With 18 experiments and initiatives undergoing field testing in Alaskan training ranges throughout Exercise Northern Edge 15, no other venue is as well suited for high-end operational testing.
"Northern Edge airspace is unique for us in a testing environment because it has a lot of joint players and is a large force exercise that tests the capabilities of a dense (radio frequency) environment," said Lt. Col. Adam Smith, Commander of the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron. This replicates a scenario we could face in a future threat.
Unique to this exercise is the Gulf of Alaska, which allows us to work with Navy surface and subsurface assets in a joint environment, Smith said. This, in addition to our Marine partners and the air operations center working together, we get as close as we can to actual combat through an exercise.
Eight test and evaluation squadrons from across the Air Force are capitalizing on the uniqueness that is Exercise Northern Edge to further develop and "test new capabilities for the warfighter," Smith said.
Specifically, new software for the F-15E, C; and F-16 is being tested during the exercise to help advance capabilities of those aircraft.
"The F-16 is a 40-year-old aircraft and people are often surprised that we are still flight-testing it," said Nathan Cook, 40th Flight Test Squadron flight test engineer. "However, the capabilities that software updates can bring are pretty impressive."
The M7 project is the latest software update for the F-16 modular mission computer and is being tested during the exercise. It has been in development for the past four years and is the 7th update for the common computer on the aircraft.
The M7 will add "more than 20 individual capabilities that are absolutely new to the F-16," Cook said. In addition to the new capabilities, "every time you update software, it is an opportunity to fix old problems as well."
"The flagship capability for M7 is an air threat display that combines the legacy radar capability with what we call a god's eye view from the horizontal situation display," said Cook. "It brings the capability on one screen to be able to see all the navigational lines and the geographic references along with all the LINK 16 symbology ... and target radar returns."
This provides pilots a major increase in capability, especially when you have just two small screens in the cockpit of an F-16 as compared to newer aircraft.
"The contested airspace that we are provided with at Northern Edge is a major benefit in multiple ways, not the least of which, is there's many flavors of jamming which attempt to defeat several of our capabilities, sometimes individually, sometimes simultaneously, and it lets us know how robust our systems are to those jamming techniques," Cook said. "Another is the fact there are so many players it allows us to see what happens when our systems get saturated with symbols."
This is the first time the 40th Flight Test Squadron from Eglin Air Force base has participated in the exercise.
"One of the big reasons we came here was for the high density environment that is conducted here at Northern Edge, and that's something I've never seen at Eglin," said 1st Lt John Vidoni, 40th Flight Test Squadron F-16 flight test engineer. "The amount of assets we have is incredible. This unique environment goes far for testing as we are able to see things we haven't seen before in the air."
The sheer number of aircraft exercising together is but one benefit of Northern Edge, another being the myriad players from different units, major commands, and all four branches of the U.S. military.
"The Air Force trains together a lot. We have our own language and we know how each other works because we all went through the same schools," said Vidoni. "The Navy has their schools and training and sometimes communication can be an issue. That's something I think we've done a really good job of focusing on and working towards with Northern Edge."
Bringing together nearly 200 aircraft from all services, U.S. Naval assets, and 6,000 participants, combined with pristine flying conditions, Exercise Northern Edge 15 has delivered on increasing capabilities of U.S. military forces.
"Seeing this kind of sight with all the aircraft lined up," said Vidoni. "It gives me chills just being out here on the flightline."