Northern Edge – 2017

Northern Edge 2017

Northern Edge 2017 saw 6,000 personnel, and approximately 200 aircraft participating,
from U.S. military units from both the continental U.S., the Pacific.
Northern Edge 2017
The majority of the lakes were still frozen and the mountains were still covered in snow, when dozens of 4th and 5th generation fighter jets, together with surveillance, electronic warfare, tankers and transport planes, from across the U.S. military took to the skies over Alaska on 1st of May 2017, as Northern Edge 2017 (NE17) kicked off.

With Spring appearing early May in Alaska it would mean the lakes wouldn’t remain frozen for too long. And with the long hours of light and great weather, NE17 now had the right training conditions.

NE17 was one in a series of U.S. Pacific Command exercises in 2017 – which all have the same goal; to prepare the joint forces to respond to crises in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. The exercises are designed to sharpen participants’ tactical combat skills, to improve command, control and communication relationships, and also to develop interoperable plans and programs across the joint force.

NE17 saw 6,000 personnel participating from U.S. military units stationed in the continental United States, and from U.S. installations in the Pacific, as well as approximately 200 aircraft from all the services. The participants served as part of a joint task force, practicing tasks associated with joint operations.

Major participating units included U.S. Pacific Command, Alaskan Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Pacific Air Forces, Marine Corps Forces Pacific, U.S. Army Pacific, Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, Air Force Material Command, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and U.S. Naval Reserve.

As Col. David Mineau, Commander of the 354th Fighter Wing, explained:
“The different U.S. forces are gathered to sharpen the tactics, techniques, procedures, command and control, and the interoperability with each other, against the most advanced, and the most complicated scenario that they can go face.”
“The different U.S. forces are gathered to sharpen the tactics, techniques, procedures, command and control, and the interoperability with each other.”
A packed ramp with fighters at JBER during NE17

The newest and most advance airplane in the USMC inventory, the F-35B
Still maintaining real world capacity
The majority of the planes were split between the two air force bases, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) to the south, and Eielson AFB to the north. Besides the local aggressors and tankers, Eielson saw additional tanker support, as well as two air force units on base. The majority of the planes were placed at JBER. Fast jets, surveillance, and electronic warfare, tankers and transport units from the marines, air force and navy had JBER as their temporary home during the exercise.

“Right now we have one runway on each base, so there’s a limit on the number of aircrafts we can actually launch and recover at anyone time. But the other thing, and that’s a very positive aspect of the training; we would expect if we would operate in a large-scale conflict, that we would have to operate from a number of different air bases, and you could imagine, how they would sit there and depart, and we would have to synchronize in terms of times, so they would arrive at the same place at the same time, and orchestrate the exercise.” said Col. Christopher Niemi, Commander of the 3rd Wing, to illustrate the challenges the planners faced during the exercise, as they would in a real world conflict.

The massive training ground
Even though most of the local Alaskan units participated in the exercise, the units were still ready to handle any real world event that would come up, as Col. George Dietrich, Commander of JBER and the 673d Air Base Wing illustrated: “So, the exercise aside, here at JBER we’re always going to be ready to respond to any real world event. If we had a call today, we would still be able to do that, despite the exercise going on. The exercise gives us the opportunity to hone those skills even a little bit better.”

Large scale radar/anti-radar and electronic countermeasures training can be conducted at the vast Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC) where NE17 took place. To cover all scenarios, and give the participants the opportunity to achieve their goals, a couple of large training areas in Alaska were used.

“It’s a great venue for training, we have the largest range space available to almost anybody in the world, certainly in the United States, to practice techniques, tactics and procedures, not only for our airmen, but also for our soldiers, marines and sailors as well.” said Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach, Alaskan Command and 11th Air Force Commander.

The entire JPARC airspace covers around 157.000 square kilometers over land in the southern and central part of Alaska, as well as a separate area of about 130.000 square kilometers over the Gulf of Alaska were used during NE17. Adding to this, a special corridor between the two airspaces was set up by the FAA, that allowed the participating aircraft to travel from one airspace to the other, without getting into conflict with civilian traffic.

Col. Niemi illustrated; “We don’t have the opportunity to operate in airspaces that we potentially would be in, in a conflict. In the course of a conflict, we would expect that there probably wouldn’t be a lot of airline traffic. Work could be in an area that’s very wide open, that’s not heavily populated, like the lower 48 States are, and so Northern Edge with it’s expansive airspace here in Alaska gives us kind of a peak into the opportunity, and allows us to bring all these assets in, both other air force units, navy units, marine units, and integrate them all together in one place and time in the exercise.”

The size matters, and with the size comes opportunities, that is not achievable in other places: “We have a great opportunity because of the size of range – to train and maximize our assets, because of the space, and the freedom of maneuver that the large space allows.” explained Lt. Gen. Wilsbach, and added; ”It’s the size of Florida!”
“It’s a great venue for training, we have the largest range space available.”
A F-16CG from Misawa high above the Alaskan Range

Training inexperienced and experienced crew
About 50% of the crews were inexperienced and used this exercise to gain experience, and learning these lessons for the first time. The experienced crews were mostly in a leading role, giving the inexperienced crews the lessons, and also improving their own leading capabilities.

“We have specific mission objectives on every sortie.” said Lt. Gen. Wilsbach, “We are doing some experiments during this Northern Edge where we have additional new hardware and new software brand new to the forces, that we’re trialling during the scenario, so we can learn those tactics, techniques and procedures. Much of that is classified, so we won’t publish what we’re learning, other than to say that we’re improving capabilities overall.”

