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Over 60 aircraft and more than 1,000 personnel took part mid-June in one of the largest NORAD exercises in recent memory.
Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CF-188 Hornets, air-to-air refueling tankers, and search-and-rescue (SAR) aircraft collaborated with United States Air Force (USAF) F-16 Fighting Falcons, refueling aircraft and airborne early warning and control (AWAC) platforms for Amalgam Dart, a complex eight-day exercise that spanned the High Arctic from Alaska to Greenland.
“I have been doing NORAD since 1998 when I first started flying F-18s, and I can’t recall a live fly exercise this large ever in my career,” said MGen Eric Kenny, commander of 1 Canadian Air Division and Canadian NORAD Region (1 CAD/CANR).
Amalgam Dart is a reoccurring series of air defense exercises conducted throughout the year in different NORAD regions. In March 2021, CANR hosted a smaller scale iteration that included aircraft operating from northern locations such as Whitehorse, Yukon; Yellowknife, Northwest Territories; Cold Lake, Alberta; Goose Bay, Newfoundland; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Thule, Greenland.
While each exercise aims to build on the lessons from the previous one, the scale and scope of the event from June 10 to 18 was “substantial,” said Kenny.
The 64 aircraft included 16 CF-188s from all four of the RCAF’s tactical fighter squadrons at 4 Wing Cold Lake and 3 Wing Bagotville, Quebec; a CC-130H Hercules tanker from 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron in Winnipeg; and a CC-150T Polaris from 437 Transport Squadron at 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario – an air-to-air refueling platform that was validated for NORAD tanking in 2020.
The Canadian Air Defence Sector at 22 Wing North Bay, Ontario, played the combined air operations center for dispersed force of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft.
USAF participating aircraft included the F-16s, nine KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, and an E-3 Sentry AWAC system. B-52 Stratofortress bombers from U.S. Strategic Command provided the red air threat. Many launched from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska or from south of the Canadian border, and some such as the 114th and 140th Fighter Wings launched from the Air National Guard in South Dakota and Colorado, respectively, forward deployed to Yellowknife, Cold Lake, Goose Bay, and Thule.
In addition, two units from the U.S. Army National Guard, the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command and the 265th Combat Communications Squadron positioned an Avenger Air Defense System and a Sentinel Radar at 4 Wing Cold Lake to demonstrate ground-based protection of critical infrastructure, such as airfields, and provide communications architecture to integrate the system into the exercise common operating picture.
In a scenario that simulated rising tensions with Russia resulting in the deployment of long-range aviation and air and sea launch of cruise missiles, NORAD sought to first deter and then detect and defend against the Russian threat by strategically positioning air assets across the Arctic while integrating a full air defense picture from the three NORAD regions – Canadian, Alaskan, and U.S. Continental.
“[The aim] was to simultaneously prosecute against different activities from our competitor while at the tactical level controlling that, seeing that, and then [responding] across multiple regions, with the appropriate command and control (C2) in our air operations center to ensure we were properly leveraging the resources we had,” said Kenny.
While the RCAF employs SAR aircraft and NORAD fighter jets from its Wings, much of the Wing effort during peacetime is on force generation – developing skilled aircrews and ensuring they are trained and ready for deployment, primarily outside of Canada. For Amalgam Dart, the emphasis shifted to homeland defense from the Wings, he said.
“From a C2 perspective, instead of deploying an air task force or air detachment, which we have done in the past, I had the Wing commanders at participating locations act as wartime commanders, with C2 direct to me as the commander of Canadian NORAD Region,” he added. While 750 personnel were forward deployed into the field or at home bases for the exercise, around 300 more were active on Wings as part of the scenario.
“[We responded] to a homeland defense scenario where our force generation requirements waned, and we focused on protection of critical infrastructure and on developing and launching capability to support the homeland. We have tried different constructs and I believe the construct that we achieved in this exercise really validated the Wing structure and the fight-from-our-Wings mentality.”
Along with operations from southern Canadian Wings, the exercise also positioned and launched assets from Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, Inuvik and Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, the RCAF’s most northern location in the High Arctic, Canadian Forces Station Alert, as well as Goose Bay in Newfoundland, Iqaluit in Nunavut, and Thule Air Base, the U.S.’s northernmost base in Greenland.
One of the other priorities for Amalgam Dart was integration of various communication systems in the Arctic. Satellite communications (SATCOM) is limited north of the 65th parallel, and while both commercial and military satellite programs will soon resolve some issues, standard communication channels remain a challenge.
Kenny said the RCAF and NORAD learned a lot from the exercise in March and “incorporated that this time around” to better enable command and control of all air assets. He credited the skill of the members of 2 Wing Bagotville, the Air Force’s air expeditionary wing, with developing novel solutions to link ground and SATCOM based networks. “They continue to amaze me with their ingenuity,” he said.
That included not only developing a ground-based architecture to connect and move data, but also tying together the various systems on the AWACS, fighters, tankers, and other platforms. “Seeing that come together was very impressive, to be honest.”
The common operational picture also included data integrated from the ground-based air defense (GBAD) system in Cold Lake. “We had a team from the U.S. Air Force do the integration of the U.S. Army’s GBAD system onto the Link architecture, and then push that to the fighters, the AWAC, and the Canadian Air Defence Sector,” Kenny explained.
As a result, the exercise confirmed NORAD’s ability to integrate the GBAD system and address cruise missile defense from multiple locations simultaneously.
Building on previous iterations of Amalgam Dart, the RCAF also incorporated and positioned a sizable SAR capacity close to the action. Aircrews and CH-149 Cormorant helicopters from 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 19 Wing Comox, B.C., and 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia, utilized facilities in Yellowknife, Iqaluit, and Thule, as well as fuel caches in remote locations to reach CFS Alert. A CH-146 and CC-130H Hercules from 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 8 Wing positioned in Iqaluit to support the exercise.
Stationing SAR assets closer to the simulated fight would have allowed them to respond in a “more timely fashion” to an actual incident if a fighter pilot had been forced to eject, but it was also an opportunity for aircrews to become more familiar with the High Arctic, “to practice their procedures, their ability to deploy and employ from different locations,” said Kenny. “They received a lot of great training going to different locations on the way up to CFS Alert, plus they did several training events while they were at CFS Alert.”
That included hoisting SAR technicians and landing under a variety of conditions and topography. “It builds their confidence and their readiness to deploy anywhere within the Canadian region to provide search-and-rescue capabilities,” he added.
As an ongoing building block exercise, Amalgam Dart is critical to helping NORAD refine its capabilities, Kenny emphasized. “As the commander of Canadian NORAD Region, I learned a tremendous amount about the integration of all the different assets and power of the binational command and what it can do. It highlighted to me the readiness that we have to do our mission, the deterrence, the detection and, if required, the defeat of our adversaries.”