The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
THE late General William Mitchell once termed Alaska "the Achilles heel of American defense." This statement is significant, coming from a pioneer apostle of air power, for it is the tremendous growth in the importance of air power that has suddenly focused attention on the strategic importance of Alaska in our program for hemisphere defense.
Once known as "Seward's Folly," the Territory is now, in an age of aggressive imperialism, a rich prize, both for its strategic location and for its vast undeveloped resources. Alaska is known to possess extensive reserves of gold, silver, platinum and coal, along with valuable deposits of lesser-known extent comprising tin, oil, lead, copper, antimony, zinc, iron and bismuth. However, less than half the area of the Territory has been adequately surveyed for minerals. Supplies of timber, furs and fish (particularly salmon) are immense. Yet the total population inhabiting this vast and valuable region numbers slightly less than 60,000 souls, of whom only one-half belong to the white race. And, until a year ago, the "home defense" of Alaska was represented by 300 infantrymen in Chilkoot barracks, plus one antique cannon left by the Russians and now used as a flower-pot!
Greater even than the intrinsic importance of Alaska is its strategic significance in the Pacific area. A glance at the accompanying map reveals the fact that the Great Circle route between the American west coast and Japan passes close to the southern Aleutian Islands, of which the westernmost, Attu, is but 660 miles from the Japanese naval and air base at Paramushiro. The distance from Seattle to Yokohama via in the Aleutians is about 4,900 miles; via Honolulu and Midway Island it is around 6,500 miles. Furthermore, the journey can be made by way of Alaska and the Aleutians in easy stages, with no single "hop" longer than 900 miles; whereas the route via Pearl Harbor (near Honolulu) involves an initial leg of some 2,400 miles of open sea and a final lap through Japan's mandated islands, of which the military function would in time of war resemble that of a swarm of airplane carriers and submarine tenders. Were the United States Fleet to take the offensive in the Western Pacific, adequate bases in Alaska and the Aleutians would be indispensable. If, on the other hand, the United States were on the defensive in those waters, these same bases would give support to our fleet by preventing any flanking movement from turning our great fortress of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. We could insure aërial control of the Western Pacific by long-range patrol craft flying the strategic triangle: Seattle -- Honolulu -- Unalaska.
The development of aircraft is rapidly destroying the Arctic isolation which for so many years represented Alaska's best defense. In June 1940, Pan American Airways inaugurated regular passenger service between Seattle and Juneau, thus bringing Alaska some three days nearer to the United States than it had previously been by steamer. Connecting airlines of the Pacific Alaska Airways run from Juneau to White Horse, Fairbanks, Bethel and Nome.
Trans-polar flights from the Eastern Hemisphere have been a distinct possibility ever since 1937, when three Soviet airmen flew non-stop from Moscow to Vancouver in 63 hours and 17 minutes. Many points in Alaska and the Aleutians are within easy bombing range of Russian and Japanese territory. The Japanese base at Paramushiro and the Russian submarine and air base at Petropavlovsk on Kamchatka Peninsula lie within 700 miles of the westernmost island in the Aleutian chain. The Soviet base in the Komandorsky Islands is but 300 miles from American-owned territory, while Bering Strait, separating Alaska from Siberia, is only fifty-six miles wide.
Added significance is given these figures by recent press reports of considerable Russian activity of a military nature in this little-known area of the Northern Pacific. Last July the Soviets announced the establishment of a 1,400-mile passenger airline from Khabarovsk in Siberia to Petropavlovsk. Soviet military activity has also been reported on Big Diomede Island, approximately eight miles from Little Diomede Island, a part of Alaska, located in the Bering Strait. Additional construction activities by the Soviets have been reported on Bering Island and Medny Island in the Komandorsky group. Landing fields are known to exist on both of these, while Bering Island harbors a submarine base. Ever since 1930 a zone of thirty miles around the Komandorsky and nearby islands has, for military reasons, been closed to all foreigners and many Japanese fishing vessels have been mysteriously lost in this region during recent years. In December 1939, a group of German naval officers was reported to have visited the Komandorsky Islands in Russian naval planes and to have studied the Soviet bases for over a month.
There is no way of checking the accuracy of these reports, but they have come from "usually well-informed sources" and will bear careful consideration in the light of their relation to our Alaskan outpost. Last summer Governor Ernest Gruening of Alaska told an American reporter that "twenty parachuters could take Alaska." While the Governor was intentionally exaggerating for effect, his statement does serve to illustrate Alaska's relatively high degree of vulnerability to the ultra-modern methods of surprise and seizure from the air.
