In remote Alaska, changes coming in how the Air Force prepares for war

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT OVER ALASKA — Lt. Col. Jason Monaco soared six miles above lush wilderness, his fighter jet streaking across the icy blue sky. He banked his two-seat F-16D to the right, shooting around an eight-jet formation maneuvering against him and his fellow pilots.

Gazing through a dark visor, he glimpsed his adversary’s jet for the first time.

Then, bad news.

“Well,” he said, “we just died.”

Sporting a gray helmet with five-pointed red stars on each side symbolizing communism, Monaco looked like he could have been a foreign adversary stalking U.S. targets. But he is the commander of the U.S. Air Force’s 18th Aggressor Squadron, which flies “red force” jets against the “blue force” Americans in training missions.

Their playground is the remote Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC), a facility that has more than 77,000 square miles of airspace — roughly the size of Nebraska. For decades, it has been used to prepare for real-world missions, with pilots warned to watch out for bears and moose if they must eject.

But the range and its headquarters at Eielson Air Force Base are taking on increasing importance as the Pentagon attempts to pivot to countering China and Russia after years of focusing primarily on ground wars in the fight against terrorism.

The first two of 54 new F-35 jets, the service’s most advanced stealth fighters, arrived at Eielson in April, said Col. Benjamin Bishop, who oversees the base. More are expected throughout the year as the Pentagon wrestles with how to prepare for the Chinese J-20, the Russian Su-57 and other modern jets U.S. adversaries are building.

In addition to the F-35s, which cost some $80 million each, about $500 million in upgrades are planned, including dozens of climate-controlled hangars and modern surface-to-air missile simulators designed to challenge pilots flying in radar-evading jets.

The changes mark a commitment to turning a remote base on the Alaskan frontier into a major hub in preparing pilots for modern aerial combat.

The Alaska range was placed on a back burner for years while the Pentagon fought expensive wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. A declassified Defense Department inspector general report last year said the simulators at the range date back decades and are unable to effectively challenge pilots training in the F-35 and F-22.

Additional improvements depend on steady funding in coming years — which remains uncertain and could be complicated if the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic forces the Defense Department to reduce spending. Air Force officials in the past have debated moving the aggressor squadron at Eielson to consolidate maintenance costs, but the idea was scuttled under fierce opposition from the Alaska congressional delegation.

The plans now include two new fighter jet squadrons on base and double the number of airmen, from about 1,750 to 3,200, said Bishop, the commander of the 354th Fighter Wing. The expansion will come in a rural area where the closest town, North Pole, has a population of 2,200 people and the main attraction is a Santa Claus House gift shop featuring live reindeer and a 50-foot statue of St. Nick.

The so-called fifth-generation aircraft moved here will be within a single flight of Eastern Europe, the Korean Peninsula and other potential global hot spots. But the Air Force will also be able to take better advantage of training in JPARC’s vast, open skies.

Lt. Col. Jason Monaco, the commander of the Air Force’s 18th Aggressor Squadron, flies in a two-seat F-16D jet over Alaska. His helmet has the distinctive star of a communist nation, a nod toward the unit’s role in replicating the threat of potential adversaries during training missions with other U.S. and allied pilots. (Dan Lamothe/The Washington Post)

‘Capture the flag’

For now, the training still has a Cold War feel.

In the building where the aggressor squadron has its headquarters, communist stars and posters of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong adorn the walls in tongue-in-cheek fashion. During one pre-mission briefing, Maj. Robert “Claw” Carden opened by saying, “Comrades, welcome!” and concluded by playing the State Anthem of the Soviet Union.

Monaco, the squadron commander, said the communist memorabilia helps remind squadron members of their mission and responsibilities.

“For a three-year assignment, this is all we do,” he said, sitting last year in the squadron’s lounge, known as MiG Alley, a reference to the Russian company that makes fighter jets. “Know the threat, teach the threat and know how to replicate the threat in the air.”

In his decades-old F-16, Monaco — or “Ivan 3” in the scenario — rumbled down the runway at Eielson as part of an exercise last year known as Red Flag Alaska. The jet was joining air-to-air combat training against U.S. F-16 pilots from Misawa Air Base in Japan and Osan Air Base in South Korea.

With the sweeping vista of the Alaska Range in the background, Monaco pulled back on his flight controls and his jet shot into the sky with a throaty roar and rattle. Vapor trails spilled over the top of the wings, afterburner igniting as the jet carried out a “quick climb.” The gravitational forces of the maneuver automatically caused the legs of his green G-suit to inflate, pushing blood back to his upper body to keep him alert.

An officer on the ground coordinated jet movements to avoid collisions over the next 90 minutes. The aggressors fanned out to stop the American pilots, who had been ordered to drop simulated bombs on surface-to-air missile sites within sight of the snow-capped peak of Denali.

“Basically, they get on their side and we get on ours, and it’s like a big game of capture the flag, is a good way to put it,” Monaco said, speaking through his oxygen mask while his jet roared over mountaintops.

