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Over 8,000 soldiers took part in an international military exercise in Alaska

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

More than 8,000 soldiers participated in a military preparedness exercise in Alaska last month. Many were from the U.S., but troops came from Canada, Mongolia, South Korea, Sweden and Finland, with more countries observing. It's the largest exercise of its kind, and it came as America, Russia and China are looking to the Arctic as a new space for competition. Troy Bouffard is the director for the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Thank you for joining us.

TROY BOUFFARD: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So what does a military exercise in the Arctic look like? Like, what kind of activities are they doing?

BOUFFARD: Well, here in Alaska, the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center, JPMRC, is used to test brigade-level combat readiness for the U.S. Army, and brigade is about 3,500 soldiers. The JPMRC compound is capable of handling brigade-on-brigade-sized forces to test various skills, what we call in the U.S. Army warfighting functions - maneuver and movement, fires, command and control intelligence and sustainability.

RASCOE: But why are more of these exercises happening? Like, is there a concern that there may have to be some fighting in the Arctic?

BOUFFARD: Not so much a concern for fighting or any threat that we can actually point to in the Arctic at this time, but we always have to be prepared. There was a point when Russia was at its peak military development in its Arctic progress, and they had a slightly superior capabilities edge on the United States. It indicated a need for us to also be capable in the Arctic in order to meet circumstances in the future we can't even really imagine at this point.

RASCOE: What stakes does Russia have in the Arctic?

BOUFFARD: For Russia, they're very concerned about developing this northern bastion defense along the entire coast, comprised of mainly naval, infantry and air defense capabilities. And this represents a major defensive corridor for them that they have to maintain. Beyond that, they've had a couple of brigades specialized and designated as Arctic. And both of those were mobilized and deployed to Ukraine. So besides a buffer zone to protect the entire north, there's always the need to have a capability for force projection also to meet other types of competition crises or conflict situations.

RASCOE: And what about China? What is China's interest in the Arctic?

BOUFFARD: China's interest in the Arctic is not as important as some people might think. The Arctic is important, and their No. 1 goal in the Arctic is to gain access and influence to governance. And the Arctic nations, including Russia - we jealously guard that. And there's not a lot of interest in China getting into that kind of business and affecting our different affairs. But they insist on being in the Arctic. They feel it's a global commons region they should be allowed in. For the most part, they haven't been successful.

RASCOE: The U.S. never ratified the U.N. convention of the law of the sea, which governs international waters like the Arctic Ocean. So how does that affect future disputes between countries in the Arctic?

BOUFFARD: It's becoming more of a problem. The United States probably needs to become a member of the U.N. convention on the law of the sea, because there's a lot of play in the Arctic now that has happened elsewhere in the world. And this is territorial dispute. Article 76 of UNCLOS is the only mediation device that exists in an international treaty today. The United States not being a member of UNCLOS - we have limited access in many cases. We're not allowed in the room. And in other cases, we're only allowed to be an observer. So the time is now for the United States to be a member of UNCLOS.

RASCOE: That's Troy Bouffard, director for the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Thank you so much for being with us.

BOUFFARD: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: We should note that Bouffard serves as Arctic advisor to Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski but does not speak on her behalf. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.