Army helicopters began flying in and out of the scraggily wilderness near this fishing town in August, surprising even the mayor.
The tan, twin-rotor Chinook aircraft thumped over treeless cliffs and the historic port of Dutch Harbor, parking at a mountainside airstrip too small to land jet airliners.
Soldiers came and went, sometimes staying at the main hotel in town, across the street from a bar called the Norwegian Rat Saloon. Unalaska’s mayor, Frank Kelty, said he called the military to find out what was going on but learned little.
“We have these Army helicopters here, and we don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going,” he said after driving by the airport on the remote Aleutian island and seeing a Chinook resting near the runway.
The mysterious operation was part of the U.S. military’s gradual growth in the Arctic as it grapples with the effects of melting polar ice and Russia’s and China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. The slowly evolving plan has included stationing more fighter jets in Alaska, expanding partnerships with Nordic militaries, increasing cold-weather training and designing a new class of icebreaker ship for the Coast Guard that could be armed.
The vision could take greater shape by the end of the year: Both the Navy and Coast Guard are working on new Arctic strategies in light of the quickly changing circumstances senior U.S. military officials see.
In October, the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier and its associated ships sailed above the Arctic Circle, the first such unit to do so since the Cold War. The strike group, carrying thousands of sailors, practiced cold-weather operations in the Norwegian Sea, an area where Russian submarines operate.