U.S. Navy destroyers dispatched to Aleutians after Chinese, Russian vessels spotted nearby

Four U.S. Navy warships were recently dispatched to the Aleutian Islands following an incursion of 11 foreign military vessels in American waters
Published: Aug. 5, 2023 at 8:22 PM AKDT|Updated: Aug. 5, 2023 at 8:24 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Four U.S. Navy warships were recently dispatched to the Aleutian Islands following an incursion of 11 foreign military vessels in American waters.

The exact time and location of the incursion was not made public, and information about the event is still being declassified.

Speaking by phone on Saturday, Senator Dan Sullivan confirmed the event happened “within the last few days,” and that while the military response was robust — four naval destroyers were dispatched to the ships’ location — it was also uncommon.

“First, this is unprecedented, not just for Alaska, but for America to have 11 warships jointly being operated by the Chinese and Russians — who are increasingly working together — essentially doing freedom of navigation and navigation operations incursions into Alaska’s area,” Sullivan said.

Ships from other nations are permitted to complete voyages through waters identified as territories of another country in a practice known as innocent passage. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas defines innocent passage as travel “not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal Statewhose waters are transited — but the 11 transiting vessels discovered recently were identified as military ships.

“It certainly reminds us of how important Alaska is, from both a strategic standpoint, but also a force projection standpoint,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan has repeatedly pressed military leaders for an increase not only in assets available to defend the nation, but in the infrastructure necessary to defend Alaska.

“After last year’s incursion, I mentioned to several leaders in the military, hey, we need to prepare for this happening again. And when it does, we need to have a much more robust response,” Sullivan said.

In September of 2021, Coast Guard vessels located Chinese ships near the Aleutian Island chain. Later in August of 2022, United States military officials said they had “detected, tracked and identified Russian surveillance aircraft” entering and operating within the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone.

“Last year when this happened, the response by the U.S. military, in my view, was very tepid and sent the wrong signal,” Sullivan said.

The four naval destroyers dispatched this month had far more air and water resources at their disposal than what the Coast Guard is capable of providing, and could highlight a need to establish a U.S. Navy base in the far north.

“We’re continuing to have a significant Coast Guard build up in Alaska — and that’s important, and that’s continuing. That includes the building and hopefully soon homeporting of at least one icebreaker in our state, which we, as a country, need desperately,” Sullivan said.

Geopolitical dominance in the Arctic could come down to who has more assets to defend their territory, and as it stands, Alaska is outmatched by the Russian fleet.

“We have two icebreakers, one is broken. The Russians have 54, many of which are nuclear powered, all of which are weaponized. And so that is an area where we are way behind but we’re finally starting to make some progress there,” Sullivan said.

Although Alaskans are not in danger, the presence of foreign military vessels nearby may be unsettling to residents. For Sullivan, it’s a reminder that there is still work to do for Alaska.

“I think it just underscores the need for the continued build up of not only forces in Alaska, but the infrastructure that can handle them, particularly infrastructure like the deepwater port of Nome, and a greater naval, Coast Guard and Marine Corps presence in Alaska,” he said.

As a state with more coastline than the rest of the country combined — and half a dozen Coast Guard, Space Force, Army, and Air Force bases — it could seem disadvantageous that Alaska lacks a Navy base. Development of a naval base, shipyard or other facility is difficult due to a lack of existing maritime infrastructure, but that could change in the near future.

“The important news — and it’s taken too long, but it’s an issue I’ve been working on since I got to the Senate — is we are making finally some very significant progress on the design and building of a deepwater port in Nome,” Sullivan said. “The way in which that is going to be built, the way in which that is going to be designed — and I’ve been, like I said, involved in this for a number of years with a great community of Nome, and the Navy and the Coast Guard — is it the design of that port will be able to handle every type of Navy and Coast Guard vessel in the inventory, with the exception of a U.S. aircraft carrier, so all the destroyers, all the icebreakers. all the national security cutters.”

For the senator, it all comes down to one thing.

“We need more of a presence up here.”