EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska - Throughout Alaska’s vast expanse, innovation and readiness were put to the test during the much-anticipated Northern Edge 2023 field training exercise. From May 4 to 19, the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Command Test Center (AATC) conducted field testing to develop and evaluate modernization efforts for the Air Reserve Component.
Northern Edge is a chance for AATC to participate in a joint environment and support global operations while performing AATC-specific testing for suitability and fielding.
“Essentially, what we’re doing is bringing new technology specifically from the Guard and the Reserve to the fight,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Nations, an F-16 pilot with AATC and the director of operations for Operating Location-Alpha during the exercise. “And we’re trying to take some of the most advanced stuff that we can put on the F-16, on the A-10, on the KC-135, and make those platforms relevant in modern warfare.”
One such test, a prototype known as Menace, provides a secure computing environment for Agile Combat Employment operations, with line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight communication capabilities. AATC engineers are working to improve the system to enable seamless mission planning and facilitate the control of aircraft operations from any deployed location.
Another innovation, an electronic warfare (EW) countermeasure system known as “Angry Kitten,” was tested for its effectiveness jamming simulated enemy systems. Housed in removable, adaptable pods under aircraft wings or fuselages, it uses machine learning to disrupt adversarial EW capabilities. During the exercise, AATC tested the angry kitten technology on F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10A Thunderbolt II aircraft.
AATC also tested the Tanker Intelligent Gateway, a vital link between tactical data systems, enabling real-time decision-making. This can be permanently installed or used as a roll-on, roll-off system on any Mobility Air Force aircraft. AATC tested the system on a KC-135R Stratotanker from the Utah Air National Guard’s 151st Air Refueling Wing.
Lastly, an upgrade to the MQ-9 Reaper, a remotely piloted aircraft primarily used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, demonstrated enhanced satellite communication capabilities for real-time intelligence gathering. This upgrade improves the unmanned aerial vehicle’s ability to relay critical information swiftly, providing commanders with crucial situational awareness on the battlefield.
AATC’s commitment to implementing cutting-edge solutions like these falls directly in line with one of the chief of the National Guard Bureau’s most pressing concerns: modernization of the force.
Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson recently told hundreds of Guardsmen and Reservists during the 2022 ARC Weapons and Tactics Conference that modernization is a central priority for the Joint Force to preserve its competitive edge.
While modernization takes time and resources, innovation and improvements to existing weapons systems and equipment can help fill the gap, he said.
According to Nations, that’s where AATC excels.
“One of the cool things that AATC does is keeps our force modern,” he said. “By adding all the latest and greatest to what some consider legacy platforms — F-16s and A-10s — we’re able to keep them in the fight, make sure they’re survivable, and make sure they’re lethal.”
The test center facilitates the rapid procurement, testing, and development of existing technologies, enabling the ARC to address emerging threats effectively.
And by adhering to the 80/20 model, an approach that delivers 80% of the desired solution at just 20% of the cost and time, they can do so efficiently, said Nations.
AATC leverages commercial off-the-shelf solutions and adapts them for fourth-generation aircraft, thereby expanding the relevancy of those aircraft in the modern warfighter and solving problems without using taxpayer money, he said.
While the majority of AATC’s operations took place at Eielson Air Force Base, NE23-1 consisted of thousands of personnel operating out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson as well as several Alaska training ranges, including the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex and Gulf of Alaska.
Participants included U.S. Active-Duty, Reserve and National Guard component Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, Department of Defense civil servants and contractors. Members of the Australian and British armed forces also joined the exercise.
NE23-1 is held every odd year and focuses on Joint Task Force tactical and operational requirements and modernization initiatives, reassuring allies and partners that the United States is committed to maintaining regional stability and will respond to crises/contingencies as needed.