In the Arctic, vast expanses of ice stretch farther than the eye can see. This region, while uninhabitable, is expected to grow in importance in years to come. The ice is giving way as the Earth’s climate changes. When it does, it will become a crucial strategic interest for the U.S. and it’s partnering nations. Airmen from the Combat Alert Center at Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson, Alaska (JBER) have been conducting intercept missions past and present of the Cold War era. Today, Airmen working at JBER continue this 24-hour watch to protect and maintain U.S. air sovereignty in the 21st Century.
(U.S. Air Force Video by Andrew Arthur Breese)
Sitting in the entrance hall of the Combat Alert Cell, Tech. Sgt. Brandon Howell halts his conversation mid-word as a deafening noise rips through the air. In a split-second he registers the call to action, springs to his feet and is on task.
“Every time the horn goes off, it’s definitely a surge of adrenaline,” Howell described. “It gets your heart going. You know, it’s honestly an amazing feeling in reality.”
Two stories up, the other F-22 Raptor maintainers and weapons troops drop what they were doing — playing video games, studying, and other recreational activities — and slide down the fireman’s pole to the main level.Each Airman careens through doors and hallways toward differing tasks to get their aircraft armed and airborne in minutes so it can intercept any threat to United States’ sovereign airspace.
Within the Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, alert forces at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, are tasked with intercepting any threats in, near or approaching the surrounding airspace. This mission to protect national security began in the 1950s and has evolved greatly over the past decades, adapting to changing aerial threats.
Though the jets flown have changed over the years — from F-102 Delta Daggers, F-4E Phantoms, and F-15 Eagles to the current F-22s — the overall air interdiction mission still remains much the same: maintain watch over the Alaskan NORAD Region, provide warning of any unknown or possibly hostile incoming aircraft, and intercept if necessary. The 176th Air Defense Squadron and the Combat Alert Cell are two major components contributing to the success of this operation.
“Sovereignty is our most fundamental right when you think about a military responsibility to protect our homeland. You know, our sovereign airspace is really somewhat sacred,” said Lt. Gen. Russ Handy, the commander of the Alaskan NORAD Region, Alaskan Command and 11th Air Force. “When I go out to the alert cell, or I go down to the air defense squadron and I see, in many cases, very young Airmen responsible for these multi-million dollar aircraft and what they represent from the perspective of the sovereignty of our nation, it just warms your heart because they embrace these missions … they understand the importance of it and how important sovereignty is to every citizen in the U.S.”
An eye in the sky
Fifteen long-range radar sites, situated in the Alaskan NORAD Region, are continuously searching for potential threats in the airspace surrounding the country’s largest state. These radars are tied into the Battle Control System-Fixed, which forwards the information collected to the 176th Air Defense Squadron. The gathered data is displayed on a row of screens in their operations facility, which is monitored by Alaskan Air National Guard Airmen and used to detect and identify any aircraft flying near or over the state.
“I hate to place more importance on it than any other airspace, but it’s our home,” said Lt. Col. Carrie Howard, the 176th ADS director of operations. “We’re all guardsmen that work here; we’re all Alaskans, so we take a very personal and special interest in protecting our state … and our friends and family that live here.”
Typically, aircraft located by the radar systems are commercial airliners and local pilots, but sometimes it picks up a jet that doesn’t have permission to be in Alaskan airspace.
“When our system detects an aircraft … we can go ahead and identify them by their flight plan and the modes and codes they are squawking,” Howard said of the four-digit transponder codes aircraft use to communicate.
“Sometimes they aren’t squawking any modes or codes, and they’re not supposed to be there, so then our identification section will reach out to (the Federal Aviation Administration) and the flight service stations around the state to try to determine who that aircraft is,” she added. “If we still can’t positively determine who they are, that’s when we go and ask permission from our higher headquarters to go ahead and scramble our alert assets and identify that aircraft visually.”
Sometimes pilots of approaching aircraft set transponders to squawk an emergency code by mistake, setting an interdiction mission in motion.
On Sept. 11, 2001, shortly after the attacks on the country’s east coast, a commercial plane approaching Alaska — Korean Air Flight 85 — began to “squawk” the transponder code 7500 for “hijacking in progress.” In response, two F-15 Strike Eagles from the CAC at JB Elmendorf-Richardson immediately launched to intercept the potentially dangerous airliner. Flight 85, a Boeing 747 en route to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, was diverted to an evacuated airstrip in Canada — escorted all the way by the Air Force jets.
After the flight landed, it was discovered the plane’s pilots had entered the transponder code, which identified the aircraft as hijacked, in error and the situation deescalated. Even though it was a false alarm, the alert forces from Alaska helped control a high-stress and potentially devastating situation.
U.S. airspace extends 12 nautical miles from the country’s coastline, but because of the size of Alaska, alert forces tend to intercept approaching or nearby aircraft before they breach that line.
“We will go out there, intercept them in a time and space of our choosing, and just let them know we’re there and that we see them, and that it’s time for them to go home,” Howard explained. “It is important to maintain our air sovereignty; it’s important for the defense of our country, in the defense of our state, to know who’s flying near our coastline.”
Stars line a wall of the 176th ADS’s Regional Air Operations Center, representing an expansive archive of missions. The plaques state the location, type of aircraft and the date they were intercepted.
“We’ve been keeping records for quite a while,” Howard said. “The red stars date back to the 1980s, and we intercept, on average, about 10 aircraft a year.”
Due to close proximity, many of the stars on the wall are from intercepts of Russian or, prior to 1992, Soviet Union bombers, such as the TU-16 Badger and TU-95 Bear-H.
