Military exercises conducted within the United States offer our troops with the opportunity to get the hang of their training and equipment, but create limitations in terms of scope.  A ground-based exercise must be conducted within the grounds of the military installation, and accompanying air operations must adhere to regulations pertaining to flying through civilian airspace.  While these exercises are valuable, they limit the scope of an exercise to fairly small groups in fairly controlled circumstances.

Fortunately, a biennial Pacific Command contingency exercise conducted in the Gulf of Alaska and around central Alaskan ranges called Northern Edge doesn’t suffer from any such limitation.

Northern Edge 17, which runs from May 1st through the 12th of this year, currently sees approximately 6,000 military personnel gathered to take part in huge exercises intended to prepare joint U.S. forces to respond to any sort of crises that may develop in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region of the globe.  Over two hundred aircraft are taking part this year, including the F-35B Lightning II, F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16C Fighting Falcon, FA-18D Hornet, EA-6B Prowler, KC-135 Stratotanker, and the KC-10 Extender aircraft.

By conducting these exercises in Alaska, commanders are able to take advantage of 65,000 square miles of 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.

Exercises like Northern Edge allow us to work together, talk together and fight together and it’s important to do so because that’s how we are going to deploy. No service can do it on their own,” said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stephen D. Driskill, the chief of staff at the Joint Electromagnetic Preparedness for Advanced Combat, U.S. Strategic Command. “We are able to gain different advantages and strengths from all the different services here; to make sure that we, as a department of defense, are able to get the best capabilities possible.”

Throughout the exercises, military leaders are working to simulate potential situations that may arise with political opponents in the region, in order to effectively prepare their troops for combat operations should they ever arise.

We are constantly trying to decide what our different actors around the region are using and how we can simulate how they use those evolving technologies,” said U.S. Air Force Col. David Mineau, the 354th Fighter Wing commander. “We want to provide them with the most challenging scenario that they could face so that when they do our nation’s business they come home safely when the crisis is over.”

In order to do so, a combination of virtual forces depicted in strategy and combat simulators allow units from all over the country to participate in the exercises just as they would in a real combat operation; providing real-time updates to commanders in theater through simulated intelligence gathering.  That simulated experience works in conjunction with actual live-fire exercises being conducted by ground and air elements in Alaska based on the situation presented in by the simulations.

We are very proud of what the 354th fighter wing has done to improve our ability to fuse live training, virtual training and constructive training all together into one live-virtual battlespace that provides increased realism and complexity for everyone involved,” said Mineau. “It’s all about providing more people with more effective and more integrated training than we can do otherwise in just the live domain.”

Northern Edge gives us the opportunity to really practice the tactics, techniques and procedures that we would need in order to fight in such a vast Pacific Ocean theater,” said Lt. Col. Stephen D. Driskill. “Some of the potential adversaries that are in the Pacific realm have some very capable systems. Being able to train against them really provides a high level of training for us make sure we are ready to fight tonight, wherever we need to go.”


Image courtesy of the Department of Defense