Northern Edge – 2015

Northern Edge 2015 – a large-scale exercise

Northern Edge can trace its roots back to 1975, with exercise Jack Frost (1975-1979), then Brim Frost (1981-1989),
Arctic Warrior (1991-1992). The first Northern Edge exercise was held in 1993.
Northern Edge 2015
Large-scale exercises and the opportunity to test experimental equipment between different branches of the US armed forces, including the US Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force, is a rare opportunity these days.

In June 2015, the Alaskan Command gave around 6000 troops from all these branches just such an opportunity during exercise Northern Edge 2015 (NE15). In Alaska, the participants had to train interservice cooperation between all the different branches, as well as working with units from bases outside Alaska.

Even though it was an “air-centred” exercise, four US Navy ships as well as troops and ground vehicles joined close to 200 aircraft during the two week long exercise during June of 2015. The host, Alaskan Command, described this as:

“Alaska’s leading joined training exercise, designed to train operations, techniques and procedures, and to increase the interoperability between the service branches.”

An F-15C during takeoff from JBER.
This “ZZ”-bird is usually based at Kadena AFB in Japan.
“Even though it was an “air-centred” exercise, four US Navy ships as well as troops and ground vehicles joined close to 200 aircraft.”
Roots dating back to 1975
Northern Edge can trace its roots back to 1975, with exercise Jack Frost (1975-1979), then Brim Frost (1981-1989), Arctic Warrior (1991-1992). The first Northern Edge exercise was held in 1993.

Alaskan Command is unique in the sense that it is made up of units from many different branches, who together defends America’s “Last frontier”. Even though they report directly to the US Northern Command, Alaskan Command units routinely work with the geographically close US Pacific Command units.

While foreign units routinely participate in the smaller, compared to Northern Edge, Red Flag Alaska exercise, Northern Edge is only for American units and troops.

Usually Northern Edge takes place every other year, but it was cancelled in 2013 due to the sequestration, which put a stop to all non-essential exercise due to the financial crises facing the USA at the time. This meant a four year gap before the next NE was held in 2015.

Ground breaking technology changes fast, and NE is a prime opportunity to test and validate current and future hardware and software, in a “close-to-reality” combat environment. More than a dozen high-end experiments and simulations were planned during NE15, including a complete failure of the GPS system, and a major software test on the F-16.

The 49th state
Large scale radar/anti-radar and electronic countermeasures training can be conducted at the vast Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC) where NE15 took place.

It is not necessary to be in the 49th state in order to participate in NE15. One Alaskan Command press release stated: “NE15 is the largest military exercise planned in Alaska this year, with real and virtual participants from all over the USA, practicing together with real players”.

Planning for the exercise began one year before the exercise took place. Identifying different goals and experiments were done early, and participants committed themselves to the exercise soon after. Not all participants were military organisations. A number of civilian contractors were present to test, validate or showcase their military hardware.

To cover all scenarios, and give the participants the opportunity to achieve their goals, a couple of large training areas in Alaska were used.

The entire JPARC airspace covers around 157.000 square kilometres over land in the southern and central part of Alaska, as well as a separate area of about 130.000 square kilometres over the Gulf Of Alaska (GOA) were used during NE15. Adding to this, a special corridor between the two airspaces were set up by the FAA, so the participating aircraft could travel from one airspace to the other, without getting into conflict with civilian traffic.

The participation of US Navy submarines attracted the attention of US Navy’s fixed wing patrol aircraft as well as helicopters launched from three destroyers.

A Temporary Maritime Activities Area (TMAA) was set up off the coast of Alaska. Inside the TMAA, assets hunting for the participating submarines could drop sonar buoys.

A lot of residents in Alaska depend on the ocean, not only to make a living, but also as part of their cultural heritage.
When flying in the newest and most advanced fighter in the USAF inventory,
then you have to look cool, even when you have the visor up.

“The Alaskan Command is proud of its environmental conservation, and will go to great lengths to minimise the damage to the environment.
Several units had made the trip from Japan to Alaska.
Here are two F-15C from Kadena AFB, Japan, before it was their turn to get some jet fuel.
This factor meant that the Navy worked very hard to communicate how the exercise would impact the environment of Alaska as little as possible. Almost 1200 sonar buoys were dropped, all of which emit acoustic noise, which could impact the environment.
Here are some snippets from the Alaskan Command press release regarding the protection of the environment:

“Environmental protection is an integrated part of the exercise.

… The Alaskan Command is proud of its environmental conservation, and will go to great lengths to minimise the damage to the environment.

… Previous Northern Edge exercises were analysed in US Navy 2011 Gulf of Alaska Final Impact Statement (EIS).

… TMAA was designed to avoid critical habitats, and even though it is not possible to avoid all fish or marine habitats, activities are rare and spread out over the entire TMAA. US Navy’s training activities follows an extensive set of rules and regulations, meant to minimise the potential risk for marine life. US Navy has conducted Northern Edge and other large exercises in the Gulf of Alaska for many years without significant damage to the environment.

