At the US's northernmost point, the Air Force is training to see — and strike — in tough Arctic conditions

  • During Exercise Polar Quake in January, US airmen trained to relay information from Alaska's northern coast.

  • The exercise, held for the first time, tested airmen's ability to overcome the environment and potential adversaries.

  • It comes as the US military focuses resources on the Arctic, which is becoming more accessible to friends and foes.

In January, US airmen deployed to northern Alaska to improve their ability gather battlefield information and, if necessary, conduct airstrikes in the tough Arctic environment.

Polar Quake, a "proof-of-concept" exercise held for the first time, comes as the US military focuses more on the Arctic, which climate change is making more accessible to friends and foes.

For several days in mid-January, tactical air-control party airmen, pararescuemen, and communications specialists deployed near Utqiagvik, the US's northernmost town, and Point Barrow, the US's northernmost point, to set up a network with which to "find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess" in the Arctic.

Each day, precision strike teams left a tactical operations center in Utqiagvik and moved along the coast and over sea ice by foot and by vehicle. Upon reaching pre-determined points, they set up tactical command-and-control nodes with high-frequency communications equipment.

An aerial view of the arctic ice from above Barrow, Alaska. Officials have sought to protect Barrow, which is fewer than 15 feet above sea level, by moving municipal buildings and lining the coast with berms and sandbags.
Arctic ice off the coast of Utqiagvik, June 15, 2015.David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe / Getty

Using that equipment, the teams demonstrated that they could send information back to the tactical operations center, which then relayed the information to the air operations center at Joint Base Hickam-Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, more than 3,000 miles away.

"This exercise challenged our command-and-control function, which is something that hasn't been as commonly requested in recent conflicts and may have been a capability forgotten by some," said Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Jenn, senior enlisted leader with the 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron.

Jenn said the training also demonstrated the squadron's skills with agile combat employment, which is designed to disperse Air Force units and make them harder to target, in the Arctic by testing their ability to provide fire support from any aircraft, artillery or mortar platform, or naval surface vessel.

The airmen also used "various additional items" to test "new capabilities and sensors" to gather data about the battlefield and quickly relay it to commanders, said squadron flight chief Master Sgt. Willard Bruce.

"The big thing we're trying to do is create the smallest footprint possible so we're hard to detect and jam," said Staff Sgt. Trenten Collins, a squadron strike team supervisor.

While tactical air-control party airmen are associated with airstrikes, "we can also go out, push forward, and collect intel on anything we need to because we already have the communications infrastructure," Collins said.

Air Force Arctic Alaska drill
Airmen set up remote command-and-control nodes during Exercise Polar Quake near the Arctic Ocean, January 13, 2022.US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais

The Air Force has the military's largest Arctic presence, overseeing nearly 80% of Pentagon resources there, and it is expanding its footprint in the state, as is the Army.

While Polar Quake involved drills elsewhere in Alaska, including airborne operations at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, activity around Utqiaġvik was "largely about overcoming the challenges of operating at high latitudes," said Marisol Maddox, a senior Arctic analyst with the Polar Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank.

"You see reflected in this exercise the way the military is seeking to counter modern warfare tools from numerous domains, including electronic-warfare tactics, which Russia frequently tests in the Arctic, as well as a large increase in the use of sensors to gain all-domain awareness," Maddox said.

Russia's military has expanded its Arctic presence and operations — including more frequent flights around Alaska — which has worried the US and its allies. Norway accused Russia of interfering with GPS signals during a major NATO exercise in that country in 2018.

NATO militaries have increased their own Arctic activity. In March 2021, US and Norwegian troops trained with US bombers to conduct close air support in the Norwegian Arctic.

The Arctic is still seen as an area of low tension where conflict is unlikely, "but increasing domain awareness to detect a threat as quickly as possible, plus well-developed response capability, are deterrents against any potential adversary and are important to homeland defense," Maddox said.

Air Force airman parachute Alaska
An Air Force tactical air control party specialist recovers his parachute during Exercise Polar Quake at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, January 12, 2022.US Air Force/Alejandro Peña

The Arctic's environmental conditions and geography are both challenges to military operations, especially on Alaska's remote North Slope, where infrastructure and other resources are lacking.

High-frequency radio communications in particular face interference from the ionosphere, which is very sensitive to activity in space, Maddox said. "Small solar disturbances that wouldn't be as consequential in mid- and low-latitudes are disruptive to high-frequency radio communications in the polar regions because of the electromagnetic radiation."

Airmen are used to extreme cold in Alaska, which is home to the service's Arctic Survival School, but those near Utqiagvik took special measures for the harsh conditions there, carrying extra gear in case the weather changed and performing "buddy checks" every 10 to 30 minutes, Collins said.

The exercise was conducted near Utqiagvik in part to determine what additional equipment is needed. The area's sub-zero temperatures and isolation "created the perfect natural environment to simulate accurate scenarios," an Air Force spokesman said. Those temperatures "make the simplest tasks more challenging, which can drastically alter how a mission is accomplished."

Airmen at Polar Quake also relied on Utqiagvik residents to keep watch for polar bears, which have interrupted exercises there in the past.

"To be able to come in here and establish our communications and bring in our unique sensing capabilities, having the bear guards here and all of the advice of the local residents was super beneficial. That's a relationship that should definitely be sustained," Bruce said.

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