Eielson AFB, AK -- The biannual exercise increases combat effectiveness among the various U.S. aircraft in conventional warfare. This is in contrast to years of missions flown in support of counterinsurgency and counter terrorism efforts by the 174th, based at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, N.Y.
“The purpose of the exercise is to shift from lower intensity conflict to great power competition,” said Lt. Col. Keith Walker, the deputy commander for the 174th Operations Group.
Northern Edge allowed members to work with other service branches to integrate the many different airframes to establish a common view of the aerial battlefield for commanders.
“We would all be speaking the same language and using the same equipment,” Walker said. “The exercise also makes the MQ-9 relevant for other combatant command taskings.”
Other aircraft participating in the exercise included the F-15EX Strike Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-35 Lightning II, B-52 Stratofortress and U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.
The 174th utilized the training exercise as an opportunity to demonstrate the MQ-9 effectiveness across the entire range of military operations, Walker explained.
Aircrews from the wing were also able to employ new technologies during that improve the MQ-9’s communications and targeting capabilities, he said. They launched unmanned aircraft into the arctic skies to test three new externally mounted pods, each providing new capabilities to the warfight.
The pods provide upgrades to the MQ-9 mission capabilities under an Air National Guard program known as the Ghost Reaper. The integration of the pods, under contract with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, works to integrate the MQ-9 in the Joint All-Domain Command and Control system in a contested battlefield.
This allows aircraft from each branch to be on a cloud-like environment, where traditionally each branch is on its own network. The goal is for the joint force to share intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data to enable faster and better decision making.
Each pod tested with the 174th Attack Wing provides a unique capability.
Northrop Grumman’s Freedom Pod houses a communications gateway system that connects fourth and fifth generation fighters, integrating multiple generations of aircraft in the battlespace.
A Rosetta Echo Advanced Payloads pod, made by Ultra Electronics Inc., improves targeting with improved connections to ground systems.
The third pod, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ own Centerline Avionics Bay, employs artificial intelligence and hardware expanding capabilities not originally built into the MQ-9 airframe.
The Northern Edge exercise gave the 174th an opportunity to practice integrating the MQ-9s in operations with the manned aircraft, said Lt. Col Brett Batick, the 174th Maintenance Group deputy commander.
“All the mission aircraft can meet in the skies of Alaska and the whole state becomes a training range,” Batick said.
On the ground at Eielson Air Force Base, Airmen continued their traditional roles of launching, recovering and maintaining the Reaper aircraft to support the fast pace of high intensity flight operations.
“My job is to recover and launch aircraft,” said Airman 1st Class Micah Gilbert, a crew chief in the 174th Maintenance Group. “We inspect the MQ-9 to make sure it’s ready for the next flight.”
“I’ve learned how fast paced this job can get,” said Airman 1st Class Sean McMahon, another crew chief for the 174th Maintenance Group. “It’s been constant work, but being able to see all the different aircraft and every unit working together makes it worth it.”
Being part of Northern Edge really tested the wing’s tactics, techniques and procedures, Batick explained.
“For us to be able to exercise like this, it is going to help our wing and help the MQ-9 community to give further capabilities in the pure adversary fight we are pivoting towards,” he said.
“This prepares me for real world experiences,” Gilbert said. “I’m gaining a lot of experience and learning a lot.”