For future exercises, starting from 2016, the US Navy is currently working on a supplement to the original 2011 EIS, and seeks a renewal of the permissions from the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.”

The US Army and US Air Force have recently updated their EIS for the JPARC.

Joint Base Elemndorf-Richardson
The two large US Air Force bases Eielson AFB and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson were used during the exercise, and supported the flying assets during NE15.

Several US Army bases were also used during the exercise, including Fort Greely and Fort Wainwright, which was used for a large paradrop using C-17s. A Tactical Air Operations Centre (TAOC) was set up at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), close to the town of Anchorage.

JBER is geographically located closer to the Gulf of Alaska than Eielson AFB, which is located 600 km to the north, close to the town of Fairbanks. Most for the US Navy flying assets were therefore base at JBER. Usually most of the tactical flying assets are based at Eielson AFB during large-scale exercises, as it shortens the flight time between the base and the airspace over JPARC. During NE15, the flying operations were split between the TMAA area over the Gulf of Alaska and the over-land area of JPARC.
It was all branches of the armed services, who participated in Northern Edge 2015 exercise. Here’s a USMC KC-130J for example.

Two VFA-154 “Black Knights” from NAS Lemoore is waiting for their wingmen
to finish, so it’ll be their turn to get some additional jet fuel from the tanker.
US Navy
US Navy P-8 Poseidons and P-3 Orions operated from JBER, together with E-2D Hawkeyes while VX-9 Vampires were there with their F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler test aircraft. They were joined by a couple of active west coast Navy Hornet squadrons, as well as numerous F-15C and F-16C/D’s from the US Air Force test units at Eglin AFB, Nellis AFB and Edwards AFB.

Also at JBER was the Japan based F-15C from Kadena and the US Marine Corps VMGR-152 with their KC-130 from Iwakuni. All participating F-22 Raptors (one squadron from Langley AFB and two squadrons resident to JBER), and the E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft also operated out of JBER during NE15.

Besides all these military aircraft, a number of civilian aircraft also flew from JBER during the exercise. Among these were Hawker Hunter’s from ATAC and L-3/Flight Internationals Learjets acting as hostile aircraft and target towing. Larger civilian aircraft, like Northrop Grumman’s rare BAC-1-11 test bed also flew out of JBER.

Eielson AFB
Eielson AFB further north had more US aircraft from Japan stationed, including US Marine Corps F/A-18D Hornets from VMFA(AW)-242 from MCAS Iwakuni and US Air Force 13th Fighter Squadron F-16Cs from Misawa AFB. F-15E Strike Eagles from 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour-Johnson AFB and VMAQ-2 EA-6B Prowlers from MCAS Cherry Point also flew from Eielson AFB.

To accommodate the long mission, a local Tanker Task Force (TTF) were established and run from the base. This TTF had four KC-10’s and ten KC-135’s, which rotated between the different training sorties.

It was common for the TTF to have 7-9 tankers airborne for each sortie. US Air Force 18th Aggressor Squadron, who is based at Eielson, played the role as Red Air during the exercise.

Three large civilian aircraft, a Falcon, a Sabreliner and a Cessna Caravan, participating in the exercise also flew from the base. Their mission was to test new equipment.

In addition to all the aircrafts based in Alaska, a number of other aircrafts also participated in NE15, but flying directly from their home bases in the continental USA. B-2 Spirits from Whiteman AFB, RQ-4 and U-2 reconnaissance aircrafts from Beale AFB, B-52’s from Barksdale and B-1B’s from Dyess AFB, were all part of NE15 while flying from their home bases. Satellites and other space-based assets were also controlled from outside Alaska.

“TTF has four KC-10’s and ten KC-135’s.
A civil aggressor, in the form of a Hawker Hunter from ATAC, also participated in the exercise.
An AWACS E-3C Sentry from Kadena AFB taxis out for another mission.

The good and warm summer
Thanks to an uncharacteristic clear and warm weather, NE15 had fantastic flying conditions, which were far better than usual – at least for the first week of the exercise.

During the second week, some areas and bases were hit, more or less severe, by smoke from some of the many forest fires that hit Alaska over the summer.

During the summer of 2015, Alaska had around 250-300 simultaneous forest fires, which did affect the flying during the second week of the exercise.

NE15 took place around the summer solstice, which meant close to 20 hours of daylight each day, giving the exercise an extra dimension with that many daylight hours.

NE15 gave thousands of US military personnel valuable inter-service training. Groundbreaking technologies were tested, already validated technologies were improved and large groups of aircrafts worked together over the training areas in Alaska.

NE15 not only sharpened the edge of the US military, it also tested equipment that will be used in future military operations.

A big “Thank you” to Capt. Anastasia Wasem, Director, Public Affairs Alaskan Command, Capt. Tania Bryan, USAFR Director, Joint Information Bureau and Maj. Elizabeth Magnusson, USAFR for making this article possible.