Cutting Edge Interoperability Honed at Northern Edge 2015
Large scale live training and experimentation between two or more branches of American military service – Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force – is a rare opportunity in the real world. Demonstrating interoperability is most often studied and tested with computer simulations and/or in laboratories. Northern Edge 2015 (NE15) is an important Alaskan Command interoperability training exercise for upwards of 6,000 service members to work together in person in Alaska, with still more participating from remote locations. Although an “air-centric” exercise, four Navy ships and ground-based vehicles and troops joined close to 200 aircraft in the two week long exercise in June, 2015. This is described by the host – the Alaskan Command – as “Alaska’s premier joint training exercise designed to practice operations, techniques and procedures, and enhance interoperability among the services.”
Alaska Command is unique as it contains units from many service branches that together defend America’s “Last Frontier”. Although it reports directly to the U.S. Northern Command, Alaska Command units routinely work with geographically close U.S. Pacific Command forces, especially during smaller-scale Red Flag Alaska exercises. Foreign participants routinely take part in the Red Flag Alaska training too, but Northern Edge exercises contain only U.S. personnel and units.
Normally held every other year, the 2013 Northern Edge was cancelled amid sequestration cutbacks, thus the last Northern Edge event occurred four years ago. Cutting edge technology changes rapidly, and this is a prime opportunity for current and future hardware and software programs to be tested and validated in as close to a “real world” environment as one can get, while still outside of actual combat. More than a dozen “high end” experiments and simulations were planned, including a GPS degradation event. A major F-16 fighter software test was performed during the exercise too. Large scale radar/anti-radar, and electronic countermeasures training can be offered in the huge Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC) where NE15 took place. One didn’t have to be present in the 49th State to take part in the Northern Edge scenarios, as an Alaskan Command news release disclosed that “NE15 is the largest military training exercise scheduled in Alaska this year with virtual and constructive participants from all over the U.S. exercising alongside live players.” Planning for the exercise began a year earlier; different objectives and experiments were identified early on, and participants committed to attend a bit later. Not all participants were military organizations either, as manufacturers were present to test, demonstrate and validate military equipment too.
In order to contain all of the scenarios and allow participants to accomplish their goals, a pair of sprawling exercise training areas were used. The entire JPARC airspace contains some 60,780 square miles over land in south central Alaska. The other area was 50,000 square miles over the Gulf of Alaska (GOA). FAA air traffic controllers blocked an additional airspace corridor between the overland and overwater airspaces to allow NE15 aircraft to transition between the two complexes.
Inclusion of a Navy submarine in the scenario attracted the attention of naval fixed wing patrol planes and helicopters operating from three destroyers. A Temporary Maritime Activities Area (TMAA) was activated off the Alaskan coast, in part to contain air-dropped sonobouys that would search for and track the sub. Many Alaskans depend upon the sea for their living and cultural identity, and the Navy had worked hard to communicate how the players would mitigate the impact on the Alaskan environment as much as possible. Some of the planned 1,200 sonobouys to be used, plus the ships’ sonar equipment, emit “acoustic noise”. Here are excerpts from an Alaskan Command press release’s information on the subject:
“Environmental protection is an integral part of the exercise. …Alaskan Command is proud of its environmental stewardship and goes to great lengths to minimize harm to the environment. …Northern Edge exercises are analyzed in the Navy’s 2011 Gulf of Alaska Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). …The TMAA was designed to avoid critical habitats and although it does not avoid all fish and marine mammal habitats, the activities are infrequent and widely dispersed throughout the TMAA. The Navy’s training activities are conducted with an extensive set of range clearance and mitigation measures designed to minimize the potential risk to marine life. U.S. Navy vessels also conduct range clearance and mitigation measures designed to avoid damage to participating and non-participating vessels and aircraft. The Navy has conducted Northern Edge and other training and testing activities in the Gulf of Alaska for many decades without major harm to the environment.
