual, national and regional level.
People living in the Arctic have always felt the impact of temperature, food security and fishing. The increasing importance of climate change, along with conflict in the world, is making geopolitical security and trade key issues for the Far North. The Ted Stevens Center wants to raise awareness of these issues while promoting stability and security in the region and beyond.

As Philippe Cousteau Jr., environmental activist and grandson of Jacques Cousteau, said: “The world cannot live without the Arctic; it affects every living thing on Earth and acts as a virtual thermostat, reflecting sunlight and cooling the planet.”


Ted Stevens served as U.S. senator for Alaska from 1968 to 2009. He was named Alaskan of the Century in 1999 for having the greatest impact on the state in 100 years. In fact, money that came to the state from the federal government often received the nickname “Stevens money.” A World War II pilot, Stevens died in a plane crash at 86. The Anchorage airport is also named after him.