Northern Edge military exercise takes to Alaska’s sea, air and land

Fighter jets participating in the Northern Edge 2017 joint military training exercise on the flight line Tuesday, May 2, 2017 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

The massive training exercise called Northern Edge is back in Alaska.

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It’s the largest military training exercise in the state this year, with more than a week of practice between the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Army and National Guard that involves thousands of personnel and hundreds of pieces of equipment.

Military officials say the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex is one of a kind for the training they need to do. They also defended the exercise against criticism that it is harmful to marine mammals and fishing in the Gulf of Alaska.

One after the other on Tuesday, fighter jets like the F-22 Raptors stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson took to the sky around Anchorage to fight imaginary enemies.

Only, the enemies aren’t exactly imaginary: Another team of U.S. fighter jets — F-16s on the Red Squad — were lurking out there somewhere after having launched from Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. They’ll be working along with their own support crews, and even a team of cyber operatives trying to hack the good guys, to help improve war-fighting skills that may be needed in the real world.

“We need to train the way we fight,” Col. Christopher Niemi said. He’s commander of the 3rd Wing at JBER. “What’s unique is that Alaska offers us the opportunity to put this many aircraft together in both overland and over water airspace. “You might see a lot of aircraft taking off or arriving at JBER or up there at Eielson Air Force Base, but you’re not going to hear much or see much after that. We’re operating in areas that are overland or over water where there’s not a lot of people. So we look very closely at that, not just the people, but the marine mammals and other people in that environment, and we’re pretty confident we’re not having a significant adverse impact, but we’re very sensitive to that.”

The Summer is for Salmon coalition disagrees with that. Numerous fishing communities in Coastal Alaska passed resolutions asking that Northern Edge be rescheduled for a different time of year, maybe when it has less potential impact for salmon fishing and marine mammal migration. Last month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski penned a letter to military commanders asking that the exercise be held in the fall when it comes back to Alaska in 2019.

Lt. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, the senior military officer in Alaska, said this is how he makes the case for this exercise when asked by people concerned about fishing or marine mammals: “With science.”

For example, Wilsbach said, the military has researched the sonar they use in Northern Edge and they say it does not affect most of the fish species in question, and the exercise has little to no impact on marine mammals.

“I know that some people feel that there is impact, but when we go to the people that are smartest about the science of the activity, and we’re very confident that they are correct, we’re not having an impact on those species,” Wilsbach said. “I’ll tell you what I think (Alaska residents) should be thinking about is, they should be hearing the sound of freedom and proud of their service members that are training so that they’re as proficient as they can be, so if they are ever asked to do their mission, they’re ready.”

As for the impact at JBER and Eielson, it means the bases are playing host to thousands more personnel that usual.

JBER commander Col. Dutch Dietrich said that to accommodate them, the hosts have filled nearly every lodging facility they have and are keeping dining facilities open for longer hours.

“So its almost like a whole other installation being laid down on top of this one,” Dietrich said. “I’m jazzed every morning to drive to work and see all those tails on the flight line and see them take off and practice their thing.”

Northern Edge 2017 continues until May 12.