Navy warship stops in Dutch Harbor on way to Arctic military exercise
The 500-foot USS Curtis Wilbur cuts an intimidating figure — tall, but sleek. It’s not as large as the cargo ships next to it at Unalaska’s city dock, but it’s far more menacing — deserving of the nickname, “Steel Hammer of the Fleet."
Captain Anthony Massey, the ship’s commanding officer, said the Curtis Wilbur is versatile in combat.
“It is multi-mission-warfare capable, so anti-submarine warfare, air warfare, surface warfare,” Massey said.
The guided missile destroyer sailed to Dutch Harbor on its way to participate in Arctic Edge, a joint forces training exercise. Massey said the exercise has nothing to do with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the exercise was planned years before.
But it does involve Russia — because of the melting Arctic.
Melting ice and thawing permafrost in the Arctic are opening previously inaccessible resources, like oil and minerals. That’s leading Arctic nations — like Russia, the United States and Canada — to focus increased attention on the region.
And Alaska has a front row seat.
Recent developments like the planned Arctic research center in Anchorage and the Coast Guard’s race to build more icebreakers are all part of the Arctic’s growing role in U.S. geopolitical strategy.
Massey said Arctic Edge, too, is motivated by these dynamics.
“As passageways open and things like that, the purpose will be to use those to support logistics and maintain freedom of navigation for everybody,” Massey said.
Meanwhile, Russia has increased its military presence in the Arctic, and the U.S. is trying to catch up.
Disputes over the Arctic between the United States and Russia have grown in recent years. In 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of unlawful maritime claims in the Arctic, and the Russian Foreign Minister said he wanted more military meetings between Arctic nations.
The city of Unalaska has been clear that it wants to be part of that national plan. As fisheries in the Bering Sea decline, city leaders wonder where future revenue will come from.
Unalaska Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson underlined the importance of diversifying the local economy.
“If that fish stops swimming out there in the Bering Sea, if we take any more hits on some of the main species, like we did on crab this year, we are going to have a lot of people leave this community due to lack of jobs,” he said.
Robinson said one way to diversify the economy could be an increased military presence.
As the nation’s northernmost, ice-free deepwater port, the International Port of Dutch Harbor is strategically located for ships patrolling the Arctic.
And according to Massey, the port is well suited for large warships like the Curtis Wilbur.
“We were sent here to make sure that we understand the capabilities of Dutch Harbor as far as logistical support, and we were very successful,” Massey said.
The Arctic Edge exercise ended Thursday, and the Curtis Wilbur left to sail back to its home port in San Diego.