JB ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON and EIELSON AFBs, Alaska
The temperature hovered in the mid-teens, and the skies were crystal blue as members of the Alaska Air National Guard’s 211th Rescue Squadron (RQS) prepared for a seven-hour round-trip flight beyond the Arctic Circle. Their mission, part of U.S. Northern Command’s biannual Arctic Edge exercise, was to drop an Arctic Sustainment Package, consisting of six Guardian Angel Airmen and a pallet of survival gear, onto an ice floe 200 miles off the northern coast of Alaska.
The U.S. Navy already had an encampment on the 10-foot-thick floating ice island as part of its Ice Exercise 2022 (ICEX), a concurrent joint force exercise. Dubbed Ice Camp Queenfish, it was home to some 60 Sailors and Arctic researchers for three weeks, complete with a 2,500-foot-long runway, eight berthing tents, a command center, restrooms, and a dining tent. Two submarines, the Los Angeles-class fast attack sub USS Pasadena and the Virginia-class fast attack sub USS Illinois practiced breaching the ice not far away.
What a lot of people who don’t operate in the Arctic realize is how dynamic it is. … So, just because you got in, doesn’t mean you are going to get out right away.
Commander, 212th RQS, Lt. Col. John Romspert
Weather changes rapidly in the region, and despite the near-perfect conditions at Elmendorf, members of the 211th Rescue Squadron faced potential whiteout conditions as they headed north. “It’s [going to be] white on white,” said Capt. Chris McKnight, the mission’s HC-130J pilot, just before the flight. “It’s like flying in a golf ball.”
Temperatures in Alaska can dip as low as minus 60 degrees, so when the rear ramp opens for the air drop, the temperature will be at least minus 20 degrees and probably colder. The aircraft will be flying at 130 knots—about 150 miles per hour—making it seem even colder. That’s a shock to anyone’s system. But to Capt. Miles Brodsky, a combat rescue officer with the Alaska ANG’s 212th Rescue Squadron and the flight commander for the mission, it’s something to behold: “It’s one of the most amazing experiences ever.”
“It’s like everything we train for coming up to that one moment,” Brodsky said. “It’s almost like everything goes in slow motion, and you can see every step forward, 10 steps at a time. It is the ultimate ‘being in the moment,’ I would say, because you’re just completely focused on executing this mission properly and getting out of the plane.”
The 212th has a unique mission. It is the only unit in the entire Department of Defense with an Arctic Sustainment Package capability—Canada is the only other country in the world that can execute this mission, said Lt. Col. John Romspert, commander of the 212th RQS. Created in 2010 after the Northwest Passage and Polar Ice Cap started melting, the baseline Arctic Sustainment Package is capable of treating 23 people in 96 hours in the harshest of conditions. Changing conditions in the region opened up Arctic exploration, eco-tourism, and expanded settlements up north, and that drove the need for an emergency response capability.
The “package” includes one combat rescue officer, one survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) specialist, and four pararescue jumpers (PJs). They jump with up to five modular pallets of survival gear—everything from vehicles to tents.
Despite the runway at Queenfish, the HC-130 did not land that day. The aircraft flew over the ice floe and dropped the pallets of arctic survival equipment, including tents, heaters, and fuel, onto the ice adjacent to the Navy’s camp. The objective: have the Guardian Angels jump as close to the pallet as possible, simulating a real-world mission in which the team is tasked with rescuing a downed pilot. Once on the ground, the SERE specialist will quickly set up the camp and keep an eye out for rapidly changing environmental conditions as the PJs treat any survivors. The combat rescue officer focuses on resupply and getting everyone safely home, Romspert said.
“What a lot of people who don’t operate in the Arctic realize is how dynamic it is,” he said. “It could be clear blue when you jump in, and 45 minutes later, you’re in a storm that lasts for 10 days at minus 60 degrees. So, just because you got in, doesn’t mean you’re going to get out right away. It takes a team effort and constant coordination to make sure that the operation is just running smoothly.”
