Synchronised, Symbiotic and Synergistic

Mark Ayton reports from Alaska on Northern Edge 2017, the most complex and robust exercise staged to date


Northrop Grumman’s airborne laboratory, BAC 111 N162W, flew daily missions from Elmendorf.
All photos Mark Ayton unless noted

Readers who have visited Alaska may well recall the vastness and beauty of America’s 49th state. Travel in any direction from Anchorage, the largest city, and you’ll enjoy wilderness on an unprecedented scale. Bald eagles, America’s national bird, are plentiful, conspicuous and beautiful to watch as they soar over town and wilderness alike. Watching a pair of boisterous juvenile eagles at the harbour in the city of Seward, the author reflected whether the McDonnell Douglas designers responsible for the F-15 fighter aircraft had paid any attention to the bald eagle, particularly its aerodynamics and speed. Similarly, had the US Air Force likened the bald eagle’s prowess to the F-15’s capabilities when it selected Eagle as the name for the F-15? One would like to think so. For two weeks in May, Alaska once again became home to US Air Force F-15C Eagles, a type permanently based there until September 2010. The venue was Elmendorf Air Force Base (officially Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, but far two awkward to read) in Anchorage. The event was Exercise Northern Edge 2017, Pacific Command’s biennial large force exercise which includes significant experimentation.

This year’s event, like earlier iterations, was no ordinary exercise, 163 aircraft from the US Air Force, US Navy, US Marine Corps, US Coast Guard and defence contractors from across the nation converged on two primary locations, Elmendorf and Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. Participating aircraft ranged from a 1944 Douglas DC-3 to 2015 model F-35B Lightning IIs, the latter on the type’s first visit to Northern Edge.

Complex Vuls

Flight operations from both bases were geared to covering two vul periods each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The morning vul involved the largest number of aircraft, and was conducted in the Joint Pacific Air Range Complex (JPARC), an overland range located south of Eielson. The afternoon vul involved fewer aircraft, but three, rather than one, sectors of airspace, including the Gulf of Alaska, each facilitating a smaller fight. Morning or afternoon, each vul period ran an A2AD mission set (see later). Those staged in the maritime realm involved US Navy Arleigh-Burke-class destroyers USS Hopper (DDG 70) and USS O’Kane (DDG 77), a US Coast Guard cutter and commercial fishing vessels contracted by Alaska Command to role play as adversary threats.

In his 2010 paper titled Anti-Access/Area Denial: The Evolution of Modern Warfare, Major Christopher McCarthy, an F-15C pilot and a Distinguished Graduate of the United States Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, cited the following details.

In 2003, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments defined anti-access as: ‘enemy actions which inhibit military movement into a theater of operations, and area-denial operations as activities that seek to deny freedom of action within areas under the enemy’s control’.

Major Christopher McCarthy also cited China as a regional power with robust Anti- Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities. Chinese anti-access capacity includes a large ballistic missile force designed to attack key point targets, such as air bases and naval facilities. Chinese area denial capabilities consist of advanced counter-maritime and counter-air systems designed to destroy critical mobile assets, such as surface ships and aircraft. A2AD also extends into the space and cyber domains that support US operations, and is specifically designed to disrupt US power projection. Furthermore, Chinese A2AD is particularly well suited for use against US forces in the event of a confrontation over the defence of Taiwan.

During Northern Edge, air operations were planned by two mission planning cells (MPCs), the primary one at Elmendorf and a second at Eielson. Two weapons officers, graduates from the US Air Force Weapons School based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, one each from the F-16 and E-3 Sentry Divisions, led the MPC at Elmendorf.


According to Lt Col Brian Baldwin, Northern Edge senior mission director and Pacific Air Forces exercise lead planner, the MPC leaders determined objectives for each vul and created a plan to deal with the scenario given by the intelligence summary issued by the White Force: “Details of the plan were then briefed to audiences at Elmendorf and Eielson via video teleconference. Aircrew tasked with the same mission set would then conduct a top-off briefing and then fly.”

Each sector of airspace used for the afternoon vul had its own MPC; they were, for the most part, located at Elmendorf, and each sector was typically used for a specific mission based on the size of airspace available to meet the mission requirements. Most flying in the JPARC was focused on electronic warfare in the A2AD realm and the development of tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) for that threat. As mentioned earlier, flying in airspace over the Gulf of Alaska was dedicated to different maritime-centric missions.

All vul periods were tightly controlled to ease the aircraft recovery cycle back to Elmendorf, which is located just a few miles to the east of Anchorage International Airport, a top five cargo airport in the world operating a constant arrival and departure schedule of freighter aircraft.

Lt Col Baldwin said: “The morning vul periods were planned to be two hours long. That gave us adequate time to space our recoveries, but still have the right type of challenge and coverage of the problem. The afternoon vuls were a little bit more variable, generally 30 to 60 minutes long. They were all staggered, so we could launch aircraft for one sector of airspace, recover from another and never have air traffic conflicts coming back to the Anchorage area from three different directions.”


