US military exercises come with indications of a growing Navy presence in Alaska

U.S. Navy personnel stand on the flight deck of the USS Comstock, docked in Kodiak, Sept. 10, 2019. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

The USS Comstock docked in Kodiak on Tuesday, en route to participate in a joint forces military training exercise spread across the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutians. The visit comes as U.S. Navy officials indicate the possibility of an increased naval presence in Alaska, and what that might mean for the future.

Kodiak’s Pier 2 is used to hosting cruise ships and large crab boats this time of year. So a 600-foot Navy warship was a little out of place on Tuesday.

The USS Comstock, home-ported in San Diego, arrived in Kodiak around noon. For many aboard, including the ship’s captain, Cmdr. Kevin Culver, it was their first time in Alaska. Culver’s crew is making its way north for training, along with several other detachments of the Navy and the Marine Corps.

“We’re one of the first ones here,” Culver said on a tour of the sixth-floor steering room. “So you know, what a better place to stop than Kodiak and wait for everybody else to catch up to us.”

Across Southcentral Alaska and the Aleutians, some 3,000 service members are participating in the joint forces Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise this month. The exercises range from disaster relief logistics to tactical response drills.

Training in Alaska is a routine activity for naval forces. Northern Edge back in May was a massive joint forces exercise that happens every two years, not to mention the Navy SEALs’ cold weather training facility that operates on Kodiak’s Spruce Cape.

But Alaska might be seeing more of the Navy soon. As sea ice recedes and Arctic waters open up, protecting American interests in the far north is becoming more of a priority.

You might remember back in 2007 when Russian submersibles descended two miles below the North Pole ice cap to plant a flag on the ocean floor. It was more a publicity stunt than a true “claim” to the seabed, but that growing competition for Arctic resources, as well as control of increasingly navigable waterways, is what the Navy wants to get ahead of.

“All the trading nations of the world are going to seek to take that shortcut to the markets,” Rear Adm. Scott Gray told KMXT in an interview May. “So we’ll see an increase in shipping and transportation up here. And so our presence up here is just a continuation to ensure that we protect the sea lanes for trade for all nations and that we are trained and ready to operate in the difficult environment that is the north.”

For that reason, the Navy has begun looking at establishing a more permanent foothold in Alaska, according to Gray as well as Navy representatives in Kodiak this week.

“What’s happening is the Navy is looking at its options,” Senior Chief Petty Officer Brandon Raile from Alaskan Command Public Affairs said in an interview on the Pier 2 dock on Tuesday. “We formerly had two installations here in Alaska: Adak and Kodiak. Obviously, we gave Kodiak to the Coast Guard. Adak was turned back over to the Aleut Corporation. So right now we have no basing options here. So in order to be proactive, of course we are looking into what the options are.”

One option might be a strategic port involving the Navy, Coast Guard and Department of Commerce, set up along the Bering Sea, according to a U.S. Naval Institute interview with Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer in January.

As far as the Navy coming back to Kodiak, Raile said it’s not an impossibility, though there isn’t a clear timeline in place.

“Nothing is off the table at this point,” he said. “We are in the early stages of looking at everything.”

The USS Comstock will be in Kodiak through the weekend. The Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise wraps up at the end of the month.

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