Joint exercise Arctic Eagle to descend on Nome
By Peter Loewi
Describing the way he was advised, fresh out of flight school, to introduce himself to Nome – by flying helicopters over the town – Alaska Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Eric Marcellus announced, “the Guard is here.”
In preparation for their upcoming exercise Arctic Eagle/Patriot 2022, Alaska National Guard military and civilian personnel joined a Strait Science series talk, co-produced by UAF Northwest Campus and Alaska Sea Grant.
Approximately 1,000 military and civilian personnel will be coming to Alaska from February 22 to March 10 for a large-scale exercise, though not all will descend on Nome. Approximately 600 Air and Army National Guard forces from 28 states, 300 federal participants from 25 agencies including the Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as six Alaska state participants including Alaska State Defense Force and Department of Health and Social Services, 13 local agencies and three Canadian agencies will be joining this exercise in Nome, Kodiak and Southcentral to learn how to operate in extreme cold weather environments.
The mission is to “Conduct full-spectrum operations and special operations within an Arctic environment to synchronize a unified civil and military capability to respond to threat/attacks from a peer adversary.” This means, essentially, “working together, in the cold, in case the situation with Russia or China descends into conflict.”
The Nome portion of the mission will be taking place from around February 25 to March 6, with about 250 people coming, not all at once. At any given time, there will be about 150, said LTC Marcellus.
Acknowledging that resources here can be limited, Captain Erica Olson explained that they plan on coming with a fully stocked kitchen to prepare breakfast and lunch for the troops. Dinner, however, is on the local economy, and soldiers will be getting a per diem to spend in Nome restaurants, an ask from the City.
Most of the exercises will be in and around Nome. With the command center set up in the Nome Public Safety Building, activities, operations, meals and lodging will take place all across Nome. The buildings mentioned during the talk include the Army Aviation Operations Facility (National Guard hangar) at the airport on one end, all the way to Norton Sound Regional Hospital on the other, via the Armory, the Rec Center, the Port area, and NACTEC. Personnel will be staged, running exercises, and lodged in these facilities throughout the exercise. At all of these sites, facility managers have been included in the planning, and are to disseminate information to employees and residents about any potential impacts.
Coming to Nome will be members from the Alaska Air National Guard, Alaska Army National Guard, Alaska State Defense Force, Colorado National Guard, Kentucky National Guard, North Dakota National Guard, US Army Alaska, the 673rd Airbase Wing Alaska, Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services, NOAA and multiple test agencies, entities which focus on the development of equipment, for example.
This exercise is just that: an exercise. The missions are practice, designed so that forces from across the country can communicate or navigate together – or simply survive – in the Arctic, an area of increasing geopolitical significance. Some of the missions that will be conducted in Nome include Command and Control; Aerial Port Opening, meaning unloading equipment from planes, inspecting, and refueling; High Latitude Communications; Hazardous Material Testing and Identification, which will take place around the port, is about checking whether equipment will work in the extreme cold. They will also be testing new and emerging technologies. One sub-mission, food services, recreation, lodging, personnel accountability, is about the troops’ ability to set up facilities, including their new container kitchen. There is also a new medical tent, and a burn medevac drill is planned. One mission is land navigation, giving troops the opportunity to do things the “old-fashioned” way of using a map and compass.
As it was asked during the Q and A session, there is no plan to jam civilian access to GPS satellite systems.
The Adjutant General of the Alaska National Guard has made rural operations a priority, and this exercise includes several engagement opportunities. On February 27 and 28, there will be a recruiting event at the Armory in Nome, and on March 2 will be Distinguished Visitor’s Day. Details are still being finalized, but there will also be “Ted Talks,” during which experts will present to the community on a variety of topics. There will be several demonstrations and information sessions throughout the exercise which community members will be invited to.
In an email to the Nugget, Major Chelsea Aspelund listed some of the equipment that would be used. Don’t be surprised or frightened if you see “one to two C130 flights per day, one to two C17s overall, and possibly a helicopter for a few days supporting training at the airport; potentially a couple SUSV (small unit support vehicle) and snow machines (those already stationed in Nome are being fixed for use); a box truck and the mobile kitchen at the Rec Center and the JISCC (joint incident site communications capability) at the Public Safety building. A few porta potties will be set up at some of the training sites and some tents at the AAOF for the medical testing. A couple Arctic Oven tents will be brought up for safety shelters away from the building locations.”
Despite all of this, Major Aspelund explained that they “do not expect any disruption to traffic, roads, or winter trails in terms of community members not being able to use their normal routes to/from daily activities.
That’s a lot more people running around in uniform than usual, LTC Marcellus agreed. Participants in uniform will be patronizing stores in the community, and there will be military grade equipment around. In terms of numbers, it is not something that will be surprising, “but there will be quite a bit of activity going on,” he said.
In a pandemic?
“The military takes COVID pretty serious,” he said. The exercise is not a given and could still be canceled if the pandemic worsens.
Amy Schwalber, planner for the operation, explained that every single person coming into Nome will be tested with 72 hours prior to entering the community. This was part of the COVID plan submitted to the City, which met the City Manager’s approval.
They will be wearing masks, and the majority will be vaccinated, but Schwalber wasn’t able to say the exact vaccination rate. Since the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense mandated the vaccine for all military personnel, some of the organizations sending participants have reached 100 percent fully vaccinated, but Alaska was one of six states where Republican Governors sent letters to the Pentagon against the vaccine mandate. “I anticipate [the vaccination rate] will be very high,” said Schwalber.
But not everyone likes being buzzed by low-flying helicopters. “They’re disruptive; they shudder our houses,” Austin Ahmasuk said. Sharing his concern about the militarization of the Arctic, he added, “here in the Arctic, we want peace.”
LTC Marcellus said that he thinks there is a valid reason for the government wanting to operate in the region, and a way to find a balance, doing so in a way which respects the individuals who live here full time. In general, there were verbal agreements on the importance of engaging more.
Resident Addy Ahmasuk noted concern that the Alaska National Guard had spoken with the City Manager, the Chamber of Commerce, and the LEPC (Local Emergency Planning Committee) but not with the tribes. While the presentation and panel discussion did include a Tribal Liaison, who said they would reach out to tribes “in a responsible way, and be prepared for consultation, if necessary,” prior to the operation, the question of why this wasn’t done as part of the planning process went unanswered.
Ahmasuk continued, saying “You mentioned compasses and maps as being the old-fashioned way. But for us, we didn’t have compasses and maps. We dug underneath the snow, we checked to see which way the grass was laying, and that told us the direction we were headed in the middle of the storm. We have generations-old ways of knowing. We’ve been here the longest, we know how to survive up here.”
Another attendee suggested that instead of simply holding TedTalks for the military to speak to Nome, there should be opportunities for Nome to speak to the military. “I think some of us that have been around could offer some insights and advice on how to cope with the Arctic. I hope that you’re amenable to talking with local people and having your different teams get with those of us that have had some experience,” he said.
In response, LTC Marcellus stressed two-way communication, “we recognize the abilities and knowledge that the locals bring,” he said.
Strait Science Organizer Gay Sheffield asked in closing, how can the people of the region engage? Planner Amy Schwalber said she could at least point people in the right direction. Major Chelsea Aspelund also said that as details become solidified, much will be shared through social media and with local news outlets, like the Nugget.