During the two-weeks of Northern Edge PACOM sponsored and staged 26 experiments divided into seven areas; fires, navy surface, datalinks, electronic warfare, fifth to fourth-generation enhancements, LVC (Live, Virtual and Constructive) training and C2ISR (Command and Control, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance).

Experimentation was one of the primary drivers for the exercise, many involving contractor aircraft ranging from Cessna 208 Caravans, a Falcon 20, Gulfstream I, Gulfstream III and a BAC 111. Other experiments involved military aircraft such as a U-2S supporting DARPA’s Project Hunter, and F-15Cs equipped with the Talon Hate system (see later).

That’s easy to list, but in reality required lots of coordination in the months leading up to the exercise about when and where each platform and each experiment needed to take place. Lt Col Baldwin said if his team needed to shape the mission objective, the lanes or the geographic boundaries used to accommodate an experiment it would do so where it could without impinging on the method of training or the development of TTPs, and do so in way that maximised the amount of data gathered on the range: “We put them on the schedule, made sure they were de-conflicted by time; some contractors had issues with taking off with cables on the runway, for instance. Otherwise it’s down to getting them involved in the mission. Ideally, each experiment would have a representative available to the MPC to help de-conflict where its platform was going to be, whether blocked to an altitude or kept in a certain area to remain out of the way.

“We got them involved in the briefing to the maximum extent possible, but for the most part much of the experimentation work was somewhat transparent to the training audience. Datalink experiments, working on different gateways to expand our datalink capabilities and make them more robust, became a little more apparent to the training audience. Those experiments heavily involved with electronic warfare were less transparent. Then there were a few that involved silent players gathering electromagnetic emissions for follow-on purposes.”

For the White Force planners, integrating experiments into a robust Blue versus Red air war was a balancing act.

One of the joint electronic warfare organisations aligned under US Strategic Command’s operations directorate called Joint Electromagnetic Preparedness for Advanced Combat (JEPAC) also had input and representation to Northern Edge 2017. JEPAC partners with the US armed services and combatant commands to identify, support and conduct assessments of joint operational testing and evaluation of electromagnetic spectrum-dependent capabilities, and develop TTPs to counter the effects of advanced electronic attack waveforms.

Two of its many tasks were at the core of exercise objectives: specifically, operationally representative electronic warfare training requirements and capabilities and improved electronic warfare modelling and simulation. It’s of no surprise that JEPAC sponsored experiments primarily in electronic warfare and provided a Red Force czar who was responsible for orchestrating the Red Force assets assembled at Eielson, which included F-16Cs flown by the 18th Aggressor Squadron, Learjets operated by L3’s Flight International providing jamming, and surface-to-air systems located out on the range.

1 Northrop Grumman’s airborne laboratory has a highly-modified nose radome housing an APG-81 advanced electronically scanned array radar. The chinmounted assembly is part of the AAQ-37 distributed aperture system. Both systems are integrated on the 1966 British jet to enable flight-test support to the F-35 Lightning II programme. 2 Phoenix Air’s Gulfstream I N192PA was based at Eielson Air Force Base during Northern Edge and was likely to have been used to provide threat presentations for the Red air force.


Lt Col Baldwin said the experiments and contractor aircraft involved were used to increase the threat level presented to Blue Air: “Getting them [Blue Air aircrew] out of their comfort zone faced with a very aggressive and advanced threat presentation was a training objective, but never to the point where combat-coded aircrew deployed to the exercise to receive training were being asked to fly a series of manoeuvres so an experiment could gather data.”

Among the fighter squadrons at Northern Edge 2017, those operating fourth-generation aircraft took turns in flying with Red Air: approximately 20% at Elmendorf and 60% at Eielson. At the end of some vuls, the White Force would request fifth-generation aircraft to give a presentation for the Blue side to provide exposure to the capabilities and to gather data.

Generation Integration

This year’s exercise was the first time that many of the participants had operated with the F-35 Lightning II; Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) based at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan deployed eight F-35Bs to Elmendorf making the type’s debut in Northern Edge. It’s fair to say that those units with F-35 time had not operated with the fifth-generation fighter in the middle of a robust A2AD environment.

Lt Col Baldwin opined that fourth to fifth-generation training at this point is a known thing, especially throughout PACOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) working with F-22 Raptors: “I think the new wrinkle was integrating the F-35 and seeing where it can fit into the mix with fourth-generation aircraft, and to some extent fifth to fifth-generation integration between Raptors and F-35s working in a symbiotic way to maximise each platform’s capabilities.”

Maritime Component

Within PACOM’s set of wartime mission sets is to advance the ability to project power in the maritime domain, using Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft, including bombers, tactical aircraft and ISR systems to find adversary threats and prosecute attacks with joint operations.

Lt Col Baldwin said the White Force executed joint war-at-sea missions to develop TTPs further. USS Hopper and USS O’Kane conducted their own drill-specific events and connected in to the US Navy, 11th Air Force and Alaska Command networks and with Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft involved.

