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During Visit To Unalaska, Sullivan Pushes For Greater Military Presence In Aleutian Islands

Laura Kraegel/KUCB

U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan wants to increase Arctic security infrastructure throughout Alaska. During a short visit to Unalaska last week, he said the island and its port will play a role in that vision. Still, he stopped short of giving any specifics.

As Russia and China work to expand their influence in the Arctic, Sullivan said federal officials in the U.S. are finally starting to recognize the strategic importance of the region — a recognition that may result in a greater military presence in the Aleutian Islands.

"There is an increase in awareness of the need for more Coast Guard, more Navy, more military throughout our state because of the strategic importance of the Arctic," said Sullivan. "And a lot of what we're trying to do is bring those assets here." 

Sullivan didn't offer specifics on when that'll happen or what it'll look like in Unalaska, where the only full-time military presence is a seven-person U.S. Coast Guard unit focused on fishing boat safety. 

Still, the senator told a crowd of almost 50 Unalaskans gathered at the Grand Aleutian Hotel that it was significant that he'd brought with him Coast Guard Vice Commandant Charles Ray and U.S. Senator Roger Wicker.

Wicker is a Mississippi Republican who chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which has legislative oversight over the Coast Guard. 

"The world is paying more attention to this region of the world, to this state," said Wicker. "Certainly, our members of the armed forces are recognizing more and more how strategic this is." 

Wicker didn't address that VT Halter Marine, Inc., a shipbuilder in his home state, was awarded a nearly $745.9 million contract this year to build a new polar security cutter to join the Coast Guard's polar icebreaker fleet. The contract also includes options for the construction of two additional PSCs. If all options are exercised, the total contract is valued $1.9 billion.

In all, the three high-level visitors took only a few questions from Unalaskans — all unrelated to Arctic security — before getting back on their plane.

But according to City Manager Erin Reinders, Sullivan spent time earlier in the day meeting with local officials. She said they were eager to discuss other issues affecting the island, especially ahead of the City Council's September lobbying trip to Washington D.C.

"So now we're able to go and talk with him about our priorities," said Reinders. "We'll be able to really talk with him and know that he has just recently seen it." 

Reinders said those priorities include improving Unalaska's poor broadband, dredging the entrance channel to the port, and raising funding for a $59 million project that would extend paving and utilities along Captains Bay Road.

All of that infrastructure would be important if Unalaska developed its strategic role, as Sullivan wants. But Reinders said she is hopeful the senator will help forward the city's plans whether or not they eventually pay off for U.S. interests in the Arctic.

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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