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Joint forces exercise helps U.S. military maintain edge in next-gen warfighting, bolsters Arctic stability


Thousands of United States military personnel gathered around the Arctic and North Pacific regions in early May 2021 to demonstrate their mastery of air, land and sea defense while spotlighting the potency of next-generation warfighting systems and joint all-domain command and control (JADC2) during Exercise Northern Edge 21.

The 12-day exercise, sponsored by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and led by U.S. Pacific Air Forces, included about 15,000 Airmen, Marines, Sailors and Soldiers, more than 200 aircraft and an aircraft carrier and other vessels. “Northern Edge represents an opportunity for the joint force to put all the pieces of the puzzle together in one large venue,” Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Boyer, the exercise’s lead planner, told Alaska Public Media. “It is high-end, realistic warfighting training.”

The 2021 iteration of the biennial exercise featured operational testing of the new F-15EX Eagle II, pictured, the Air Force’s fourth-generation fighter, which flew about 7,000 kilometers to Alaska from the 53rd Wing headquarters at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Crews were expected to evaluate the aircraft’s Eagle Passive/Active Warning Survivability System, an electronic warfare technology that enhances threat assessment capabilities.

Other participating aircraft from 53rd Wing included the F-15C and E and F-35 fighters, the B-52 bomber, the MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle and the U-2 spy plane. Much of the exercise took place at the massive Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex. “The unique range assets in place at Northern Edge provide a different, unfamiliar, complex and operationally realistic environment for the technology and the tactics we’re testing,” Lt. Col. Mike Benitez, 53rd Wing staff director, said in a news release.

Other major units contributing to Northern Edge 21 were the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and Carrier Air Wing 11; the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group and 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit; the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division; and the 7th Field Artillery Brigade. Planners designed scenarios to hone concepts such as the Air Force’s agile combat employment, which incorporates a hub-and-spoke framework to speed deployment and boost maneuverability, and the Department of Defense’s JADC2 initiative, which will unify all sensors within the Armed Forces into a single network, according to the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

“Typically, training happens within your units, within your services, but you never really get the volume or the complexity you would expect to see in a modern-day conflict,” Boyer told reporters. “The scenarios that we do build account for any modern capabilities potential adversaries will have out there.”

The U.S. can quickly resupply across multiple locations in a contested environment.

Long an arena of competition with Russia — and the Soviet Union before its collapse — the Arctic and North Pacific regions remain key to U.S. homeland defense and the peace and stability of the wider Indo-Pacific region. “Obviously, we see a lot of interest and value in our nation’s interest in the Arctic and we want to make sure that those are protected and preserved in an appropriate manner,” Boyer said, according to Air Force Times.

As warming temperatures open icebound shipping passages in the Arctic, the resource-rich region has become an increasing focus of the People’s Republic of China, which declared itself a “near-Arctic power” in 2018 despite being 1,500 kilometers from the Arctic Circle. “The escalation of Russian activity and Chinese ambitions in the region demonstrates the strategic importance of the Arctic,” Maj. Meg Harper of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command told the South China Morning Post newspaper. “Competition will only increase.”

Military leaders said the biennial exercise helps ensure that the U.S. and its allies and partners maintain their edge over near-peer competitors or any other adversaries intent on disrupting the status quo.

“China in the South China Sea continues to make territorial claims that are not recognized by the international community,” Lt. Gen. David Krumm, commander of Alaska Command and the 11th Air Force, told the South China Morning Post. “We see that China’s using a series of abject intimidation, economic, coercion techniques to try and justify their territorial claims. We need to make sure that pattern is not repeated up here in the Arctic.”



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