JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska –
Over 6,000 U.S. service members and 200 aircraft from across the continental United States and Asian-Pacific converged upon Alaska for Exercise Northern Edge 2015, June 15-26.
Northern Edge, a biannual Pacific Command contingency exercise, seeks to replicate the most challenging scenarios in the Pacific theater to ensure joint U.S. forces are trained and prepared to respond to crises in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
Significantly, Exercise Northern Edge is held in a state that is as wide as the lower 48 states and larger than Texas, California and Montana combined. The military air, land and sea training ranges in Alaska are collectively known as the JPARC, or Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, and includes 65,000 square miles of available airspace, nearly 2,500 square miles of land space and 42,000 square nautical miles of surface, subsurface and overlying airspace in the Gulf of Alaska.
The JPARC provides for wide and varied training unmatched anywhere else in the world.
"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 U.S. Air Force 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 ability to train in and over 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.
The un-encroached training space 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 ability to bring the joint forces together gave us the opportunity to have a dialogue about one another's capabilities, said U.S. Air Force Col. Chuck Corcoran, Exercise Northern Edge Air Expeditionary Wing commander. "We were able to plan together, which we don't get to do very often; we were able to go out and execute together, and we were able to come back and debrief our lessons learned together."
These elements are opportunities that joint forces don't get to regularly exercise together.
"It all starts with interoperability. On day one we saw that if we don't practice together we won't be able to show up and execute together as a pick-up game if we get called to respond to a contingency," Corcoran said. "We've got to practice integrating our systems. The simple ability to have a (U.S. Navy) destroyer communicate with an AWACS over the radio, it sounds easy but it takes practice, it takes repetition."
Many times when units are faced with a tactical problem in day to day training, it is viewed only through the capabilities that that unit brings to the table. An exercise like Northern Edge brings together all the capabilities that the rest of the joint team has to offer.
"Now when we go back and train day in and day out at the unit level we'll still continue to have those discussions for the next two years until the next Northern Edge. These lessons live on." Corcoran said.
And it's the benefits of this interoperability training which makes Exercise Northern Edge such a valuable asset to maintaining readiness in the Pacific.
"We have joint forces for a reason; we have experts in the land component, air component, sea component, we have cyber experts and space experts, warfare doesn't happen in a single domain, warfare happens across domains," Corcoran said. "(It's the challenge of) how to bring all of that together, in an area as vast as the Pacific ... how do we show up with the individual components that are very competent in what they do and bring them together to get the synergies that you have in the joint force."
Overall, the lessons learned from Exercise Northern Edge will continue to be built upon and evolve.
We've learned some great lessons about the need to be interoperable, about what our capabilities can and can not bring to the fight, about new capabilities we are testing, and threat systems, Corcoran said.
And all of those are going to make a better, stronger joint force moving forward.
"What we gained is a respect for what one another brings to the fight," Corcoran said. "And, the respect for the fact that we aren't going to be able to show-up, to communicate, and to operate as a joint team if we don't practice it."