First time in history, the United States Air Force (USAF) deployed its fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet to Greenland, its northernmost military installation in the world.
The US F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter jets were deployed to its northernmost military base, at Thule in Greenland. These formidable stealth fighters took part in a two-week North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) exercise that concluded on January 31.
It may be worth highlighting that the Thule Air Base, located just 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, plays a more significant strategic role against countries like Russia and China.
US officials have warned in recent years that both countries are steadily expanding their regional presence and pose a tremendous military risk to the West.
The USAF appears to have envisioned a bigger and more expansive role for the F-35 fighter jets, especially in the north. In spring 2022, the Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska completed the standing up of two F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft squadrons. The AFB now has 54 F-35 fighter jets.
As for the Thule Air Base in Greenland, it was believed to have four F-35 fighter jets when the NORAD exercises commenced last month. One of these jets reportedly sported the insignia of the 356th Fighter Squadron, indicating that they had been diverted from the Eielson AFB, which is explicable owing to their proximity.
The latest iteration of operation #NobleDefender signifies the first time NORAD has deployed F-35s to Thule, Greenland, displaying the agility of capabilities in support of Arctic defense. #arcticsecurity #WeHaveTheWatch pic.twitter.com/GcRtRCZhDg
— North American Aerospace Defense Command (@NORADCommand) January 31, 2023
About 225 US and Canadian soldiers participated in Operation Noble Defender 23-2.1, a NORAD joint exercise that includes the Royal Canadian Air Force, or RCAF, in various sites along the coasts of Canada and the United States.
Besides the F-35A stealth fighters, photographs show the participation of CF-18 Hornets of the RCAF.
According to the US Department of Defense (DoD), the exercise was “a series of long-planned NORAD operations validating the command’s capability and readiness to defend the United States and Canada against threats from every avenue of approach, in any environment, and demonstrate the ability to integrate with other defense and security partners for a holistic defense of North America.”
Even though the NORAD exercises are routine for the air forces of the United States and Canada, the presence of American F-35 fighters at Thule is significant. The relevance of this strategic base lies in its history. The Thule AFB was secretly constructed during the Cold War as an outpost to launch possible nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union.
The base eventually lost its strategic importance after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and the US shifted its attention to Alaska. However, a radar station close to the Thule base has continued to provide early warning of ballistic missile launches that could potentially threaten North America.
With Russia’s continued military expansion in the region and China’s consistent efforts at expanding its presence, Thule could see a resurrection owing to its geographical proximity to the Arctic Circle. The presence of F-35s is likely just one step in that direction.
It may also be pertinent to note that US allies in the region, Canada and Denmark (responsible for Greenland), have chosen to purchase F-35A fighter jets for their future fleets, and they want to deploy these aircraft to places in the Far North temporarily. This means that the F-35s will dominate the region in the future.
US Is Resisting Russia & China In The Pacific
Last month, a batch of satellite photographs obtained by CNN revealed that Russia had been consistently expanding its military bases in the Arctic region despite suffering setbacks on the battlefield and a substantial dent in its military and financial resources.
Over the past decade, climate change and melting glaciers have opened newer avenues and exploration of the region’s resources. This, in turn, has turned the Arctic into a new zone of geopolitical competition, with the West accusing Russia of militarizing the region and Russia accusing the West of threatening its position in the Arctic.
Late last year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said there is now “a significant Russian military build-up in the high north,” with recent tensions causing the alliance to “double its presence” in response.
Russia has allegedly reactivated several Soviet-era air bases in the Arctic and constructed new ones. It has several ports and airfields in the region that could jeopardize the US’ positions and operations in case of a conflict.
Consequently, the West has increased its military activities to counter-balance the Russian militarization of the region, which has caught pace in the last five years.
While Russia already poses a significant problem for the US in the region, another adversary is also making strides. The Pentagon warned the US Congress of China’s growing interest in the region, including Greenland.
In a report submitted in 2019, the Pentagon warned that the expanding Chinese activities in the Arctic might pave the way for a more prominent military presence, including the deployment of submarines to serve as nuclear strike deterrents. This situation could be further exacerbated if China and Russia decide to cooperate in the region.
The Arctic Ocean is surrounded by six countries, including Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. However, the nearest Arctic stakeholder, i.e., the United States, has significantly upped the ante to prevent Russia from encroaching on the Arctic.
In 2020, the USAF published its Arctic Strategy. According to the document, the USAF strategy in the Arctic would ride on four pillars: vigilance, power projection, cooperation, and preparation.
To bolster diplomatic ties as China and Russia expand their presence in the waterways made available by climate change, the United States announced in August last year that it would create the position of Arctic ambassador-at-large.
To be more prepared for the threat that China and Russia pose, the US and Canada have increased their military cooperation and drills in the Arctic.
The recent NORAD deployment and exercises at Thule make a lot more sense when viewed alongside these goals and the urgent need to counter-balance the growing militarization by adversaries of the United States.