According to Lt Cdr Karl Sander, Northern Edge lead planner, the two destroyers had lots of time outside of the afternoon vul to conduct surface warfare training: “This included live fires, helicopter deck landing qualifications for MH-60T Jayhawk crews based at Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak and UH-60 Blackhawks and HH-60G Pave Hawks from the Alaska National Guard and Air National Guard. The destroyers were accompanied by a supply ship to complete the Blue Force. The Red Force comprised a US Coast Guard patrol boat and five fishing vessels contracted by Alaskan Command to provide an opposition force to the ships and aircraft.

Discussing the air operations over the Gulf of Alaska Lt Col Baldwin said: “The F-35s, F-22s, Super Hornets, Hornets, F-15Cs and F-15Es all flew Blue Air missions against opposing air and maritime threats. Northern Edge 2017 was the first time the F-35 had participated in such a complex and robust exercise in both the maritime environment. They conducted work with the ISR platforms, using their sensors to the maximum and develop and practise TTPs in air-to-surface maritime strikes.”

Ground Component

In each afternoon vul, Blue Air flew missions dedicated to close air support training for the ground elements on the ranges. US Army troops and Marines staged a joint force entry on the range, which developed into live fire by small arms and manoeuvre elements. On some days, Marines established deconfliction for and integrated the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and took live shots on the range in and around the vuls.

Blue Air dropped inert munitions during air interdiction against heavily defended target sets in keeping with the A2AD realm. Cargo drops were also flown and, like the munition drops, were all integrated in the plan issued by the MPC, and with all safety aspects taken in to consideration pushed the TTP envelope forward. A total of 56,209lb (25,500kg) of munitions and cargo was dropped during the two-week exercise.

3 Flight International’s Learjet 36 N12FN loaded with two ALQ-167 electronic countermeasures threat simulation pods. During Northern Edge Flight International flew daily missions in support of the Red air force using the pods as part of the robust threat laydown presented to the Blue air force. 4 An EP-3E Aries II multi- Intelligence reconnaissance aircraft flew daily missions in support of the overland and maritime components of the exercise. The aircraft is equipped to exploit a wide range of electronic emissions which is fused by the crew with data received from other assets and disseminated as collaborated information for a variety of roles including battle space situational awareness and suppression of enemy air defences.


A View from DC

Northern Edge is an exercise for US PACOM. PACOM needs to be ready if tonight is the night North Korea makes its move. PACOM also has to be ready to respond to a wide range of contingencies throughout its vast AOR. Northern Edge 2017 reflected these requirements. It was a multidomain exercise. Warships participating included two guided missile destroyers, equipped with the Aegis air and missile defence system. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Driskill said: “Northern Edge gives us the opportunity to really practise the tactics, techniques and procedures that we would need in order to fight in such a vast Pacific Ocean theatre.”

As a combatant command, PACOM is not set up to develop or test new aircraft, capabilities or weapons, but bringing together forces for Northern Edge to exercise under realistic conditions provides an unmatched opportunity for testing and experimentation.

Integrating experimentation into an exercise is challenging. Commanders want the exercise to train forces in scenarios that replicate what will need to be done should war break out tomorrow. Scientists and engineers want to collect data on how well a system works or networks to other systems. The commanders are spending operations and maintenance dollars. The experimenter is spending test and evaluation dollars. Industry, when it participates in Northern Edge, often ends up paying out of its own pocket for its systems and testbed aircraft to take part, using independent research and development dollars. Woe betide anyone who even thinks of mixing up different types of money.

Despite this, over the years Northern Edge has successfully brought together the armed services, scientists and engineers. In 2015, 18 major experiments were incorporated in the exercise. This year, while the size of the exercise was reduced, there were 26 experiments and simulations addressing PACOM’s priority capability shortfalls. This includes areas such as fifth-generation fighter connectivity, electronic warfare, unmanned vehicles and operational networks. In addition, emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomous operation that have the potential to be valuable in the future also played a role.

A New Age of Experiment?

Department of Defense and service organisations, some recently formed, are investing in experimentation. The Department of Defense Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) was formed in 2012, emerging from the black world of classified programmes. A Department of Defense Electronic Warfare Executive Committee was formed in 2015. The Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, a new directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory, was formed in May 2016.

All of these organisations share a mission of increasing US capabilities against potential peer competitors after years of focusing on counterinsurgency warfare. Because of the combined impact of rapidly changing technology, emerging threats and constrained resources in the wake of the Great Recession, there is not enough time and money to develop and field responses in the usual way. At a briefing in Washington DC on June 22, Dr Bill Conley, Deputy Director for Electronic Warfare for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said: “If we stick to traditional processes, we will not be as innovative as we should. This increases the value of experimentation. Opportunities such as Northern Edge have the potential to provide an answer to two linked needs, to make sure we have enough training opportunities and enough testing data to have a required level of confidence without going broke or testing too long.”

