Alaska's role in Arctic defense gaining prominence, outgoing commander says

Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere takes command of the 11th Air Force, Alaska Command, and Alaska...
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere takes command of the 11th Air Force, Alaska Command, and Alaska NORAD. (KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Aug. 24, 2018 at 5:23 PM AKDT
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The outgoing commander of three major military commands in Alaska says the state’s Arctic location means it will likely have an increased profile in the nation’s military preparedness, and his successor looks to increase that profile in the coming years.

When talking of his greatest accomplishments as head of the 11th Air Force, Alaska NORAD region, and Alaska Command, Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach says advocacy for the Arctic is high on that list.

“The United States is an Arctic nation because of Alaska, and we in Alaska know that, and inherently know that,” Wilsbach told Channel 2 Thursday. “But if you go to the Lower 48, especially the farther East and South you go, oftentimes the people either don’t know about it, or they’ve forgotten.”

Wilsbach says more people, particularly in Washington, are talking about the Arctic. “Because of that receding sea ice, we’re seeing increased human activity,” Wilsbach said. He noted increased transportation, and harvest of resources like oil, gas and fish, and the increase in tourism in the Arctic. “Increased human activity has implications for the military because we are an Arctic nation and we have interest in the Arctic.”

“I’m very proud of the fact that we, here from Alaska are DOD’s experts on what the military should be doing in the Arctic, so we have a voice in Washington and in other headquarters around the globe,” Wilsbach said.

Friday morning, Wilsbach handed command of the three units, over to Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere. Now the senior military official in Alaska, Bussiere is responsible for all military activities in the Alaska joint operations area, and for coordinating more than 21,000 active duty and reserve members from all services.

Bussiere told Channel 2 after taking command Friday that Alaska’s Arctic importance is on his mind moving forward as well. “The importance of Alaska and the importance of the Arctic region is kindof coming to the surface again,” he said. “With the potential change in the climate, in the Arctic region, there’s no better time for the U.S. and Canada and our Arctic partners to look at how we can increase and maintain our security in the region.”

Being in command of North American Air Defense means Bussiere will be working with Canadian counterparts to protect the skies of North America. Alaska Command puts him in charge of military forces in Alaska, including if they’re called on in the case of a civil emergency like a massive earthquake. And with the 11th Air Force, he’s in command of the combat air forces in Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.

And not going far, at least when you're talking about worldwide military airspace, Lt. Gen. Wilsbach heads to another area of global military importance: The Korean Peninsula. Wilsbach will take over command of the 7th Air Force, will be the Combined Forces Air Component Commander, and will be Deputy Commander for U.S. Forces in Korea.

On his departure, Wilbach talked about increasing readiness among Alaska’s troops as another of his highest achievements. “We’re more ready now than we were two years ago,” Wilsbach said about when he took command. “The main locations in the 11th Air Force are the farthest north and the farthest west where we have U.S. Forces, where we can project or defend our nation from, and so it’s very strategic locations in Alaska, Hawaii and Guam to be able to do that, and our forces are prepared to do that.”

In Friday’s Change of Command ceremony, Lt. Gen Bussiere noted his commitment to readiness as well: “Whether it’s protecting the skies or the terrain of Alaska, the northern tier, or projecting power in the Pacific for our national interests or those of our allies and friends, the task is to be ready 24/7/365,” Bussiere said. “Readiness is not a buzzword, or a bumper sticker. It is a way of life.”

Channel 2's Eric Sowl and Shawn Wilson contributed to this report.