The Alaska-based 11th Airborne Division will host its first large-scale training exercise next week on ranges around Fort Wainwright and Eielson Air Force Base. That means more than 500 Army vehicles taking part in the exercise will be traveling on the Parks Highway and the northernmost stretch of the Richardson Highway.
The exercise is called the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center-Alaska, and this year it’ll be hosted by the division, not U.S. Army Alaska. That’s because the Army de-activated USARAK last summer and reactivated the 11th Airborne to assume command of Alaska-based Army troops and assets.
The change was part of the Army’s new Arctic strategy.
“It’s an ongoing effort to kind of regain the muscle memory that we had in years previous for dealing in Arctic temperatures and conditions and terrain,” says John Pennell, 11th Airborne spokesperson.
Observers have for years pointed out that Alaska-based soldiers frequently were deployed to faraway conflict zones in hot, arid places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Pennell says those rotations hindered the soldiers’ familiarity of how to operate in Arctic.
“We lost a lot of that knowledge, a lot of that ability, during the 20 years (when) we were focused primarily on rotating in to the global war on terrorism,” he said in an interview last week.
Another change in the exercise this year is the venue.
“The primary training area is going to be the Yukon Training Area, closer to Eielson Air Force, as opposed to the Donnelly Training Area, down near Fort Greely,” he said.
Army officials decided to move the exercises to the Yukon Training Area to determine whether it can accommodate large numbers of troops and equipment, he added. Some 8,000 soldiers and more than 500 military vehicles will take part in the exercise.
“In the past, we haven’t used it for this kind of a large-scale exercise,” he said. “So we’re wanting to put that area through its paces, as well as our forces.”
Pennell says participants in this year’s exercise will include Special Operations personnel, trainers from the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana, and observers and soldiers with allied nations from Canada, Europe and Japan.
Staging the exercises in the Yukon Training Area will have soldiers and equipment from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage traveling to and from Fort Wainwright over the Parks Highway and the northernmost 30 miles of the Richardson Highway.
“That doesn’t mean that you might not see a military vehicle over on the Rich,” Pennell said. “But the Parks is our primary means of getting there.”
Convoys from JBER started rolling toward Fort Wainwright over the Parks Highway on Wednesday, and they’ll travel from Wainwright to the Yukon Training Area near Eielson and back over the Richardson Highway beginning next Wednesday. They’ll begin returning to JBER the following week, on April 6.