US Air Force efforts to reinvigorate their culture and capability for experimentation include the current observation attack experiment. Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson said in Washington on June 5: “We want to see what the experiment tells us about another way of getting capability from the lab to the warfighter faster. [Current experiments represent] trying to learn things in a way that doesn’t drag things out for multiple years.”

1 Air Combat Command deployed this EC-130H Compass Call offensive counter-information and electronic attack aircraft to Northern Edge. This aircraft might be configured to a standard called Baseline 2 with the latest electronic attack capability, satellite communications providing connectivity to the latest architectures, increased multi-asset coordination nets and upgraded datalink terminals. 2 Northrop Grumman’s OpenPod, a system billed with IRST and fifth to fourth-generation connectivity capabilities, also participated in Northern Edge carried by the company’s test bed CRJ700 registration N804X.


Fifth-generation Connectivity

Because this was the first exercise in which both types of fifth-generation fighters, F-22 Raptors and F-35B Lightning IIs participated, one of the major themes of this year’s experimentation was how to incorporate these stealthy fighters into larger, networked, operational architectures. It addressed PACOM’s immediate need to employ these fighters effectively. On June 13, Marine Corps Assistant Commandant for Aviation, Lieutenant General Jon Davis, told the Senate Armed Services Committee about the F-35B’s performance at Northern Edge: “We just got back from a big exercise in Alaska [Northern Edge], sir. 21 to zero, the exchange rates for these airplanes going into highly contested environments, operating in weather that we wouldn’t be able to operate in before. Electronic warfare missions, strike missions, air-to-air missions, and in the hands of what were pretty inexperienced younger guys flying airplanes, and it’s exceptional.” However, the US Marine Corps currently has one operational F-35B squadron based in the PACOM AOR. To have an impact on warfighting, the F-35’s capabilities need to be integrated in the larger operational architecture.

The Lockheed Martin U-2S Dragon Lady high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft made its first deployment to Northern Edge this year. It flew missions fitted with networked sensors housed in an under-fuselage pod linked to the Enterprise Mission Computer 2.0 (EMC2), developed by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. Dubbed the Einstein Box, EMC2 is a plug-and-play upgrade of a capability that has been operational on the U-2S for over 20 years, having been introduced to combat over Bosnia in 1995. Using a low probability of intercept datalink intended to make the U-2’s onboard sensors available in real time, the EMC2 – not just a communications gateway, but also a multifunction system – provides a capability for linking to F-22s and F-35s. The system is an upgrade of the EMC1 system used in flight tests at Nellis Air Force Base in 2014 under Project Missouri that demonstrated the feasibility of linking F-22s to a Link 16 network without undercutting its stealth capabilities.

Northrop Grumman’s Freedom 550 software-defined radio also participated in Northern Edge 2017. Its technologies are based on those used on the F-35 and the Battlefield Air Communication Network link carried by the Bombardier E-11 communication relay aircraft. Freedom 550 had already been used in multiple mounts – including pods – to link fourth and fifthgeneration fighters during exercises. This included the UK Air Warfare Centre’s Exercise High Rider earlier this year, which included a series of tests under a UK programme called Babel Fish III in which RAF Tornado GR4s and UK F-35Bs were linked so transmissions on the F-35B’s Multifunction Advanced Datalink could be received by the Tornado GR4’s Link 16. In 2015, a Freedom 550 system fitted on a U-2S linked an F-22 with an F/A-18E Super Hornet during flight tests at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

3 Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) ‘Green Knights’ based at Iwakuni, Japan, was the first unit to participate in a Northern Edge exercise with the F-35 Lightning II. 4 Exempt of markings and a bureau number, a special mission P-3C Orion assigned to the special projects patrol squadron on take-off from Elmendorf. The aircraft is notable because of its payload; a near 40 feet long APS-149 Littoral Radar Surveillance System radome.


Testbeds and Technologies

Of all the many aircraft participating in Northern Edge 2017, one of the least dramatic but most significant for experimentation is a British Aircraft Corporation BAC 111, registration N162W. This is Northrop Grumman’s airborne laboratory, identifiable by its nose radome, which houses an APG-81 advanced electronically scanned array radar, and a chin-mounted AAQ-37 distributed aperture system electro-optical sensor, both F-35 sensors. This year, the airborne laboratory again returned to Northern Edge, where it has participated in each edition since 2009. The Air Force Research Laboratory

(AFRL) and Northrop Grumman Cognitive Mission Computer (CMC) first appeared at Northern Edge 2015. Using inputs from a remote signals intelligence sensor, the CMC classifies unknown signals based on both parametric data and behaviour using advanced machine-learning algorithms. Other companies are also integrating machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities in experiments. The SCO has pushed for investment and experimentation in these areas, described as critical to future technology interests. With the recapitalisation of the US Air Force’s Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Standoff Attack Radar System radar aircraft as one of the service’s top five priorities, it is likely that datalink and sensor technology applicable to the different competing designs to the exercise were used on some of the testbed aircraft.