Arctic Edge—the largest exercise to take place in Alaska—included 1,000 U.S. and Canadian military personnel from more than 35 units. This year’s exercise also included Danish observers. Several service-specific exercises took place concurrently in February and March, including the National Guard’s Arctic Eagle-Patriot, the U.S. Army’s Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Capability (JPMRC) exercise, and the Navy’s ICE-X.
Alaska is bigger than most people realize. If you superimposed a map of the state, in scale, over the lower 48, it would span from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Francisco—and there would not be any roads west of the Mississippi. The tyranny of distance and the lack of infrastructure here, in addition to the wild weather makes doing anything here complicated.
“By going all over the state, we were able to demonstrate that we can cover these facets as we work together,” said Lt. Gen. David A. Krumm, commander of Alaskan Command, U.S. Northern Command. “That was an important aspect of Arctic Edge.”
The exercise also demonstrated interoperability. “We were able to protect our homeland … to do all-domain operations on the sea, land, and in the air, using space and cyberspace,” Krumm said.
Arctic Edge tests the ability “to train, practice, and learn together in a very, very tough environment, where you can’t just exist on normal equipment, with normal clothing,” he added. “You have to have the right outfits, you have to have the right shelters, you have to have the right modifications to be able to function in the Arctic environment.”
It costs about $65,000 to equip just one Guardian Angel to safely operate in the Arctic. That covers things like base layers, socks, long underwear, mid layers, Gore-Tex, wet suits, parkas, sleeping bags, glacier glasses and goggles, gloves, heavy mittens, climbing harnesses, ropes, various types of boots, snow shoes, skis, and a helmet. Radios, tactical gear, and vehicles are extra.
Airmen here must learn to control their own body temperature. Too many layers makes you sweat, which could leave you wet enough to freeze later, leading to hypothermia. Not enough layers, and again, hypothermia could set in.
“We are constantly managing our own bodies in the situation, our own layers, just to exist in the environment,” Brodsky said. “We always have to be thinking ahead because if we’re staying in the evening, or a couple of nights, the environment becomes a huge factor. … It’s just a constant challenge … that’s why we train a lot.”
One of the goals of the concurrent exercises was to indoctrinate troops in the unusual and tough environment.
“You start with making sure the individual is ready, and once the individual is trained and equipped, then we move on to his or her equipment,” Krumm said. “What we know about this sort of environment is that if the individual isn’t ready, nothing else can happen.”
Army Patriot surface-to-air missile systems and short-range Avenger air defense systems faced the Alaska test for the first time. Those new twists were planned long before Russia launched its war in Ukraine and caused tensions to skyrocket around the globe. But putting ground-based air defense systems in Alaska shows a capability that hasn’t been seen before.
“Having air defense forces in Alaska in cold weather times proves that we can do it,” said Army Maj. Gen. Frank M. Rice, commander of the South Carolina National Guard’s 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command. “It sends a message to not only our adversaries but to our allies that we are willing and capable of defending the homeland.”
Patriot, which is actually an acronym short for Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept of Target, has seen its heaviest use in the U.S. Central Command area of operations, and Arctic Edge was its first test in extreme cold.
The Florida National Guard’s Avenger air defense system also figured into the exercise, tasked with defending a drop zone from cruise missiles about 40-minutes away from where the Patriots were set up. For Florida Soldiers, the entire operation was a shock: Some had never seen snow before, let alone experienced minus 30-degree temperatures. They had to take turns manning the equipment 24 hours a day.
“Being that this is such a different environment, such a rigid environment, the equipment has issues,” Rice said. “We’re looking at training issues—things that we have to do differently here than we would at home.”
One of the lessons learned: Everything takes longer in the Arctic. The Patriot needs a level, stable platform to operate, so planning ahead is important. The Army began rotating small groups of Soldiers to Alaska in 2018 to plan the defense design, Rice said, and with the ground frozen for so much of the year, the summer construction season is short and busy.
