Northern Edge military exercise gathers 15,000 servicemembers in Alaska

Fighter jets land on a runway
Air Force F-15s taxi down the flightline at Eielson Air Force Base during the 2015 Northern Edge. Most of the aircraft involved in the exercise will operate out of Eielson. (U.S. Airforce Photo)

A biennial large-scale military training exercise involving 15,000 servicemembers will begin Monday in and around Alaska.

Northern Edge 2021 will involve all four branches of the armed services, including some 250 warplanes and multiple naval vessels. The exercise will be staged out of military and civilian airfields across the state, as well as an aircraft carrier and offshore ships.

This year’s Northern Edge won’t be the biggest of the biennial exercises that have been held in recent years. But it will be the most widely dispersed, with operations on the ground and in the skies over the state’s enormous training ranges, military installations and civilian and dual-use airfields in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, King Salmon and Cold Bay, to name a few.

“The exercise is going to have a lot more distributed operations than we’ve had in the past,” says Lt. Col. Michael Boyer, a lead planner for Northern Edge.

Boyer said the exercise will bring together personnel from different branches of the military, along with their equipment, to train and test their ability to jointly respond to threats in any of the domains in which they operate: on land, in the air, and at sea, as well as cyberspace and outer space.

“Northern Edge represents an opportunity for the joint force to put all the pieces of the puzzle together in one large venue,” he said. “It is high-end, realistic war-fighting training.”

Boyer says servicemembers typically participate in exercises involving their own branch of the service. Northern Edge enables them to experience joint operations with other branches that mirror the complexity of 21st-century warfare, he says, “so we can work on the gaps and seams between services, identify them and also give opportunities for our younger generation to see the big picture and help grow our future leaders.”

Boyer declined to talk about the scenario that will play out during Northern Edge 2021, to avoid giving participants any clues about what they’ll encounter.

He offered a generic response to a question about whether the exercise will include, for example, intercepting aircraft that enter Alaska’s Air Defense Identification Zone. That happens every few months when Russian aircraft fly into the ADIZ, which is international airspace.

“We’ll always keep an eye on it,” he said in an interview last week. “We always remain postured for events. But beyond that, I really can’t make any more specific comments.”

Hawaii-based Pacific Air Forces organized this year’s exercise, which Boyer says will be held this year in the Indo-Pacific region where PACAF operates.

This will also be the first Northern Edge to include an aircraft carrier strike group and a Marine Expeditionary Unit, both of which will operate mainly out of vessels in the Gulf of Alaska.

Boyer says the state’s two Air Force bases will host most of the other services’ aviation assets.

“Most of the aircraft will operate out of Eielson,” he said, “You will see some aircraft in operations in and around Fort Greely, along with the ranges associated with that facility.”

Operations also will be conducted out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, he added.

Boyer says aircraft participating in the exercise will include the F-35B, the Marine Corps’ version of the Air Force F-35A that’s being based at Eielson. But the Marines’ F-35 is a “jump jet,” which can take off and land vertically without a runway.

Boyer says people who live in communities near participating military installations will likely see and hear a lot of aircraft activity during the exercises, which will end May 14. He says the Air Force will comply with all airspace restrictions and will do all it can to limit noises such as sonic booms.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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