Strike Eagles from Seymour Johnson AFB gets it’s last chance checks done,
before another NE17 sortie
The classic good guy against bad
The battlefield is the classic good guy against bad, seeing the good guys on different missions, trying to defeat or hold back the bad guys.

“It’s red vs. blue. The red forces’ side is primary made up by aggressors – predominantly airmen that have the expertise to simulate threat tactics, techniques and procedures. We have aircraft, we have surface to air missiles, cyber, and many other things they simulate.” said Lt. Gen. Wilsbach.

It’s not only the F-16s of the 18th Aggressor Squadron at Eielson AFB, which made up the red force. The other participants of the exercise would also act as aggressors, where a typical mission could be ten aggressor F-16s from the 18th Aggressors Squadron, supplemented by another six F-15Es from Seymour Johnson AFB, and six F-16CGs from Misawa AFB. It didn’t have to be all dedicated air superiority units taking the role as the red force.

Almost all of the participating air units would split their time between doing red air and blue air. Besides the military assets, a number of civilian airplanes were taking part in the exercise. These civilian airplanes were equipped with sensors and jammers, etc. to add complexity to the training. To simulate different threats and scenarios, making the blue air training even more difficult.

Continued development of 5th generation fighters
NE17 saw 5th generation fighters, with the air forces F-22s side-by-side with the marines F-35s, integrating with 4th generation fighters, such as variants of the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18.

It was not all training, but also a continued development of the integration of the 5th gen. aircraft, such as the F-35, as Lt. Gen. Wilsbach explained:
“We are all learning what the F-35 can do, including the marines. So it’s of great benefit to see how all of it comes together – army, navy, air force and the marines – over both land and water, all of what is being practiced. So it’ll be a tremendous benefit at the end of this exercise.”

It was not all integrations and crew training of the 5th generation aircraft, but also further testing of the aircraft themself, both 4th and 5th generation. Having the aircraft loaded with new hardware and software saw them testing all new usages of the planes, as well as operating the newest weapon system in a large-scale operation, which brings great possibilities, to find the surprises, limitations and opportunities of the planes.

Col. Niemi, illustrated: “When you acquire a new weapon system, like the F-35, then it’s not like going in and buying a car, where there’s not really a lot of surprises. We have a very rigorous test and development program, but the reality is that when you are dealing with something completely new and complex as the F-35, despite our best efforts, there’s going to be some surprises and we’re going to learn some things.”

Col. Niemi got an extensive experience from the F-22 test program, which was used during NE17 with the F-35s; “I was fortunate enough to be involved in the early F-22 test program, and some of the ideas of how we were going to employ the aircraft turned out to be exactly spot on, but to be absolutely frank with you, some of the ideas were way off the mark and we didn’t know that until we had the opportunity to integrate, and there were some strings that we discovered, that we didn’t anticipate. There were also some limitations that we became aware of, that we had to mitigate. By working with the F-35 we are able to sit there and realise those, so that we can be better operating in an operational environment in the future.”

The continuation of the training with the F-35 and F-22 carried on after the exercise, where the marines of the VMFA-121 would stay for an additional few weeks, before returning to Japan. This was to do dedicated tests side-by-side with the F-22s of the 3rd wing at JBER, and the 18th Aggressors at Eielson, building on top of the experience gain during the two week exercise.
A thirsty local Alaskan F-22 Raptor gets some gas, before it re-joins the battle

“Red Flag is a very good exercise, but Northern Edge builds on that, and takes it to the next level. We have had Northern Edges over the years, and we have been able to continue to build on that, and improve it each year, and that’s what we are doing again this year.”
Northern Edge 17, was the first time with participation of the U-2 from Beale AFB
Better than Red Flag
The Northern Edge exercises are massive in scale, both with the physical training areas used, and the number of players involved. To get all the involved players aligned and up and running for the short time, of the two weeks the exercise was running – this being; the ground crews, pilots, sailors on their ships, army foot soldiers on the ground, to the mission planners etc., wasn’t an easy task, but it’s something that reflects how real combat operations works, and making this exercise as close to real combat operations, as possible.

With the exercise coming to and end, Col. Niemi concluded that Northern Edge was a success, and was as close to a real combat operation as possible:
“I was fortunate enough to be here (Alaska red.) from 2007 to 2011, and during that time frame, we had three Northern Edge exercises and I flew in two of those. Each year we continued to build on that, make it better and generally bigger.

When that younger pilot, or that younger operator, gets into a combat environment for the first time, they have that same feeling like I did in 1999, where it’s comfortable to them because they’ve seen it before and they know what to expect, and they know how to deal with it.

My comment, the first time I flew in Northern Edge, was: This is the closest exercise that we have, to combat operations, even surpassing Red Flag, for numerous reasons.

Red Flag is a very good exercise, but Northern Edge builds on that, and takes it to the next level. We have had Northern Edges over the years, and we have been able to continue to build on that, and improve it each year, and that’s what we are doing again this year.”

This edition of Northern Edge saw the last time that Alaskan Command was in charge of it, and the future Northern Edge exercises were handed over to the U.S. Pacific Command, which will lead the 2019 edition of the exercise.

A big thank you to Alaskan Command, and especially USAF Capt. Anastasia Schmidt, USNR Lt. Mikel Weigel and USAF Lt. Kellie Rizer for making this article possible.