Lockheed Martin’s Gulfstream III Airborne Multi-Intelligence Laboratory – Multi-Aperture N30LX was based at Elmendorf for Northern Edge 2017. It is designed to carry a wide range of systems, including sensors and datalinks for experiments. Typically, N30LX carries multispectral sensors, including electro-optical/infrared sensors, synthetic aperture radar, electronic intelligence and communications intelligence systems, and multiple communications apertures. The AML’s sensor and communication suites and four onboard workstations are open architecture systems.

In March, Lockheed Martin announced an extensive upgrade to the AML. The aircraft’s onboard processing and data fusion capability now includes an autonomous sensor control mode that can coordinate operations between the testbed’s multispectral sensors, allowing operators to focus on mission planning and operational concerns while mission execution is handled autonomously. The AML mission system has also been upgraded with a cognitive processing capability that, like the CMC used in Northern Edge 2015, enables rapid adaptation to a changing target environment.


The single-engine turboprop Cessna 208 Caravan is a popular aircraft for industry to use as a testbed, offering an economical $300 per flight-hour cost, long endurance and the ability to carry inflight technicians or mission personnel. Caravans have been used for experiments on autonomous operations and the use of artificial intelligence algorithms in flight, although they have been flown with human pilots on board. One Caravan taking part in Northern Edge 2017 was identified as being assigned to Project Hunter, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency maritime programme, using unmanned surface and subsurface vehicles for detection and surveillance, it may have been participating in the maritime component of the exercise.

The Threat Simulators

Threat simulator aircraft are part of the adversary support that is required for Northern Edge and are an important part of the airborne and terrestrial threat presentations that provides much of the value of the exercise.

As part of the threat simulation support for Northern Edge 2017, L3’s Flight International deployed two Learjet 30s, registrations N12FN and N39FN, to Eielson Air Force Base. The aircraft were fitted with jamming pods and a chaff dispenser, enabling them to present robust electronic warfare threat laydowns to the Blue Force.

Phoenix Air Group had one of the few original twin-turboprop Grumman Gulfstream Is also operating from Eielson. Gulfstream I, registration N192PA, normally provides threat presentations and launches target drones during exercises and training. Usually operated in support of the Navy, N192PA is capable of simulating a jammer-equipped threat firing off an air-to-surface missile by launching a target drone. The aircraft was seen flying from Eielson with a mission crew in the aft cabin. As with most adversary support assets, these are contractor owned and operated aircraft.

Northern Edge Results?

What the results of the exercise and experimentation will mean for future forces and capabilities is uncertain. The US Air Force has not yet concluded on how it will integrate fifthgeneration fighters into the larger force and only limited numbers of the Talon Hate system (see later) have been ordered.

Nor is it certain that the new emphasis on experimentation will last if industry is expected to carry much of the cost for participation. Such an approach is unlikely to be appealing to many commercial sector computer, information technology and cyber security specialists. They are used to getting paid – handsomely – by their commercial customers and tend to be funded by those looking for a high rate of return on their investments. They may have limited patience with participating in experiments when there is not the prospect of a near-term procurement. However, without bringing such outside sources of technology into the process – especially in areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomous operation that are directly applicable to the future of military aviation – Conley said: “We will be outpaced by the rate of innovation that occurs in the commercial world. The more we break away from the world of stovepipes and embrace that reality is a complex laydown and we need the right things in the right way to balance capabilities across the force.”

Northern Edge 2017, with its emphasis on networked systems, is a step in that direction. David C Isby

Talon Hate

On May 8, Boeing announced the US Air Force had recently demonstrated that multiple aircraft and ground stations can efficiently and securely communicate using the Boeing-developed Talon Hate airborne networking system. Flight testing of the system was performed by Air Combat Command’s 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, one of the 53rd Wing’s operational test squadrons. Boeing’s announcement said Talon Hate pods fitted to two F-15C Eagles had demonstrated and validated secure datalink connection with F-22 Raptors via the F-22’s intraflight datalink and successfully transmitted information to other legacy Air Force aircraft, enabling efficient real-time information sharing via Link 16, Common Data Link and Wideband Global SATCOM satellites.

The announcement was made while two F-15C Eagles assigned to the 422nd TES were participating in Exercise Northern Edge to experiment further in using Talon Hate with more advanced sensors with the objective of providing improved targeting capabilities.

Talon Hate was developed as a quickreaction project to provide connectivity between the F-22 and legacy fighters; the F-15C Eagle is the first type to be fitted with the system to give the Air Force’s reigning air superiority fighter a link to its younger, stealthy, but well-pumped brother.

Talon Hate comprises a pod carried on the F-15 centre line station equipped with an infrared search and track (IRST) sensor, a multifunctional information distribution system link and a fancy satellite communication antenna similar to the Multimission Advanced Tactical Terminal developed by Boeing for the Super Hornet for satellite communication receiver capability.

