Northern Edge exercise takes to Alaska skies, seas
Alaskans looking to the skies this week will witness military jets acting out a war scenario in rare training opportunities meant to sharpen tactical combat skills.
The Exercise Northern Edge May 1-12 includes an exercise that pits blue team against red team and involves about 6,000 U.S. military personnel. The combat zone is above central Alaska ranges and the Gulf of Alaska.
Though Lt. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach couldn’t give a lot of specifics about the actual plot acted out in sky and sea, he told a room full of reporters May 2 that the Red team was simulating the aggressors leading to a conflict.
Led by Col. David Mineau, stationed at Eielson Air Force Base, the team is trained in realistic combat adversary training in air, space and information operations.
“The Blue Team takes down in a simulation of integrated air defenses,” he said.
Over the past several decades of conducting the exercises in Alaska, pilots of F-15s, F-16s, F-22s and now the new F-35s improve crucial skills.
“About 50 percent of the pilots are inexperienced and early in their careers. They are learning these lessons for the first time,” Wilsbach said.
Simulating cyber attacks are also part of the scenario. Personnel play both sides: they act as hackers breaking into a system or are victims of hackers so that defensive tactics for stopping them are exercised.
Perhaps the biggest first for this year’s training is the use of the fifth-generation fighters, the F-35s, flown in from Japan for the exercise, Wilsbach said.
Alaska will receive its own batch of F-35s at Eielson in spring 2020, a fact that is eagerly awaited in Fairbanks, said Mineau.
“For now, we will get to see how they operate for the first time,” he said.
Although plagued by cost overruns and technical issues, the aircraft are considered the most advanced fifth-generation multirole fighter jet.
The F-35 is designed to perform ground attack and air defense missions utilizing stealth technology. At JBER, the first time military were seeing F-35s fly the sky was May 1, the first day of the training.
Practicing for war in Alaska gives the best training range in the U.S., far away from heavy civilian and commercial traffic elsewhere in the country, military officials said. It is preparing joint forces to respond to crises in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. They utilize 67,000 square miles of land and sea, a size equivalent to the state of Florida.
“We’re operating where there is not a lot of people or marine mammals,” Col. Christopher Niemi said.
Though Northern Exercise is frequently criticized for disrupting migrating whales and nesting birds, the command insists that environmental protection is an integral part of the exercise.
Based on environmental impact studies, the routes are planned to avoid harming wildlife, Niemi said. Since the Exercise Northern Edge began in 1993, the military has been able to avoid major harm to the environment, the officials contend. Nevertheless, the military meets with protests and environmental scrutiny each time they stage the 200 aircraft, three-ship engagement in Alaska.
People in the more populated areas will no doubt hear and see – even feel the ground shake – as the jets are flown in training sessions, Col. George Dietrich III told the reporters.
Rather than feeling inconvenienced, “we hope you will tell your viewers they can be proud of the military service men and women” as they become more skilled at protecting the U.S., he said.
Given today’s global climate where people worry over the many emerging conflicts, including North Korea, the Middle East and even Russia’s recent air aggressions south of Kodiak, the exercises take on more importance in the public eye, the commanders acknowledged.
“The goal is to anticipate any future national security threat or challenge,” Niemi said.
That involves training preparation on-going, not just during the exercise. Though, current global conflict concerns are not the immediate reason for the exercise.
“Northern Exercise is to continue to build,” our defenses, he said.
Certainly, when two Russian TU-95 Bear bombers were spotted flying about 41 miles off Alaska in late April, JBER pilots and command were able to react protecting America’s sovereignty in the area. The Russians penetrated U.S. air space twice in 24 hours. In those cases, the command reacted with “real world response.”
“What does that mean?” Niemi said. “It means we are always ready to respond to real world events. “(Reacting to) planes in U.S. space turned into an exercise to hone better skills.”
With Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson hosting the event, military personnel scrambled to come up with housing for an additional 2,000 participants. Some 900 of them were placed in hotels Downtown. Another 1,100 were accommodated in barracks and other quarters.
Participating units include U.S. Pacific Command, Alaskan Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Pacific Air Force, Air National Guard, and U.S. Naval Reserve.
One participant at JBER’s press conference May 2 was a photojournalist from the Netherlands. Arnold Tenvween’s photos of multi-generational fighter jets are shared with NATO and global publications.
“I feel proud. I feel safer,” Tenvween said, referring to watching the jets take off. “I am glad to see this show of strength.”
Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].