By Patrick Coullahan, P.E., PMP, CFM, F.SAME  

Alaska is one of the most strategic places in the world for military operations and commerce—but there was a time when few people viewed it that way. Fortunately, great military leaders and forward thinkers overcame obstacles and outright narrow-mindedness to promote the significance of Alaska, and to develop it in a manner that we sometimes take for granted today. Alaskans have benefitted from the foresight of these pioneers, while the Alaska District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues their legacy by “Building and Preserving Alaska’s Future.”

An understanding of Alaska’s location and strategic importance was a focal point in the lives and sometimes unbelievable exploits of notable visionaries who pursued their dreams to accomplish the mission and help shape the state’s military history. Earlier generations overcame some of the world’s harshest engineering challenges to make lasting contributions in the state, and to the nation.

In 1869, Army Capt. Charles W. Raymond led the first government expedition into Alaska’s interior. He graduated at the top of his class at West Point just four years earlier, bringing a 50-ft stern-wheel steamer up the Yukon River to the thrill of American traders and native Alaskans. It was a new and strange place that held much promise for those who would eventually adapt and overcome the enormous challenges of time and resources, of the environment and the unknown.

In 1885, Army Lt. Henry Tureman Allen, also a West Point graduate, led a small expedition to learn and map Alaska’s formidable terrain. Where others had been thwarted, Lt. Allen’s team did the unthinkable. In only 20 weeks, the soldiers covered 1,500-mi, mapping valleys, rivers, volcanic activity, mountains, geology, mineral wealth and glaciers, as well as gaining an understanding of the climate and native Alaskan culture. So much new knowledge came from historic journey it is sometimes referred to as “Alaska’s Lewis and Clark Expedition.”

Army Maj. Gen. Adolphus Greely was a tough and versatile leader, who explored the Arctic and garnered an understanding of what extreme weather was really like and how to cope with it. As a result, he enabled the expansion of weather systems and telegraph networks from the “Lower 48” into Alaska. This work established a foundation of knowledge for future engineers to leverage in their efforts to build in the Far North.

Alaska, engineering

No discussion on the importance of Alaska should be written without mentioning Army Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, who in 1935 said that “Alaska is the most strategic place in the world.” As a lieutenant, Gen. Mitchell was stationed on the Last Frontier from 1901 to 1903 to support the Signal Corps’ effort to expand into Alaska. He was a key member of Greely’s innovative team that did not accept the status quo misperceptions about Alaska and the nuances of building in such a hostile environment.

Moving forward to World War II, the greatness of Brig. Gen. Benjamin B. Talley stands out for his understanding of Alaska and leadership that enabled the building of critically important military infrastructure to turn the tide of war within the state. As the Alaska Area Engineer, he was charged with constructing the majority of military installations we know today as well as vital roads, airfields and ports. This effort enabled American forces to be dispatched to remove the Japanese from occupying Attu and Kiska Islands.

Led by Gen. Talley, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) also laid the groundwork for the post-war military in Alaska and contributed to the economic development of the state. During the same period, Army engineers built the Alaska-Canada Highway by covering the toughest conditions in record-setting time to provide needed overland access to Alaska from the continental United States. Alaska’s geography and weather were daunting and destructive, but not insurmountable. Gen. Talley understood that these conditions—despite being unmatched elsewhere in the world—could be conquered.

In 1869, Army Capt. Charles W. Raymond led the first government expedition into Alaska’s interior. He graduated at the top of his class at West Point just four years earlier, bringing a 50-ft stern-wheel steamer up the Yukon River to the thrill of American traders and native Alaskans.

The next major set of programmed military facilities throughout Alaska was established to help shape the United States’ response to the growing Cold War threat. USACE and its contractors built Distant Early Warning Line sites, radars and airfields throughout Alaska in support of this effort. When I was assigned at Galena Airport on the Yukon River in 1977, I saw firsthand the efforts of my able predecessors in building and maintaining such an important U.S. Air Force Forward Operating Base to respond to potential encroachments into our air space by the Soviet Union.

The forerunners who set the stage for expansion into Alaska developed many approaches through both trial and error and lessons learned in the hard knocks school of Arctic construction. By leading the way towards the development of Alaska and understanding what it takes to explore, operate and construct in this harsh land, the military established a strong and critical foothold that eventually allowed for oil and gas exploration and mining to pay off the cost of purchasing the Alaska Territory many thousands of times over.


In this century, Alaska’s strategic location in the Arctic, as envisioned by Gen. Mitchell more than 75 years ago, has become home to a military power with an impressive array of missile and air defense systems in addition to Air Force bases and Army posts for force projection.

The Department of Defense’s top initiative was the force beddown of the Ground Based Midcourse Defense system at Fort Greely, Eareckson Air Station and Clear Air Station. As a result, the Missile Defense Agency fielded a state of the art platform that the Corps of Engineers has helped to construct and improve since 2001. The system went from groundbreaking in 2002 to ready to deploy by July 2004. Such a fast delivery was a remarkable achievement for such a new and complex missile intercept system with myriad support and operational requirements.

The Army and the Air Force also have been undergoing major changes in Alaska. Growing and modernizing its forces with the posting of Stryker, Airborne and Aviation Task Force Brigades have been mainstays of the Army on the Last Frontier. The Air Force has added to its arsenal of aircraft based in Alaska with C-17 Transports and F-22 Fighters joining C-130 Tactical Airlifts, KC-135 Tankers, F-16 Fighters and E-3 Airborne Warning and Control Systems. All have been aided by USACE with associated facilities and infrastructure either built or underway to make Alaska home to one of the most potent combinations of U.S. military forces based anywhere on the globe. An added benefit is access to an Alaskan training space that is as varied as it is huge. Furthermore, housing, support and medical facilities are all either in place or under construction at critical posts and bases across the state.