Talon Hate receives and interprets data broadcast on the F-22’s intra-flight datalink, fuses the information into a more detailed single picture for transmission to F-15C Eagles on Link 16, other aircraft, ships and ground stations. Remember, the F-22’s suite of sensors generate a detailed picture of the battlespace based on sensitivity, range and the aircraft’s apparent ability to remain undetected in enemy territory.


1 Based at Elmendorf for Northern Edge 2017, Lockheed Martin’s Gulfstream III Airborne Multi-Intelligence Laboratory now includes a cognitive processing capability that enables rapid adaptation to a changing target environment. 2 An F-15C Eagle equipped with the Talon Hate system lands back at Elmendorf after a morning mission. Note the fancy antenna fitted on the top of the fuselage adjacent the air brake, and the large pod housing an IRST on the fuselage centreline pylon.


3 US army troops watch followon paratroopers exit a C-17 Globemaster III during a forced entry operation at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson staged in conjunction with Northern Edge. SSgt Daniel Love/US Army

Equipped with in IRST sensor housed in a large pod under the fuselage, the F-15C is placed at the forefront of providing air picture data for F-22s and other aircraft by fusing the information into the common picture distributed on Link 16. Targets assigned to an F-22 can be engaged without the need for any emissions. Talon Hate also provides the F-15C with infrared detection capability enabling passive targeting across a wider target set including cruise missiles. In the big ticket fourth to fifth-generation interoperability requirement, Talon Hate gives a synergistic capability to F-15Cs and F-22s. The system is expected to go through a utility evaluation before the US Air Force establishes it as a Program of Record called the Multi-Domain Adaptable Processing System.


Boeing’s Talon Hate was not the only IRST system playing in Northern Edge 2017. Northrop Grumman’s CRJ700 test bed, N804X, was fitted with an OpenPod, a system billed with IRST and fifth to fourthgeneration connectivity capabilities.

Northrop Grumman says the IRST housed in its OpenPod uses an advanced focal plane array to detect infrared light energy created by the friction of an object passing through air. Algorithms separate the hot aircraft from the cooler background, which allows the system to generate weapons-quality tracking data. The pod can share that data over Link 16 and other protocols with a fire control radar or other systems for engagement. As an open architecture system, a OpenPod can be reconfigured for different mission requirements in minutes.

Live, Virtual Constructive

This year’s Northern Edge involved Live, Virtual Constructive (LVC) training events. According to the Air Force Modelling and Simulation Vision for the 21st Century, LVC models and simulations are used individually or together to depict a typical air, space, land and sea operational environment or scenario. LVC is a combination of real, live aircraft, simulators flown by aircrew, the virtual component and computer-generated or constructive elements.

Lt Col Baldwin said the virtual and constructive scenarios were robust and on some days involved joint vuls: “This year’s exercise was the first time we’d been able to achieve that with Navy Hornet and E-2 aircrew operating simulators integrated with F-22 and F-15 pilots also operating in simulators, all virtually meeting up in the skies over Alaska, and then cleared out as the live vul shows up and a hand-off between the virtual E-2 and/or AWACS to the live E-2 and/ or AWACS.”

The White Force also combined live and virtual elements, as Lt Col Baldwin explained: “We had a virtual RC-135 up on the radios operating with a live AWACS and coordinating with other ISR platforms and providing inputs on detected emitters and threats. The RC-135 was operated by a full crew in the simulator at Offutt piped in to the LVC architecture, and able to detect emitters on the ground and make radio calls to the live players. Constructive Blue force elements were also used; for instance, we had bombers in the link which made radio calls on weapons being dropped.”

US Air Force LVC training is made possible thanks to the Distributed Mission Operations Network programme launched in 1999 (DMON, pronounced ‘demon’), which allows different simulators located across the globe to interoperate together and provide on-demand, inter-team training in a realistic virtual environment via a secure network. Four years ago, Northrop Grumman was selected to continue providing network and integration services under the DMON service contract and released the following overview of its DMON system.

Distributed Mission Operations Network

DMON is an event-centric, standards-based, centrally managed, multidomain-capable, wide-area network operating at the secret level with special access components that supports globally distributed mission operations interteam training for the Combat Air Forces (CAF). DMON has been used on a daily basis since 2002 and is also used to support Virtual Flag training exercises two to three times a year and to prepare aircrew for deployment to Exercise Red Flag.

DMON features are designed to support the primary mission: frequent inter-team training among multiple CAF platforms with missions that are carefully selected for the intended training audience. Northrop Grumman, the operations and integration contractor, manages a commercial local and wide-area backbone from the military point of presence on over 50 US Air Force bases to Continental United States and global network providers. Northrop Grumman manages the security infrastructure, ensures the appropriate quality of service (QoS), oversees the interoperability standards development and provides a technical interoperability and bandwidth management service through a Northrop Grumman portal located at each CAF mission training centre (MTC).


