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Defending North American airspace is the no-fail mission of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). But in recent years, fulfilling the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) mandate of aerospace warning and control and maritime warning has become a much busier task.
In the past three years NORAD has seen a significant increase in the number of bombers, tankers and fighter jets near continental airspace since Russian president Vladimir Putin reinstated long-range air patrols in 2007.
“It’s not just the frequency, it’s where they’re flying, [although] they’re adhering to international standards,” U.S. Admiral William Gortney, the former commander of NORAD, told the CBC in 2015. Reports have placed Russian aircraft off the northern coasts of Alaska and Canada, along coastal corridors in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and in the Caribbean.
“This is probably the most active they’ve been since the end of the Cold War,” added MGen David Wheeler, former commander of 1 Canadian Air Division, at the time.
Last week, NORAD hosted Vigilant Shield 17, an annual exercise that has become the unified command’s largest test of its ability to carry out collective defence of the two countries’ airspace.
The exercise, which ran from Oct. 17 to 21, blended live-flying with simulated elements in several regions throughout the United States and Canada, including the high Arctic.
Although the specific exercise scenarios were kept under wraps, they reflected many of the challenges NORAD faces to detect, identify and intercept the growing range of threats.
“They are built on scenarios that we train for,” said David Lavallee, a public affairs officer with 1 Canadian Air Division and Canadian NORAD Region Headquarters. “Every year as we do this exercise, it involves scenarios that we have to actively defend North America.”
The Canadian portion of Vigilant Shield involved the deployment of CF-188 Hornets from 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta., to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, U.S. Air Force (USAF) F-15 Eagle jets to Yellowknife, and USAF E-3 Sentry airborne early warning and control aircraft and KC-135 Stratotankers to 5 Wing Goose Bay in Newfoundland. The exact number of each aircraft was also being kept secret.
Contracted “red” air was being used to simulate enemy fighters and, if previous exercises such as Amalgam Dart 2015 were any indication, the Stratotankers may have been simulating enemy bombers in addition to providing air-to-air refueling.
While Vigilant Shield served as confirmation of Canada-U.S. interoperability and NORAD’s capacity to exercise sovereignty and respond to a variety of situations, it was also a test of ability to deploy and operate in harsh northern and Arctic conditions.
“It allows the sites to be exercised themselves as locations under which we would operate NORAD forces if necessary,” said Lavallee. “[And] it also allows our people to get familiar with these places if they ever had to deploy there for real world operations.”
As a further test of Arctic capability, the RCAF had forward-deployed search and rescue (SAR) assets to the most remote locations over which the fighter jets were training. Although they were only serving in support of Vigilant Shield, a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter was at Canadian Forces Station Alert while a Cormorant and CC-130H Hercules SAR aircraft were at the USAF’s Point Barrow Long Range Radar Site in Alaska.
“The last thing we want to see is an aircraft go down, but if that happens we have dedicated SAR assets that are forward located to respond,” Lavallee explained.
In total, approximately 400 personnel from the RCAF, Canadian Army, USAF and U.S. National Guard were participating in the Canadian portion of Vigilant Shield, which was under the command of Canadian NORAD Region Headquarters in Winnipeg.
“We conduct simulated and live flying exercises on a small scale throughout the year, but this really is the big one,” Lavallee said.