The surge of military construction during the past two decades has been at a scale previously only seen in the state to support World War II and the Cold War. However, today’s engineers understand construction in the Arctic far better than their predecessors, who only could forge their knowledge through trial-and-error and a pioneer spirit. The systems supported by modern-era construction are far more complex. For example, the Low Observable Component Repair Facility at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson provides a year-round, climate-controlled repair structure for stealth materials used on F-22 aircraft. Meanwhile, the Large Frame Aircraft Maintenance Facility and Dual Bay C-17 hangars at Elmendorf-Richardson provide aircraft maintainers with facilities that will handle the important needs of all assigned and transient aircraft.


As Russia pursues a resurgence, and the United States strategically “Pivots to the Pacific,” it is worth noting that climate change will result in more access and exploration in the Far North—and as a result Alaska will become even more essential.

Commerce is hugely important to Alaska and USACE has been deeply involved with responsibly developing access to the state’s plentiful natural resources. To secure oil, gas, coal, lumber, precious metals and fish through responsible development requires a sound understanding of Arctic engineering and logistics. Since much of Alaska is off the road and rail system, operators frequently must rely on ships and aircraft to reach places vital to national interests.


In recent years, USACE has been called to provide or improve critical civil works infrastructure such as seawalls, dams, levees and harbors in addition to dredging numerous ports and harbors. Recently, Alaska District completed the first stage of the new harbor at Akutan in the Aleutian Islands to support of the largest commercial fish processing plant in the United States. Breakwaters also were installed at Unalaska and Douglas Harbor to facilitate safer commercial fishing and tourism. And rock revetments/seawalls were built and fortified to stem the increased impacts of climate change at Kivalina, Shismaref and Unalakleet.

These achievements compliment some of USACE’s legacy projects such as the Chena River Flood Control Project, which addresses flood risks in Fairbanks; Snettisham Dam that provides power to a Southeast portion of the state; and ports at Seward, Valdez, Anchorage and Whittier, which are among many locations critical to Alaska’s infrastructure and transportation needs. Now USACE is heavily committed and involved with studying the needs for deep draft Arctic port capabilities.


Modern construction in Alaska relies heavily on a mix of what we learned in the past along with new tools for project planning, design and construction. We expect the current set of contractors and in-house staff to be safe and proficient in a wide variety of construction and logistics techniques as well as engineering and construction skills, so they are prepared for what might be encountered in Alaska.

Today’s engineers and construction personnel need to fully understand computer aided designs, resource loaded construction schedules, environmental requirements, acquisition methodologies, safety requirements, energy efficiency and heat transfer, modern materials, current building codes and commissioning. They must know how to design and construct utilities in a cold climate, and when to use utilidors or other features that assist with operations and maintenance in an Arctic environment. They also may occasionally need to address facilities and equipment that rely on high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) shielding. They must be able to build year-round in the Arctic by understanding how to protect materials in shipment, storage and placement; design appropriate mixes and place concrete; avoid conditions that could lead to propagating mold; and know about intermittent permafrost and the necessary engineering skills to apply when encountering frozen ground in construction.

Modern engineers might be called upon to build temporary access roads that may even include the construction of temporary ice bridges over some of the numerous water bodies in Alaska. They need to know how to build railroads in the Far North and how to provide quality and enduring airfield pavements. They should understand snow accumulation, snow loading and even sliding snow calculations and ramifications on buildings and project sites. They should understand that ice, drainage and water flow have very special characteristics that can be accommodated through special approaches.

Commerce is hugely important to Alaska and USACE has been deeply involved with responsibly developing access to the state’s plentiful natural resources. 

Since Alaska is one of the most seismically active areas in the world, engineers always need to address the impacts of high seismic requirements. They need to know that power generation and distribution is vital and expensive in the Arctic. Mechanical systems are subject to extremes. Plumbing and HVAC systems have limitations. Sewage, water treatment and distribution pose problems that require safeguards. Fuel supplies such as coal, oil, natural gas and wind should be considered, and the need for effective fire prevention and suppression is a must. Each of these areas of expertise can and have been project showstoppers in the Arctic.

Project construction teams must understand the risks and nuances that the Alaskan climate brings and ensure sites are safeguarded accordingly. These understandings have been gradual in nature and resulted in a cumulative body of knowledge about Alaskan construction methods. This ever-increasing information set was not widely available during earlier construction periods in Alaska, but grew and flourished through overall improvements to construction methodologies in the Arctic and elsewhere. Now, these principles are expected to be routinely employed on all jobs and enhanced as new truths about construction in the Far North are discovered.


Geographically, Alaska may be far removed, but strategically, it is an unparalleled locale. USACE and its construction contractors in Alaska will continue to step up and provide the same level of quality facilities expected anywhere in the United States.

As experts in Arctic engineering and construction, they have proven time and again that almost anything can be accomplished with the right know-how, teamwork, realistic expectations and up to date tailored construction techniques. For that, the Last Frontier’s military forefathers would be proud.

Patrick Coullahan, P.E., PMP, CFM, F.SAME, is Chief, Construction/Operations, USACE Alaska District; 907-753-2770, or