In the following minutes, Monaco made a few quick turns to position himself to take on blue force aircraft, relying on radio transmissions for direction. On this day last June, planes were “shot down” quickly.

The Air Force, citing the sensitivity of the operations, requested that The Washington Post not publish what specific directions pilots received or the language the ground controller used over the radio.

“It seems like from my perspective in the east lane, that was pretty good from blue for the first tactic,” Monaco observed during the flight, the sun glinting off his helmet through the glass bubble of his cockpit.

The 10-day exercise is held at JPARC three or four times each year beginning in the spring after the brutal Alaska weather thaws, with additional versions at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Each Red Flag involves some 1,500 troops and scores of aircraft. The first two exercises in 2020, scheduled in May and June, were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The training is based on a premise that the service postulated following the Vietnam War: In combat, a pilot’s first 10 missions are the deadliest. Red Flag is designed to put them through those 10 flights before the missiles are real.

Pilots often describe their first Red Flag flights as confusing. They must deal with electronic jamming and enemy aircraft during air-to-air combat as they attack ground forces and slower aircraft, such as the B-52 bomber.

One-on-one engagements between aircraft can occur. But the planes are often involved in more-complex fights with multiple aircraft that are beyond visual range, or “BVR.”

Capt. Alexander Fogassy, an 18th Aggressor Squadron pilot, said that when he first attempted a Red Flag exercise at Nellis, he was told that his only job was to “stay visual,” close enough to see colleagues in flight. That wasn’t easy.

“I was like, ‘This is hard enough just not getting lost, let alone being a lethal tactical force for America,’ ” Fogassy recalled. “That takes a while.”

Before and after each outing, the pilots gather in an auditorium to discuss their flying. They’re not always sure what happened, and they compare notes.

During one session, the room grew tense as pilots debated who had been killed first: blue or red. The blue force’s mission included protecting a B-52 and a C-130 cargo plane carrying ground troops. Both were destroyed by aggressor pilots.

“We thought we got a whole lot of kills, but there are times where you don’t know you’ve already been blown up,” Monaco said.

Preparing for the future

Lurking in the background of the training is a robust discussion about the future of the Air Force in the 49th state.

Air Force generals have long described Red Flag exercises in Alaska and Nevada as complementary, with Eielson offering more airspace and Nellis being closer to other U.S. bases and having more technology to track and challenge pilots.

But as the F-35 becomes the primary U.S. weapon in the sky, the Air Force will attempt to improve technology at JPARC, too, so it has both larger airspace and more-challenging scenarios for pilots in training.

New surface-to-air missile simulators worth some $87 million are expected to arrive within 12 to 18 months, said Lt. Col. John Anderson, who oversees training at JPARC as commander of the 353rd Combat Training Squadron.

The Air Force is also grappling with how it should incorporate F-35 jets as aggressor planes in future training — something it can do with an entire squadron like Monaco’s, or by having jets temporarily fly in training in an aggressor role.

Last year, the service announced that it planned to transfer 11 older-model F-35s to Nellis to serve as aggressor jets. The planes would help pilots prepare to face fifth-generation jets in the future, assisting in Air Force exercises such as Red Flag and at several other courses held at Nellis.

But lawmakers have raised concerns about that being carried out. A provision in the 2020 defense spending bill prohibits the Air Force from transferring any F-35s for use as aggressor aircraft until the service submits a plan to Congress that considers other locations and the benefits of modernizing other aggressor squadrons, including the one in Alaska.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said in an interview that as the U.S. military and partners such as Japan and South Korea add F-35s, it makes sense to upgrade Alaska’s aggressor squadron, too.

“Nellis, it has all the bells and whistles in terms of SAMs and everything,” Sullivan said, referring to surface-to-air missile simulators. “It’s much more updated than JPARC. But what it doesn’t have is space.”

An Air Force spokesman, Col. Allen Herritage, said that the service continues to look at how it provides pilots with realistic training. Having fifth-generation aircraft serve as aggressors “would make those scenarios more realistic” as pilots train to fight near-peer competitors, he said.

Sullivan said that part of his job is to “educate some of our senior leadership” about Alaska, and that some generals favor other locations.

“You have a whole swath of the Air Force that has never been up there and that is partial to where they trained as captains,” he said. “I understand that, but the truth of the matter is that those ranges are going to be increasingly constricted. They don’t have a lot of area to expand.”

Against that backdrop, the Air Force is also exploring options that could alter air-to-air combat yet again.

In a program known as Skyborg, F-35 pilots would control drone fighter jets through a combination of artificial intelligence and remote piloting, said Will Roper, an assistant Air Force secretary who leads technology and acquisition efforts.

“You could imagine the F-35 pilots not just flying their planes,” he said, “but quarterbacking a team of drones ahead of them.”

Additional video editing by William Neff. Copy editing by Rachael Bolek. Design by J.C. Reed.

A Japanese Self-Defense Force fighter roars over Alaska last year. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

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