Since the vulnerability of Alaska to aërial attack, as well as the strategic value of the Territory in the American defense scheme, are of very recent origin, it is no criticism of American military and naval leaders to say that they have been reluctant to lavish the taxpayer's money on Alaskan defenses. In 1937 an official of the Army's War Plans Division reported that "there appears at present to be no necessity, from the viewpoint of national defense, of increasing the military garrison in Alaska;" and in the same year the Navy Department, in its comments to the Bureau of the Budget on House Bill 3996, stated that $100,000,000 allocated for the development of naval facilities in Alaska was "an excessive sum for the developments anticipated" and recommended that the amount be cut to $10,000,000.[i] A marked change in the attitude of the Navy Department, however, became noticeable in December of the following year when the report of the Hepburn Board on Submarine, Destroyer, Mine and Naval Air Bases was presented. The Hepburn Report called attention to the fact that "the dependability and radius of action of patrol planes of recent type have greatly enhanced the value which Alaskan bases would have in their service to the fleet." The Report emphasized that naval air bases in the Alaskan area would be "essential in time of war" and that the Aleutian chain of islands was of the greatest strategic importance. After painstaking analysis of the geographic and meteorological conditions obtaining in the entire area, the Hepburn Board recommended the establishment of naval air bases at Sitka, Kodiak and Unalaska, together with submarine bases at the two latter points.
At the time the Hepburn Report was presented, the United States Navy possessed only one small base at Sitka where half-squadrons consisting of six patrol planes operated in rotation for periods of from three to six months, utilizing the buildings of an old naval fuel depot on nearby Japonski Island. In the opinion of the Board these installations were "meager and makeshift," and should be improved and expanded in order to make Sitka a secondary air base with adequate facilities for one patrol plane squadron together with extra housing and beaching facilities for "an occasional heavy overload." As for the Aleutian Archipelago, the Board felt that considerations of pure strategy would indicate a base as far west as possible, perhaps on Attu Island. However, the Board was of the opinion that Unalaska Island represented the "westernmost point at which a base could be maintained in time of peace without inordinate maintenance charges. . . ." Consequently, the Hepburn Report recommended that facilities for one squadron of patrol planes and one submarine division be created on Unalaska Island. Kodiak Island offered, in the opinion of the Board, the best possibility for development into a major air base capable of supplying the immediate needs of three patrol squadrons as well as the mechanical and fuel requirements of the other two secondary bases in the Alaskan outpost. Installations for handling one division of submarines were also to be made at Kodiak. The Board recommended the submarine base at Unalaska and the naval air bases at Sitka and Kodiak for the earliest possible completion.
Late in 1937 the Navy acquired by Executive Order a tract of land at Women's Bay on Kodiak Island, and work was begun shortly thereafter on all three bases mentioned in the Report. For work at Kodiak $9,000,000 were appropriated, and more than $2,000,000 for the Sitka project. During the last session of Congress these amounts were increased to nearly $30,000,000 for the three bases, upon which construction is now proceeding at a rapid pace. In conjunction with these projects the United States Coast Guard and the Navy Hydrographic Office have instituted a detailed survey of Alaskan waters, including the Aleutian Islands whose many bays and passes have never been adequately charted.
Meanwhile the Army has not been inactive. Land has been acquired for military bases at Anchorage and Fairbanks, the latter to be specially equipped to serve as an experimental station for cold-weather flying (72° F. below zero has been registered at that city). During the past twelve months work has been pushed on the landing fields of the Air Corps at these two bases, and as a result of the Army's improved techniques for working during the Arctic winter, the ground has already been prepared for two tremendous runways, reported to be over 10,000 feet in length. During the summer of 1940 Major General H. H. Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Corps, flew to Alaska on a tour of inspection, while 764 enlisted men and 30 officers were sent to the base at Anchorage. In the near future, when construction now under way is completed, an additional 200 officers and 3,000 enlisted men, including anti-aircraft and artillery units, will be sent to the Territory.
In Alaska the weather is a subject for intensive research rather than idle conversation. Troops, planes and equipment must all be tested in sub-zero temperatures, while additional knowledge must be obtained of fog conditions, wind directions and those peculiar Alaskan gales known locally as "williwaws." Since weather data have become important factors in ballistics as well as in flying, the military significance of this research is apparent. In conjunction with the development of our new bases in the Alaskan outpost, radio and weather stations are being rapidly increased and plans are under way to establish a chain of observation posts along the Aleutian Islands as far west as Attu, which is in the very center of that "weather factory" which originates many of the great cyclonic movements influencing the climate of North America as far east as the Great Lakes. Such meteorological information would not only be of direct value to military and naval operations, but would also be of use in furthering the development of Alaska through commercial aviation, which is playing a rôle there not unlike that of the railroads in frontier America.
