Normally, the sound of an explosion is cause for alarm, but that's wasn't the case during the Polar Force 19 exercise on Alaska's Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Wearing combat gear, chemical protection suits and masks, airmen in the Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Wing evaluated their ability to successfully execute missions in hostile conditions. The exercise simulated a contaminated environment under attack by chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons. 

"So what we're doing is we're creating a scenario; for this one we use the chemical sarin, it's a nerve agent," said Master Sgt. Nina Kolyvanova with the Alaska Air National Guard's 176th civil engineer squadron. "We contaminated the area and then we made sure that our airmen know how to properly wear their [protective gear] and then how to properly operate with contaminated objects and still push out the airplane. Then, conduct appropriate [decontamination] procedures to keep everybody in the shelter safe and themselves safe."

The exercise began with the sound of an explosion, then airmen were given signal to leave the hangar and inspect the area for chemicals, unexploded weapons and chemical warfare residue. 

"Everybody in the wing will know where the hazards are, what the hazards are so they don't stumble on a UXO or walk through a plume," Master Sgt. Kolyvanova said.

Pilots of C-17s use the same information to know where to land within a contaminated area. Once on the ground and in a safe location, the ground crew, loadmasters and pilots take every precaution to protect themselves before leaving the aircraft and venturing into the hazardous area. Pilots placed large, clear plastic bags over their helmets, pulling them down to their feet. 

"The bags are in case the agent is still falling out of the sky, a mist coming down from a missile or some other type of attack," C-17 pilot Major Scott Owen with the Alaska Air National Guard's 144th Airlift Squadron said. "Once they go out of the aircraft, they could get that on them."

Once inside the hangar, the airmen go through an extensive decontamination process.

"The final piece of the puzzle is what we call the 'hot wash,'" Major John Callahan, Chief of Public Affairs for the Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Wing, said. "Where we go back and look very carefully at what we did during the exercise to identify not only what we did well, but areas that we can improve on in the future."

Polar Force 19 was a two-week, base-wide training exercise designed to test JBER's mission readiness, according to a statement from the Alaska National Guard. 

It was implemented in two phases: Phase one tested the 176 Wing's ability to pack up squadrons and aircraft to deploy to another location. Phase two assessed the airmen's ability to operate and execute missions in a hostile deployed environment. 

The simulation was different that the style of exercise the military has conducted in recent years.

"For the last 16 or 17 years, the focus of the United States military has primarily been on anti-insurgency, anti-insurgent warfare," Major Callahan said. "In recent years that shifted a little bit, the military is more focused on what we call peer or near-peer conflicts. And so, with Polar Force 19, we're going back to a little bit of an older style of exercise. We haven't done this style of exercise in a while, but from here on out we expect it to be done roughly once a year."

Callahan said everything the Air National Guard does revolves around readiness.

The 176th Wing's commander said in a statement Tuesday that tests like Polar Force 19 keep them on top of their game.

“Deploying a military force is a complex operation — many moving parts have to come together seamlessly at the same time,” said Brig. Gen. Darrin Slaten. “That’s why these types of exercises are so valuable: They help ensure that the Alaska Air National Guard can deploy, on very short notice, a powerful force capable of delivering overwhelming combat power in support of U.S. interests anywhere in the Pacific theater.”

The exercise began on March 25 and residents in the area might have heard increased noise and seen more traffic in the sky. Polar Force 19 concluded April 5. 

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