On the fly

Even buttressed by computer-generated enemies and simulated aircraft, live-range joint military training exercises can occupy thousands of square miles. But with about 68,000 square miles of airspace — about a third of the state — that’s not a problem for the Pacific Alaska Range Complex.

PARC “is run by Alaska Command out of Elmendorf Air Force Base,”said Sgt. Karin Krause, a spokeswoman at the base. Although the Air Force maintains and operates PARC airspace, the Army, operating from Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks, operates the groundspace, she said.

The 353rd Combat Training Squadron controls PARC’s 68,000 square miles of air space, one conventional bombing range and two tactical bombing ranges with more than 400 targets and 34 radar threat simulators, according to the 354th Fighter Wing’s publicaffairs office.

However, PARC is used by all the services. In 2004, Navy Adm. Thomas Fargo of the Pacific Command testified to the House Armed Services Committee about the need for a “transformation of [PARC] into a 21st Century Joint Training Complex and Joint National Training Capability venue.”

“Mission success requires realistic training — something inert ordnance cannot completely provide. The first exposure to live fire faced by our forces must not come in a hostile combat environment, but rather in a controlled but authentic training environment where they can learn from their experiences and condition themselves to face the real thing.”

Training ranges, and especially the remote vastness of PARC, are crucial, Fargo said. “Integrating virtual capabilities with existing training ranges is the next step in providing our warfighters the optimum combat training environment.”

That kind of exercise began as Cope Thunder joint training exercises created during the Vietnam War after military officials realized that the heaviest combat losses occurred during a pilot’s first few sorties.

The exercise, now known as Red Flag-Alaska (RF-A) is designed to give pilots and air crews “their first 10 combat sorties using the walk-crawl-run approach, stepping up the level of threat and level of difficulty,” a spokesman said.

“It’s a large force-on-force exercise,” said Brig. Gen. William Rew, 57th Wing commander at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base, in a statement during RF-A exercises last year. “It’s our airpower against theirs, and we’re trying to hit targets.”

The move to Elmendorf and Eielson bases made sense to Air Force officials: The 353rd Combat Training Squadron, under the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson, already controlled three Alaskan flight training ranges.

Organized as a combat squadron in 1942, the 353rd was redesignated in 1994 as a combat training squadron (CTS) and assigned the mission of coordinating and directing the Pacific Command’s premier exercise, Cope Thunder, in addition to the oversight and management of PARC.

Realigned in September 2003 from the 354th Operations Group to the 611th Air Operations Group, the 353rd CTS has a detachment at Elmendorf. Responsible for sponsoring training and experimentation in Alaska, it hosts the Pacific Air Force’s RF-A, Alaska Command’s Northern Edge and Pacific Command’s RF-A.

It’s also responsible for training, planning and coordination for each RF-A exercise, an Air Force spokesman said. As many as 70 jet fighters can be operating simultaneously in the same airspace. Each exercise is customized to meet the needs of the units requesting training, Capt. Ron Strobach, RF-A senior team chief, said in a statement.

“As long as [it] does not exceed the parameters the 353rd CTS has established, a unit can request anything from close air support and personnel recovery to traditional air-to-air and interdiction operations,” he said.

Each group gets its own plan, including details such as how many bombs they’ll drop, the aircraft they’ll bring and how many sorties they’ll fly daily.

The 353rd also handles the logistics of hosting as many as 1,200 participants for each exercise. On average, about 700 people and 60 aircraft deploy to Eielson with an additional 500 people and 40 aircraft at Elmendorf.

Government contractors on and off site work with the Air Force to develop increasingly realistic exercises. The push from the top “is for greater range and operability,” said Helen Foor, a civilian engineer with the 353rd’s technical support element. Ongoing technology improvements, such as new software in this year’s Northern Edge exercise, for example, mean “better and more live training support,” Foor said. Northern Edge evolved from the 1975 Jack Frost exercise sponsored by the Readiness Command. After the Joint Chiefs of Staff prohibited the nickname Jack Frost, the Air Force changed the name to Brim Frost after the 1979 exercises. In 1987, Brim Frost involved more than 24,000 active and reserve Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and Navy personnel and more than 143 Air Force aircraft, 130 Army aircraft and five major Coast Guard cutters. The final Brim Frost ran in 1989.

In 1991, the newly re-established Alaska Command replaced it with Arctic Warrior and transferred sponsorship from Forces Command to Pacific Command.

The first Northern Edge exercise, designed as an internal training event for headquarters and component headquarters employees, took place in 1993. But within five years, the exercise had swelled to include an airborne drop of 600 troops, maritime troops protecting a mock town, Apache helicopters supporting a brigade assault and more than 1,200 sorties assisting air operations.

Each year, the exercise grew. In 1999, the airborne jump occurred at night; in 2000, an unmanned aerial vehicle made its first appearance; in 2001, trained dolphins helped detect underwater intruders; an aircraft carrier and its support ships participated in 2002. The Iraq War made its presence felt in 2003, and the exercise focused on homeland defense scenarios. In 2004, exercises focused air-centric tactics and procedures with an emphasis on air-to-air, air-to-ground and personnel recovery operations in remote areas of PARC.

Since then, Northern Edge has focused on homeland defense and security operations in odd-numbered years and joint warfare operations in even-numbered years.

In 2005, the exercise was combined with the state’s Alaska Shield homeland security exercise comprising federal, state and local organizations in natural and man-made disaster and terrorist-related scenarios in an interagency environment.

Last year’s Alaska Shield/Northern Edge “was the largestresponse readiness exercise in the history of the state,” with 75 agencies participating, the Air Forcesaid. Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Bowers, Alaska Command plans and programs director, said that statewide, more than 5,000 federal, state and local government, military, National Guard and civilian first responders coordinated activities to thwart the attack and treat 150 simulated victims.

PARC’s bustling present almost didn’t happen. With the conversion of Cope Thunder to a Red Flag exercise and its move to PARC, the range and nearby Eielson Air Force Base were scheduled for upgrades. In August 2007, the “Eielson Air Force Base Infrastructure Development in Support of RED FLAG-Alaska Environmental Assessment” called for a PARC Electronic Modernization improvement project in addition to a renovation of existing facilities.

Although the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended reassigning most of Eielson’s aircraft and downshifting base operations, the commission reviewed its decision after the Air Force decided to make PARC home to RF-A and other training exercises. It instead emphasized Eielson’s proximity to PARC and strategic role as the United States’ most northern air defense site as critical components in maintaining Eielson’s mission.

Exercises at PARC are now in full swing. This year, for the first time, Northern Edge will for the first time use Trusted Computer Solutions’ SimShield Test and Training Enabling Architecture-compatible cross-domain solution for secure interoperable communications among live participants in addition to simulators and constructive computer systems that generate aircraft, vehicles, even entire armies.

And as this was written, the 353rd CTS was busy prepping for Red Flag exercises set to begin April 7. Approximately 1,700 people from the United States, Australia, Canada and Great Britain are expected to participate, the Air Force said in a statement.

Additional Red Flag exercises are set for June and October, with participants expected from Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Japan and Korea.

About the Author

Sam Lais is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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