ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT -- Even as F-22 Raptors conducted two intercepts of Russian bombers off Alaska's coast early this week, the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt ran training operations in the Gulf of Alaska -- the first time a carrier group has joined the biennial Arctic exercise in a decade.
The 12-day Exercise Northern Edge is the largest joint U.S. military training operation in the region. More than 10,000 troops from all the services are expected to participate, with thousands coming into the state and staying at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, about 150 miles from where the Roosevelt conducted turns off the coast Wednesday.
Focused largely on air warfare, the exercise pits a "red team" and a "blue team" of American forces against each other, primarily over the Alaska Range mountains.
Bringing a carrier into this exercise made sense, given the Pentagon's focus on defense as climate change opens up the Arctic amid growing threats from China and Russia, officials said.
"With a renewed emphasis and focus on the Pacific ... my strike group had the opportunity to participate, and we're happy to do so," said Rear Adm. Dan Dwyer, who commands Carrier Strike Group Nine, which includes the Roosevelt.
"My mission as a strike group commander is to provide prompt and sustained combat operations at sea. ... Any time that I can get the strike group to sea and just conduct reps and sets of different missions that we would be potentially be called upon to perform is invaluable," he said. "And then you throw in the added benefit of training alongside the joint force, that just further increases my readiness, makes me more capable and, in the end, more lethal. And that is my mission."
Although the ship did practice anchoring in the Gulf of Alaska, its sailors won't see shore leave during this trip north, said Lt. Cmdr. Julie Holland, a spokesperson for the Roosevelt. No port in Alaska is equipped to handle the presence of an aircraft carrier or its 5,000-odd crew members.
Operating in Alaska's waters brings new challenges for the carrier's crew, which is homeported in San Diego, particularly in regard to the "hazards" of fishing vessels and sea mammal traffic, sailors on the bridge said.
In 2017, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski sent a letter to U.S. Pacific Command leaders asking them to consider bumping this year's exercise to the autumn out of concern for migrating sea life, which could be impacted by the carrier group's traffic and use of sonar. That would have pushed the exercise to the end of Alaska's commercial salmon fishing season, which opened this month. Navy leaders, however, said a 2016 environmental assessment found that the exercise's impact on marine life would be minimal.
While not a part of the exercise, the carrier is also preparing to welcome its first F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, slated to join the strike group no later than 2025, Dwyer said.
But since Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, is set to receive two squadrons of the Air Force's F-35A by next year, the aircraft is likely to play a starring role in the 2021 version of the joint exercise.
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.