The economic and commercial development of Alaska has been recognized by both the War and Navy Departments as important for national defense. The Territory's transportation deficiencies are, for instance, proving a real problem -- Alaska boasts but one really useful railway (from Seward to Fairbanks) and its highway system is both limited in extent and primitive in character. Furthermore, the absence of adequate housing and manufacturing facilities has naturally occasioned considerable inconvenience and extra expense in the construction of the new naval and air bases. Alaska is also totally dependent upon the continental United States for many types of labor and materials, a dependence which the construction of bases will tend to increase unless it is accompanied by economic development within the Territory.
During recent years Alaska has produced almost enough coal to supply the local demand; and expansion of this industry would be highly desirable. Additional geologic surveys are necessary to determine the exact extent of Alaska's mineral resources and to serve as a basis for increasing the output, particularly of "strategic minerals." Petroleum has been discovered in a number of locations, but production has been small and sporadic. With the establishment of naval bases it would seem strategically advisable to increase oil production by additional surveys and drillings. Even the agricultural production of Alaska could be greatly expanded by setting up other colonies similar to the one in the Matanuska valley north of Anchorage, which, after a difficult beginning in 1935, has now attained a prosperous stability.
Advocates of Alaskan development have maintained for many years that one of the greatest aids to industry and agriculture in the Territory would be a road connection with the United States. Except for the semi-weekly air service recently inaugurated from Seattle to Juneau, all transport between Alaska and the United States must now go by boat. The construction of a highway to Alaska across western Canada was seriously suggested as long ago as 1929; and in the following year President Hoover appointed a three-man commission to study the proposal and report its findings to Congress. Its report, presented on May 1, 1933, endorsed the highway as being entirely feasible and obviously advantageous to the development of the Territory. In 1938 President Roosevelt appointed a second commission to investigate the project still further. This commission has been reappointed for four more years and its first report is now on the press.
Meanwhile, on June 11, 1940, Mr. Anthony J. Dimond, Alaska's delegate to Congress, introduced in the House a bill authorizing the construction of such a highway and appropriating not more than $25,000,000 for this purpose. In the hope of speedy Congressional action Mr. Dimond tied his bill to our present defense effort by inserting the provision that "The President shall cause such a highway to be located and built on the route that in his judgment will best serve the needs of national defense." This reference to the military value of the proposed highway gives the project an entirely new turn, since the report of the President's commission in 1933 made no mention whatever of any military advantages though it treated in great detail all other possible advantages of such a road. Apparently the Nazis' successful campaign in Norway has been responsible for the change in emphasis regarding the Alaskan highway. A number of influential persons have been struck by the similarity between the British position vis-à-vis Norway and the American position regarding Alaska. In the event of a sudden seizure of Alaskan territory, the United States forces would have to operate from the sea, effecting difficult landings under conditions not unlike those which faced the British forces in Norway. Doubtless the analogy should not be pushed too far, but the similarity in situations has provided additional evidence of the need for an overland highway to Alaska which would furnish an interior line of communication relatively safe from hostile bombers and the perils of sea-borne transport.
The distance by land from Seattle to Fairbanks is roughly 2,300 miles, of which some 1,100 miles of existing road could be utilized. Most of the new construction would be through the undeveloped territory between Hazelton (British Columbia) and the Alaska-Yukon border. Considerable surveying and aërial photographing of this terrain have indicated that no serious geographic obstacles bar the building of the highway. Snow conditions, of course, would present a problem, but this difficulty would probably be no greater than in many parts of the northern United States and Canada.
Obviously the coöperation of the Dominion of Canada is a prerequisite for the construction of this highway. The bill at present before Congress provides that the American money to be used in building the highway should be spent on American labor and materials. Further negotiations with Canada will doubtless be necessary to iron out these details and to decide upon the precise route which the highway is to follow. The Dominion, however, seems to be well aware of the advantages which British Columbia and the Yukon Territory would reap from such a highway; nor can it forget that Canadian defenses on the Pacific depend largely upon the United States. In the event of a British defeat in the present war, our Alaskan outpost would acquire an additional political and military significance which might well influence the future orientation of Canadian policy.
[i] Regional Planning, Part VII -- Alaska: National Resources Committee, December, 1937, p. 206.