Toward the end of the Cold War, in 1989, the U.S. and Russia signed the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities agreement. The document outlines policies and procedures for both parties to follow to avoid “engagement in dangerous military activity in the vicinity of each other” or provide steps for immediate termination of those situations, should they arise. Within are pre-agreed upon terms, which regardless of a language barrier, allow U.S. pilots to communicate with the foreign nations’ aviators.
Over the past decade, the squadron has launched numerous intercept missions, but they have also aided aircraft in peril. At the basic-level, Howard indicates her job is to make sure everyone is safe while transitioning in and out of the state of Alaska.
“If there’s an aircraft in trouble, we’re here to help — whether that’s contacting them on our frequency and giving them a good place they can land (or) whether that’s getting a mayday call,” she said.
Indicating one such mission, Howard described a plaque on the wall with a rescue symbol. She recalled a weekend shift she’d been on, where a distress call was received on the Guard frequency.
“We were able to pinpoint a general location of where that mayday came from and contact the rescue assets at the rescue coordination center. They were able to get out there and rescue the pilot and get him medical treatment.”
Answering the call
On a secure section of flightline is the CAC, where a small contingent of maintainers and weapons troops stays ready at all times. At the sound of a claxon’s blare, they are trained to “scramble” jets for an air interdiction mission — enabling the launch of alert F-22s within minutes. Even with days or months between each real-world action, they are razor sharp and poised to act.
“There are a lot of similarities between our facility and a fire department,” said Howell, the facility’s NCO in charge. “We do sleep here, just like the fire department does, (and) we’re always on duty. The only difference is they’re on duty prepared to go put out a fire, whereas we’re on duty to launch an aircraft and possibly go intercept.”
Much of their time is spent preparing for the call — running exercise scenarios and keeping the jets continuously flight-ready.
The three-story building and adjacent hangars is a second home for the Airmen, the majority working in rotations of 48- to 72-hour shifts over a two-month period. While on duty, they stay at the CAC, which is equipped with a kitchen, sleeping quarters, entertainment rooms, and even a gym.
“We have aircraft out here ready to go at a moment’s notice, but without anything going on, we’re sitting here waiting,” Howell said. “We’re here in case we are needed.”
Being away from family members continuously, for days at a time, while on duty inside U.S. borders is an abnormal situation for many of the maintainers.
“You’re not TDY. You’re not deployed, but you are staying somewhere else,” said Staff Sgt. Tyler Dent, a crew chief. “It’s a little weird being home stationed, but also being away from home.”
Every couple of months, maintainers rotate in and out of other JB Elmendorf-Richardson units, such as the 525th and 90th Aircraft Maintenance Units, to support the CAC’s mission. Small groups of Airmen are pulled to fulfil the alert duties — enough to execute the CAC’s mission while, at the same time, having minimum impact to their primary squadron’s mission.
Once on duty at the CAC, the maintainers are unable to leave during their shift because each has a part to play in the launch of the alert aircraft. The time the Airmen spend together at the CAC helps them draw closer as a team, much like a deployed environment.
“You get a different look than you would back at the squadron — it’s not just a work basis,” Dent explained. “I get to see how they unwind, how they deal with the stress, and just sort of how they live their lives outside of work. It’s interesting getting to know these guys on a larger scale than we’re used to.”
From work to downtime, the crew spends a lot of time side by side. During the first part of their duty day, they inspect and perform any needed maintenance on the F-22s. They go through their checklists to make sure the aircraft are good to go. After maintenance has signed off, two pilots, also housed in the facility for 24-hour stretches, run their own checks on the aircraft as well. All of this work is done up-front to remove as many steps as possible from the launch process later on; this enables the crew to get the jets in the air rapidly when the alarm sounds.
Once the Airmen are done with maintenance, taking care of paperwork, or doing drills, they get a chance to relax.
After eight or nine hours, when the jets are ready to go, the CAC crew is allowed to change out of their military uniform and into civilian clothing for the remainder of the day.
“Obviously, we’re not ever off duty, but we do change,” Dent said. “It wouldn’t be fun to just not be able to relax. You’ve got to manage your stress somehow, and I think that if we were all in uniform for 24 hours a day, then it wouldn’t be easy to do.”
Whether in or out of uniform, CAC Airmen are required to have certain items with them at all times: steel-toe boots, reflective belts and hearing protection. When the horn goes off, they need to have those three things on their person. The Airmen must be prepared to respond quickly, but also safely.
“We had an Airman who had just gotten done working out (and) was upstairs in the shower. They scrambled us, so he threw on a towel, grabbed his reflective belt, steel-toe boots, and hearing protection, put them on, ran down, (and) launched a jet,” Howell recalled. “When our aircraft go up, we have no idea what the threat is, so every second counts. It’s come as you are — make sure you have your safety devices.
“We work on a very limited crew,” Howell continued. “We have the necessary manning to operate for what we do, so everybody has a part that they play whenever we launch out.”
During an alert, the scene is organized chaos. With the small crew, there are a lot of different jobs that must be done to get the F-22 sky bound. When on task, the job holds a unique kind of fulfillment. For the CAC Airmen, their job satisfaction comes from knowing they are protecting the skies over North America by ensuring alert F-22s are ready to respond to any potential threat at any time. The biggest variable of the job is not knowing when that alert will happen. CAC personnel could go from doing laundry or playing basketball to launching a jet within a matter of minutes.
“It may be today. It may be tomorrow. It could be months from now, but whenever that is, that’s what these guys are waiting for, to actually do the mission,” Master Sgt. Zachary Holden explained. “That’s really what our maintainers are responsible for: making sure that aircraft is there when the pilot needs it, and he knows it’s going to be mission ready. It’s going to be reliable; he can count on it.”