Fort Wainwright apprehended ‘Chinese spies,’ Sullivan says

Fort Wainwright sign
A gate sign at Fort Wainwright (Eve Baker/Fort Wainwright Public Affairs)

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan says Chinese nationals posing as tourists drove through Fort Wainwright’s main gate and onto the post before being stopped by security personnel. He said that and other incidents in recent years show that both China and Russia are trying to collect information on Alaska military installations and operations.

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Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin began a July 2021 tour of U.S. allies in Asia with a visit to Fort Wainwright. (Chad McNeeley/Department of Defense)

Sullivan issued a statement about the Fort Wainwright gate incident last week, on the same day that USA Today published a story about it. The senator says the incident fits a pattern set by flights of a Chinese surveillance balloon over Alaska and Russian aircraft formations offshore.

“Whether it’s a Chinese spy balloon, Russian Bear bombers or this new reporting of suspected Chinese spies in Alaska, this is another wake-up call that we are in a new era of authoritarian aggression led by the dictators in China and Russia,” Sullivan said.

An 11th Airborne Division spokesperson referred questions about the gate incident to Fort Wainwright, which in turn referred all queries to the Defense Department – which also declined to comment. And so did the FBI.

Sullivan spokesman Ben Dietderich wouldn’t provide details on the incident, but he confirmed that it occurred and that it’s not the first time it’s happened.

“We’ve been aware of incidents similar to this,” Dietderich said in an interview Monday. “And the specific one mentioned — the senator’s been briefed on that.”

The May 31 USA Today story says a vehicle with Chinese nationals “blew past” a Fort Wainwright security checkpoint before it was stopped on post. The story says authorities then found a drone aircraft inside the vehicle.

Troy Bouffard lectures on Arctic Domain and Security Orientation during a 2017 National Guard Arctic Summit at the Mission Command Training Center on Fort Wainwright. (Army National Guard file photo)

The story also says U.S. officials suspect the incident is part of an effort by China to learn more about Alaska military installations and their operations by using Chinese nationals posing as tourists.

Sullivan says he’s looking into the allegations.

“I am pressing for more details on these alleged security breaches, and will continue to work with the Department of Defense to ensure our installations in Alaska remain secure,” he said.

Fairbanks-based military and security analyst Troy Bouffard says that’s an ongoing a challenge for installation commanders.

“It’s always a threat, for sure,” said Bouffard, who directs the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Center for Arctic Security and Resilience.

Bouffard is a 22-year Army veteran and doctoral student, and he says it’s not surprising that adversaries are interested in the U.S. military buildup in Alaska and its role in maintaining U.S. national interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

“So, nothing too new there,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “We definitely have adversaries who are probably increasing their efforts to gain knowledge and intel.”

An aerial view of Ladd Army Airfield on Fort Wainwright.

Bouffard agrees with Sullivan that Alaska has a lot of military assets of great interest to U.S. adversaries, including its ground-based missile defense system, advanced jet fighters and a rapidly deployable Army expeditionary force.

“With the 11th Airborne Division being reactivated,” he said, “there’s a lot of interest from our adversaries on, like, ‘What kinds of capabilities are they developing?’ ”

But the head of a Fairbanks-based tourism marketing organization has another theory about the Fort Wainwright incident that’s based on an increasing number of Chinese students enrolled in Lower 48 universities coming to Alaska to visit.

“Fairbanks has been a popular spring break destination for them, to come here and experience all the winter activities that we have to offer,” said Scott McCrea, President and CEO of Explore Fairbanks.

McCrea said in an interview Tuesday that he recalls at an incident that occurred a few years ago, when some Chinese students looking for the North Star Borough’s Birch Hill Recreation Area, off the Steese Expressway, instead ended up at Fort Wainwright’s Birch Hill Ski and Snowboard Area.

“Apparently Google Maps directs them to the Birch Hill on the Fort Wainwright side,” McCrea said. “Nothing nefarious beyond that!”

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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