Each training event on the DMON is scheduled individually with the participating MTCs. The platforms, duration, security and specific data management requirements (such as data filters) are specified in advance. Northrop Grumman event managers ensure the network and portals are properly configured to provide a seamless virtual battlespace for the participants. Because the network is not a shared resource and the intricacies of routing, bandwidth, latency and security are centrally managed, event participants are able to enter the simulated environment immediately with high QoS. Changes to the configuration of the network to accommodate new players or security domains are transparent to the end-user. DMON connections are mutually exclusive for events. There are no disruptions to event quality or to other concurrent events that could occur.

The DMON includes some MTCs that operate with special access programme restrictions that are not shared across all platforms. Producing a common battlespace that uses these sites requires that the network domains be isolated with an approved controlled interface device. The DMON cross-domain solution provides the contolled interface for the protected MTCs. The DMON Cross Domain Solution executes a technical rule set developed by a rules working group that includes representation from the Field Service Providers, security community, endusers, platform subject matter experts and Northrop Grumman engineers.


In addition to its DMON network, Northrop Grumman has also developed an LVC Experimentation, Integration and Operations Suite (LEXIOS) as part of its role as the prime contractor for the DMON.

LEXIOS comprises a full suite of LVC services, hardware and software that links live and virtual participants in advanced training exercises. Northrop Grumman introduced LEXIOS at Northern Edge 2015 that June, which at the time was deemed as the largest LVC air-to-air training event ever staged, was the first to integrate all of the LVC elements required for advanced training, and included virtual aircraft operated by aircrew in the same airspace alongside their live counterparts via networked simulators. Constructive – simulated forces in a simulated environment – elements were also used to augment the battlespace. For the first time, a full RC-135 Rivet Joint crew participated in a live fly exercise from a simulator at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska and successfully achieved quality training at a fraction of the cost of live training.

Fourteen months later, during Exercise Distant Frontier, Northrop Grumman and the US Air Force achieved the first integration of fourth and fifth-generation fighters during an LVC event. This involved two virtual F-22 Raptors operated by pilots assigned to the 90th Fighter Squadron from simulators at Elmendorf flying alongside four live F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 80th Fighter Squadron based at Kunsan Air Base, Korea. The scenario involved air-to-air combat against four live F-16s from the 18th Aggressor Squadron based at Eielson Air Force Base.

Northrop Grumman continues to develop a way to allow LEXIOS to handle data with multiple levels of classification to help further integrate F-22s and F-35s into LVC training.

Meeting Demand

The current number of adversary sorties required by CAFs per year is 60,000. This number shared between the US Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada and fighter squadrons operating fourth and fifth-generation fighters. Current capacity, using the two dedicated F-16C-equipped aggressor squadrons, T-38C Talons and sorties self-generated by a fighter squadron, provides 22,500.

By 2020, the number of sorties required each year is forecast to be 62,000 including a growing number from fighter squadrons equipped with F-35As. Capacity is forecast to be 24,000 sorties per year. The increase provided by contractor adversary support. By 2030, the number of sorties required will have rocketed to 115,000, of which over 80,000 will be required by F-22, but mostly F-35A squadrons. The US Air Force plans to meet that requirement in part with dedicated aggressor squadrons and self-generated sorties, but for the most part stage 80,000 virtual and construct sorties and a further 10,000 flown by T-X trainers.

Consequently, the US Air Force has to develop and field a system capable of providing sufficient LVC training capacity to meet the complex scenarios required to maximise the F-35’s capability and performance. The programme, dubbed SLATE (from Secure Live, Virtual and Constructive Advanced Training Environment), is run by the 711th Human Performance Wing, part of the AFRL based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

SLATE has a lot riding on its success; with over 1,700 F-35A Lightning IIs planned for the US Air Force, the requirement to train pilots for this highly-capable jet in a virtual and constructive realm requires a suite of technologies.

Speaking at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education conference in Orlando, Florida on November 29, 2016, AFRL commander Major General Robert McMurry said: “The technology probably won’t be ready for the F-35 and other fifthgeneration aircraft until the mid-2020s.” Live demonstrations of the system’s connectivity will begin on two F-15E Strike Eagles and US Navy F/A-18s interfacing with virtual and constructive players on the Nevada Test and Training Range in March 2018. Two more demos will follow, each featuring more players, to demonstrate the waveform’s capacity will follow in May and October.

According to SLATE Program Manager Dave Noah, the system is being designed to provide pilots with a truly immersive experience, enabling a pilot flying an F-16 to see the radar cross-section signature and radar emissions of the opposing aircraft, maybe an F-15 as, for example, a Su-27 to replicate more accurately non-US weapons systems. Only visual identification would make the F-16 pilot aware it’s an F-15 and not a Su-27.

One technology used by the SLATE is a fifthgeneration advanced training waveform that can facilitate the throughput of data between different LVC assets. Dubbed 5GATW, the waveform was developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory. An organisation that flies a government-owned, contractor-operated Dassault Falcon 20 test bed at Hanscom Air Force Base to support Air Force Materiel Command.

