UTQIAGVIK, Alaska -- A 7-person team of Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) Airmen assigned to the 1st Air Support Operations Group conducted command and control (C2) operations near remote Utqiagvik, Alaska, and Point Barrow, Alaska, on the coast of the Arctic Ocean in support of Exercise Polar Quake Jan. 10-14.
The exercise was designed to test the capabilities and limitations of current TACP training and equipment in an austere Arctic environment. With support from the 673rd Communications Squadron and 212th Rescue Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the team was tasked with establishing and maintaining multiple C2 nodes capable of supporting the Agile Combat Employment construct, including one at Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States.
“We’re here specifically to set up a Tactical Operations Center (TOC) in Utqiagvik and send out multiple Precision Strike Teams along the coast and on the sea ice, utilizing some of our standard equipment and various additional items to test and evaluate new capabilities and sensors in order to collect battlespace awareness data and report that back to decision makers in the Air Operations Center (AOC) at Joint Base Hickam-Pearl Harbor, Hawaii,” said Master Sgt. Willard Bruce, 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron flight chief. “Because it’s an Arctic scenario we’re also proving we can maneuver great distances through the environment across the entire coastline and send reports via an unhindered communication network.”
Each Precision Strike Team consisted of three TACPs assigned to the 3rd ASOS accompanied by a Pararescueman assigned to the 212th RQS for emergency support. Each day the teams set out from the TOC on snow machines, snow shoes, and cross country skis toward pre-determined remote points in the barren tundra where they worked in sub-zero temperatures to set up a tactical C2 node comprised of High Frequency (HF) communication equipment. Once the node was operational, the team demonstrated they could relay intel back to the TOC, manned by Bruce and a Cyber Net Systems Operations specialist assigned to the 673rd CS. The personnel manning the TOC then pushed the information to the AOC.
“The big thing we’re trying to do is create the smallest footprint possible so we’re hard to detect and jam,” said Staff Sgt. Trenten Collins, 3rd ASOS, Detachment 1 Strike Team supervisor. “We can communicate using almost every spectrum, whether it’s satellite communication or HF, but for this exercise we’re primarily using HF. As TACPs, we’re always associated with kinetic air strikes but we can do anything on the battlefield; we’re very well-equipped to manage any type of C2 environment. Not only can we call in a strike package on a designated target, we can also go out, push forward, and collect intel on anything we need to because we already have the communications infrastructure at the tactical level to be able to relay information back to the TOC in order to get the mission done.”
'Getting the mission done' can be easier said than done, especially in the Arctic. Harsh temperatures and unpredictable weather conditions require extra gear, adding weight and reducing dexterity while limiting communication. Extreme cold also presents a significant and relentless safety risk.
“Working in a cold weather environment, there’s a lot of looking after your buddies,” said Collins. “You’re doing buddy checks every 10-30 minutes, checking your buddies’ hands, eyes, everything to make sure everyone’s safe in the working environment.”
Bruce explained that although TACPs know how to operate in the Arctic and can do so successfully if adequately prepared and equipped, the challenging snow- and ice-covered terrain and the prevalence of polar bears in the Utqiagvik and Point Barrow areas created unique operational difficulties. Partnering with local Utqiagvik residents who were familiar with the landscape and its unique challenges proved key to mission success.
“We ended up having [local Utqiagvik residents as] bear guards who were very familiar with the area and extremely helpful with every situation,” said Bruce. “For us to be able to come in here and establish our communications and bring in our unique sensing capabilities, having the bear guards here and all of the advice of the local residents was super beneficial. That's a relationship that should definitely be sustained.”
Exercise Polar Quake coincided with Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass’s visit to Alaska. During her tour, Bass traveled to the Arctic Ocean to observe the exercise’s TOC in Utqiagvik and a C2 node at Point Barrow, highlighting the ever-growing significance of the U.S. Air Force’s operational capabilities in the Arctic.
“Because other countries have been demonstrating that they want to have a presence and perform specific things in the Arctic, it becomes more of a strategic importance for us,” explained Bruce. “This specific mass of land holds quite a bit of resources that the U.S. has as well, so our ability to establish a presence up here couldn't be more important.”
As the team lead for the first iteration of Exercise Polar Quake, Bruce admitted there were things he would have prepared for differently and equipment that would make future iterations run more smoothly. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, he maintained his team accomplished the performance goals they set for the exercise and he was proud of his team’s performance.
“We already came into this knowing we would be successful just based on our capability,” said Bruce. “We definitely hit a lot of obstacles because we don't typically do this very often and we haven't necessarily normalized the capability of us operating in such early phases within the conflict continuum. The bottom line is we absolutely met all of our objectives for the first iteration of this exercise. We’ve highlighted several of the obstacles we faced and keeping those in mind in a second or third iteration of this exercise would provide 100 percent positive results.”