Saturday, December 9, 2023

Military training program returns to Unalaska, a possible step towards Arctic port development

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A map from a 2020 military report details the recommended location for a Coast Guard and Navy base in Unalaska, as well as the location for a ridgetop runway. (From U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Army officials are scheduled to visit Unalaska in April, following up on a trip they made in 2020 to assess the community’s infrastructure needs, as well as Unalaska’s ability to host a larger military presence.

It’s part of a Department of Defense program called Innovative Readiness Training, or IRT, and is designed to train civil affairs soldiers while also providing service or aid to local communities.

The Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska originally applied for the civil affairs assessment in 2015. An IRT team visited the island in 2020 to survey the community’s infrastructure concerns, such as Unalaska airport’s short runway, and to examine the feasibility of supporting a larger military presence in the Aleutians.

The purpose of that mission was to train civil affairs officers to create a report — that does not mean the report’s findings would actually be implemented.

Nearly three years later the military is following up, a sign of interest in whether Unalaska could host a military base, which was recommended in the previous report.

“A permanent U.S. Navy presence in the Aleutians is recommended,” the authors of the 2020 report wrote, identifying a location in Beaver Inlet as a prime location.

It calls Agamgik Bay on the northeast side of the island “an ideal site for a joint United States Coast Guard/United States Navy base,” and a nearby mountain ridgeline “a prime site for an adjoining high-capacity airstrip.”

Chris Price is the chief executive of the Qawalangin Tribe. He says this followup visit does not necessarily mean the military is moving forward with the recommendations from that training report, but that it could be a step towards developing the infrastructure needed to host such an operation.

“What I see is that they understand the importance of Unalaska as a strategic port. And they want to help this community maintain the infrastructure, and continue to build the Arctic port infrastructure over time,” Price said.

The U.S. is investing more resources in the Arctic as the melting ice caps open up shipping lanes between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. And community leaders have been promoting Dutch Harbor as a key port in the nation’s Arctic plan. Dutch Harbor is about 1,000 miles south of the Arctic Circle, but it is the closest U.S. deep-water port to the Arctic Ocean.

“What is at stake is the ever-increasing wealth which flows through the Arctic Northern Sea Route,” the study’s authors wrote. “This region is key terrain for both Russia and China.”

The current phase of the IRT program is to assess the community’s concerns — like the brimming landfill or the airport’s short runway — but it could also lead to actually picking a project to build.

“What we’re trying to get to is a fundable project,” Price said. “The dream scenario would be we get our Airport Master Plan fixed and moving to where we can get an increased runway.”

Price said some other possible projects are a gasifier for the landfill, increasing the city’s reservoir capacity, and the Iliuliuk Bay dredging project, which the federal government recently approved $25 million to help fund.

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