“All construction happens here in the two-and-a-half months of summer before the ground freezes again,” Rice said. To prepare for the exercise, Army North built a concrete pad, driving rods into the ground during the summer then placing a narrow 4-foot flagpole on top for snow plows to spot the rods once they were covered in snow.
It took 50 percent longer than normal to navigate Eielson’s icy roads and set up the Patriot MIM-104 air defense system on the new ice-covered concrete pad, said Capt. Robert Mock, commander of the Texas National Guard’s 5th Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, Alpha Battery, as he walked through the trench dug in waist-deep snow. The battery’s Soldiers dug the trench between the radar system and the launcher itself.
“As you train into an environment, you can get faster, but the first time you have to do it slow. There are slip-and-fall hazards everywhere,” Rice said. “It’s such a different environment from what we normally operate in that it takes some learning, and we’re making those gates.”
Mock said each fire unit can support up to eight launchers at a time, but the battery brought just a minimum engagement package of two launchers this time.
The Patriot fires a solid-fuel interceptor capable of destroying tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, or aircraft, with a range in excess of 60 miles, according to the Missile Defense Agency. Avenger is for shorter-range, low-altitude air defense, using a 50-caliber machine gun and two 360-degree rotating turrets with missile pods capable of holding up to four Stinger missiles.
Although China remains the pacing threat to U.S. interests globally, U.S. Northern Command boss USAF Gen. Glen D. VanHerck has said repeatedly that Russia is the primary threat to U.S. homeland today. In prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 24, VanHerck noted that both China and Russia are aggressively pursuing weapons that can strike the U.S. homeland, including new cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, as well as advanced offensive cyber and space capabilities.
Geographically, Alaska is closer to China and Russia than to Hawaii or the U.S. mainland.
In 2019, Russia designed the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle payload, and in the next few years it’s expected to field a new heavy-lift ICBM potentially capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, wrote VanHerck.
“Russia has fielded a new family of advanced air-, sea-, and ground-based cruise missiles to threaten critical civilian and military infrastructure,” he wrote. “The AS-23a air-launched cruise missile, for instance, features an extended range that enables Russian bombers flying well outside NORAD radar coverage—and in some cases from inside Russian airspace—to threaten targets throughout North America. This capability challenges my ability to detect an attack and mount an effective defense.”
Russia also has fielded two of nine Severodvinsk-class guided-missile submarines, “designed to deploy undetected within cruise missile range of our coastlines to threaten critical infrastructure during an escalating crisis,” wrote VanHerck. “This challenge will be compounded in the next few years as the Russian Navy adds the Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile to the Severodvinsk’s arsenal.
“All of the Russian cruise missile capabilities present a significant domain awareness challenge,” added VanHerck.
Under his leadership, NORTHCOM has been conducting a series of Global Information Dominance Experiments, or GIDE, aimed at giving senior leaders more “decision space” so they can deter, de-escalate, and ultimately defeat an adversary if necessary.
During Arctic Edge, commanders utilized NORAD and NORTHCOM’s project NorthStar to improve domain awareness. The system, part of the fourth GIDE experiment, integrates multiple warfighting domains, providing real-time force posture and eliminating the need for “exhaustive manual reporting procedures,” according to a command spokesperson. It includes “data related to the health, readiness, and maintenance status of warfighting units.”
“We used the integration of NorthStar to build a common operating picture in which all of our units participating fed into,” Krumm said. “It’s the first time that we had that, so we used technology to do status reporting, to understand the operations that were ongoing and what the needs were on the ground, and what all was happening. … We also are looking at technologies in the future for all-domain awareness. General VanHerck has been very clear that we need to look at some of the newer technologies to do all-domain awareness from the C4 up to space. I think those will be a continuous effort to get those up here and working.”
Arctic Edge will continue to evolve, becoming larger and more integrated in future iterations, said Krumm. “We need to. We need to be able to work together in this very, very tough environment and make sure that our homeland is always protected.”