During flight testing last summer, the waveform was subjected to a stress test involving very high data throughput between a ground station and two aircraft.

One of Lincoln Lab’s Falcon 20 aircraft was based at Eielson for Northern Edge 2017 and was likely to have been testing the 5GATW waveform during some of the LVC events staged as part of the exercise.

F-15Es and F-16Cs

The F-16C-equipped 13th Fighter Squadron based at Misawa Air Base, Japan, deployed to Eielson to provide the exercise planners with dedicated SEAD assets. One pilot assigned to the 13th FS said the squadron was using its knowledge and understanding of surface-to-air and integrated air defence systems to counter such threat systems working with F-22s and F-35s.

Also deployed to Eielson was the F-15Eequipped 335th Fighter Squadron from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina. The squadron was tasked with air interdiction, with offensive counter air provided by F-22s and F-15Cs from Elmendorf. On some occasions four F-15Es would fly for Red Air as fighters to augment the F-16C aggressors.

A U-2S Dragon Lady high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft made its first deployment to Northern Edge this year. It flew missions fitted with networked sensors housed in an underfuselage pod, probably the fitting seen under the white payload bay door, linked to the Enterprise Mission Computer 2.0 (EMC2), developed by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works.
Photo lower left SSgt Michael Campbell/US Air Force.

Discussing fourth to fifth-generation integration, an F-15E pilot assigned to the 335th FS said the Strike Eagle community has already undertaken a lot of work on integration: “It’s the way forward as we transition to a fifth-generation force. The Strike Eagle will be around for a long time and will catch up with some capabilities [reference to the APG-82 AESA radar] but not all capabilities, so there will always have to be integration.”

The F-15E pilot also said the experiments had demonstrated better ways to integrate with fifth-generation fighters and to a higherlevel.

Strike Eagles took part in a couple of maritime strike missions in the Gulf of Alaska, using tactics developed in recent years. Tactics were used during at least one scenario flown as part of Air Combat Command’s air-to-ground Weapon System Evaluation Program called Combat Hammer. This involved fishing boats hired by the Air Force and tasked to conduct attacks presenting the F-15E aircrews with multiple boats to target while working with US Navy surface combatants.

Discussing how the daily vuls were subjected to increased threat levels, the F-15E pilot said there had been a few instances where the White Force artificially reduced the probability of kill on certain threats to make it harder for the F-15Es to deal with: “For instance, we may assume one munition might take out a surface-to-air threat, but the White Force would say no, which forces us into a back-up plan.”

The experimentation component of Northern Edge tended to change the objectives and priorities subtly. Aircrew tried to stick to their tactics as much as they could, but if the White Force requested aircrew to change a tactic such as extending the time over target, it would be done. This is an example of how a small change makes Northern Edge different from Red Flag where such a change would not normally be done. This approach satisfies the main objective: experiments alongside aircrew training.

F-15Es assigned to the 335th FS also worked with F-35Bs in Northern Edge when the fifth-generation jets undertook a number of roles, including countering surface-toair systems in the early stages of a strike mission, a good example of the all new F-35B conducting the SEAD role.

Seymour Johnson F-15E crews dropped inert 1,000lb GBU-12 and 2,000lb GBU-24 laser-guided bombs during Northern Edge 2017. In one scenario during the first week, 335th FS aircrew were given a challenging target set, which was made more challenging because of the threat laydown and the weather. Aircrew undertook extensive mission planning and the execution proved to be straightforward and successful. All of the targets were struck, but some of the aircraft were lost to simulated missile shots. The level of success of that mission was attributed to integration and coordination: have all of the right assets there at the right time and with enough fuel.

Exercise Success

Lt Col Baldwin said the exercise objectives were accomplished, including joint war-at-sea training, and TTP development, and that all of the planned experiments had at the least a chance to succeed. To what degree remains classified: “We moved the ball forward in a lot of the experiments and also moved the ball forward with a lot of the TTPs in a very complex electronic warfare environment. Hopefully all of the organisations – test communities and weapons school included – will implement changes in how we practise and work our TTPs. We flew 1,740 very good sorties in total, with 163 aircraft.

Lt Col Tim Bobinski, Alaska Command’s Joint Exercise Division Chief, said: “[Northern Edge] was probably one of the most challenging exercise experiences for all of the participating aircrews, which will improve their capability and the collective capabilities within their respective service. It’s as robust as it gets. We have more assets here, and I think we have at least as much electronic warfare complexity, but probably more, especially when the experiments are factored in, than any other exercise staged by the Air Force. Each edition of Northern Edge is a little different, but this one more so, considering the number of experiments and difficult mission sets included and was designed to be more complex than Red Flag.”

As an exercise geared to the PACOM theatre, Lt Cdr Sander summed up things: “In Northern Edge we are integrating for tactical and operational purposes, and there are definite things we seek to validate and expose the aircrew, too.”