10,000 service members begin massive Northern Edge military exercise

Northern Edge 2017
Air Force F-15 Strike Eagles from Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., taxi down the flight line at Eielson Air Force Base during the 2017 Northern Edge exercise. (Isaac Johnson/U.S. Air Force)

More than 10,000 U.S. service members have launched Northern Edge 2023, Alaska’s biggest military training exercise of the year and, the Air Force says, its premier training exercise.

“It’s a massive exercise,” said Air Force Maj. Clay Lancaster. “A lot of (additional) personnel are in the state of Alaska. A lot of aircraft have flown in for the exercise.”

Lancaster is chief public affairs officer for the 683th Air Base Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or JBER. He said this year’s Northern Edge includes more than 150 aircraft from the Air Force and Navy and the U.K. and Australia, both of which have sent personnel and warplanes to the biennial exercise.

A Pacific Air Forces news release says the allies will help trainers provide “an opportunity for joint, multinational and multi-domain operations designed to provide high-end, realistic war-fighter training, develop and improve joint interoperability and enhance the combat readiness of participating forces.”

the USS Momsen in Homer
The guided missile destroyer USS Momsen docked in Homer. (Courtesy Mackenzie McCarthy)

Some Alaskans including environmentalists, commercial fishermen and coastal residents have criticized the exercise — parts of which involve live ammunition — as detrimental to salmon and whales migrating north during early summer. Rear Adm. Mark Sucato, commander of the Navy’s Northwest Region, recently visited the state to hear those concerns and discuss Navy research he says counters them.

Lancaster said having service members from allied nations and two branches of the U.S. military makes it an even better training opportunity.

“It’s very important to be able to train in a joint environment,” he said, “and that’s why we’re so grateful for the state of Alaska with the incredible training spaces here.”

That includes the 65,000 square miles of airspace above the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, a network of training areas scattered around the state and 42,000 square nautical miles offshore, along with and additional temporary maritime activities areas.

a Northern Edge map
During Northern Edge, pilots will conduct exercises in training areas that are part of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex. Naval warships will train in a 42,000-square-nautical-mile area and other temporary maritime activity areas in the Gulf of Alaska. (From Alaskan Command)

Lancaster said that the Navy “established these maritime training areas there in the Gulf of Alaska, and it gives them a significant capability to train.” He said the Navy is bringing four warships to this year’s exercise: the stealthy destroyer USS Zumwalt and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Momsen, the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain and the dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry.

The Momsen docked at Homer last week for a two-day visit.

Lancaster said Alaskans can expect to see a lot of military activity in those parts of the gulf during the exercise, and aircraft activity around Alaska’s two Air Force bases — Eielson, near Fairbanks, and JBER, near Anchorage.

“They kind of take off and land on the bases, and they go up to the JPARC and they do their business,” he said. “And then they come back and they land at Eielson, they land at JBER.”

Some of the aircraft will be also operating out of both Fairbanks and Anchorage international airports.

Lancaster said most of the activity will take place during weekday mornings and afternoons. He said the Air Force and Navy also have been trying to inform hunters, commercial fishermen and others in remote areas about increased aircraft and naval activity during the exercise.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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