Northern Edge 2017 is underway around Alaska. More than 150 military planes are taking part, flying from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks.

Commanders say this exercise is the closest thing to real that combat pilots can experience while still training, in part due to the size of the arena at the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (J-PARC).

“We have a great opportunity because of the size of the range space– the size of Florida– to train and maximize our assets, because of the space and because of the freedom of maneuver that large space allows,” said Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach, Commander of the 11th Air Force, Alaska NORAD and Alaskan Command.

“We can replicate the environment that we think we would face in a high-end scenario,” said Col. Christopher Niemi, 3rd Wing Commander. “It makes our pilots and our maintainers and our operators better because we have the opportunity to expose them to that environment so they can get experience and they’ll be better prepared.”

The training scenario is blue versus red, with fourth-generation fighters like F15s squaring off against fifth-generation F22s– and for the first time at Northern Edge, F35s.

“When you’re dealing with something that’s completely new and as complex as the F35, despite our best efforts, there’s going to be some surprises and we’re going to learn some things,” said Niemi.

The pilots don’t just have the other planes to worry about. The exercise also brings in challenges like surface to air missiles and cyber hacking.

“Those capabilities are being utilized, and, of course, we’re all learning what the F35 can do– including those crews– so, it’s a great benefit to see how all of it comes together– Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, over land, over water, and so there’s a tremendous benefit at the end of this exercise,” said Wilsbach.

The exercise is a preview of what’s to come for Alaska. Two F35 squadrons are planned for Eielson, arriving in 2020.

The size of Northern Edge is also a challenge for JBER leadership, who have to house personnel and equipment.

“We’ve got over 2000 visitors here participating in this exercise. We managed to find on-base lodging for about 1100 of them. The other 900 plus are downtown, contributing to the local economy,” said Col. George Dietrich, Commander of JBER and the 673rd Air Base Wing. “It’s a team effort to support an exercise this big.”

The current national security climate is giving this exercise a sense of urgency.

“Here at JBER, we’re always going to be ready to respond to any real-world event and we’ve had some recent real-world examples of that response,” said Dietrich, referring to the recent close contact with Russian Bear Bombers.

There is a naval component to Northern Edge. The Navy is conducting operations in the Gulf of Alaska. That part of the exercise has been controversial, with coastal communities and environmental groups concerned over the effect the training will have on fish and marine mammals.

Northern Edge, which runs through May 12, is the first of three big exercises planned this summer in Alaska. There are also two Red Flag events scheduled.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect title Lt. Col. Ken Wilsbach. It has been amended. 

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