For future exercises beyond 2016 the Navy is currently in the process of preparing a Supplement to the original 2011 EIS and is seeking renewal of permit authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.” The Army and Air Force recently completed an updated EIS for their inland portion of the JPARK complex.
There were a pair of large Air Force bases that supported flying activities during NE15. Army bases were included, for a large air drop of Army parachutists from a pair of C-17s was part of the NE15 scenario, and the Tactical Air Operations Center (TAOC) was operated from Fort Wainwright. Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, near the city of Anchorage, is much closer to the Gulf of Alaska than Eielson AFB (located east of Fairbanks), and drew many Navy aircraft. Normally, most tactical jets operate from Eielson AFB during large exercises, to shorten transit times between the airport and their assigned air and ground JPARC operating areas, but NE15 seemed to split aerial activities between the GOA and the overland ranges to the north.
Navy P-8A Poseidon and P-3C Orion fixed wing aircraft operated from Elmendorf, as did the E-2D Hawkeyes and VX-9 Vampires’ F/A-18E/F/G test aircraft. A pair of active West Coast Navy Hornet squadrons joined them. Numerous F-15C and F-16C/D jets from Air Force test squadrons from Eglin AFB, Nellis AFB, and Edwards AFB did too. Japan-based F-15Cs from Kadena, and Marine VMGR-152 KC-130Js from Iwakuni also called Elmendorf home for the exercise, and all F-22 Raptors (two groups from the home base at Elmendorf and from Langley AFB VA) and E-3 AWACS jets flew from here.
Additionally, threat and target aircraft, such as ATAC’s Hawker Hunters and L-3/Flight International’s Learjets were based at Elmendorf, and some of the larger civilian test aircraft, like Northrop Grumman’s rare BAC 1-11 test bed also resided at the base near Anchorage.
To the north, Eielson AFB hosted more Japan – based aircraft; Marine F/A-18D Hornets of VMFA (AW)-242, VMAQ-2 EA-6B Prowlers, and the Air Force’s 13th Fighter Squadron’s F-16Cs from Misawa AFB. F-15E Strike Eagles from Seymour-Johnson AFB’s 4th Fighter Wing joined them. To accommodate extended periods of flying each day, a local Tanker Task Force (TTF) operated from the base too, which was assigned four KC-10s and 10 KC-135s which rotated through different flying periods. The Air Force’s 18th Aggressor Squadron is based at Eielson as well. There were three civilian contractor-operated aircraft – a Falcon, a Sabreliner, and a Cessna Caravan aboard too.
There were other participating aircraft that didn’t get based in Alaska, they just overflew the state from their bases in the continental U.S. B-2s from Whiteman AFB, RQ-4 and U-2 reconnaissance jets from Beale AFB, B-52s from Barksdale AFB, and B-1s from Dyess AFB were part of the exercise. Satellites and space-based operations were handled from distant control rooms too.
Thanks to uncharacteristically clear and warm weather, flying conditions were described as better than normal, at least during the first week of the two week exercise. Depending upon wind direction, some areas and airports were affected by minor haze from time to time from forest fires that otherwise grabbed headline attention. The fine weather stayed bright too… the exercise bumped up against the Summer Solstice, guaranteeing close to 20 hours of sunlight per day.
Northern Edge 2015 granted several thousand U.S. service members valuable training across their service’s lines. Cutting edge technology was tested, already-proven designs were improved, and a large group of dissimilar aircraft operated together in the rather unfamiliar environment of Alaska’s JPARC. Not only was the training used to hone the sharp edge of our defenses in Alaska and the throughout the world, but equipment that’ll be used by our future service members was tested and validated too.
Special thanks go to Captain Tania Bryan and Chief Mass Communications Specialist Larry Foos from the NE15 Joint Information Bureau at Elmendorf, and 1st Lieutenant Elias Zani, the Chief of Public Affairs at Eielson AFB for their time and assistance they provided me while I took this snapshot of the NE15 exercise. All photos are copyright Ken Kula; the Northern Edge emblem is courtesy of Alaskan Command.