By Sgt. 1st Class Joel Gibson
Spring mornings in Alaska are a time and place for moose, mountains and majestic views – and the right weather to host the largest joint training exercise in Alaska.
Dozens of 4th and 5th generation fighter jets from across the U.S. military hit the skies over Alaska, Monday, May 1, 2017, as Northern Edge 2017 (NE17) kicked off with a “morning go.”
Hosted by Alaskan Command, NE17 is a joint training exercise focused on interoperability and hosting approximately 6,000 service members, 200 fixed wing aircraft, maritime forces and a plethora of equipment. The biennial exercise, which takes place throughout the state and surrounding waterways, provides the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard with critical training.
“We have specific mission objectives on every ‘Go’,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach, Alaskan NORAD Region, Alaskan Command and 11th Air Force Commander. “We’ve got additional new hardware, additional new software; brand new to the forces, that we’re trying out during the scenario, so we can learn those tactics, techniques and procedures.”
Wilsbach explained that the exercise is designed to sharpen tactical combat skills, improve command, control and communication relationships, develop interoperable plans and programs across the joint force as well as provide tactical opportunities to integrate fourth and fifth generational aircraft and F-22s and F-35s flying together. The F-35 Lightning II is making its first appearance in a Northern Edge exercise with two Marine Corps squadrons participating.
Air Force Col. Christopher Niemi, 3rd Wing Commander, said his first experience flying in combat reminded him of his experiences in exercises similar to Northern Edge.
“When that younger pilot, or that younger operator, gets into a combat environment for the first time, they have that same feeling like I did in 1999, where it’s comfortable to them because they’ve seen it before and they know what to expect, and they know how to deal with it,” Niemi said.
Major participating units this year include U.S. Pacific Command, Alaskan Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Pacific Air Forces, Marine Corps Forces Pacific, U.S. Army Pacific, Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, Air Force Materiel Command, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Command and U.S. Naval Reserve.
“What’s unique is the fact that Alaska offers us the opportunity to put this large number of aircraft together in both over-land and over-water airspace,” said Niemi. “When you look at the airspace available in the lower 48 [states], it’s typically constrained with the number of airline routes you have.”
Alaska provides the only available range space to practice techniques, tactics and procedures for airmen, soldiers, Marines, and sailors.