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NORAD Agile Airpower Seminar Goes Virtual

By CANR Public Affairs Canadian NORAD Region Public Affairs

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In the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), we often say ‘flexibility is the key to Air Power,’ and this was no different on the morning of May 27, 2020, when members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the United States Department of Defense, and other stakeholders virtually convened the latest edition of the series of Arctic Air Power Seminars, renamed to become: Joint Agile Basing Air Power Seminar, or JABAS.

As defence partners during the COVID-19 era, it was important for our stakeholders to still hold this important, and productive meeting – the fourth of its kind. Rather than expose the group to the risk of infection from the Coronavirus, the decision was made to hold the latest edition via video teleconference.

This time around, the group focused on four key themes – understanding existing infrastructure and capabilities in Canada’s northern communities; discussing current operations in Canada’s north; the evolution of resupplying North America’s most northern permanently inhabited settlement (Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert); and the emergence of temporary aircraft servicing facility technology for the extreme cold of Canada’s north.

“We are committed to bringing together industry, academic, government, and military expertise to talk about solutions to problems,” said United States Air Force Brigadier General (Brig Gen) Ed “Hertz” Vaughan, Deputy Commander Canadian NORAD Region, and deputy Combined / Joint Forces Air Component commander for 1 Canadian Air Division.

“In nearly three decades of operating in polar environments, I’ve learned that teamwork across organizations, open communication, and a willingness to think creatively, are keys to successful execution.”

During the seminar, the group discussed an ongoing evaluation of a temporary aircraft hangar system, known as the Expeditionary Forces Aircraft Support Shelter, or EFASS. Currently, there is one such structure built at 4 Wing Cold Lake, in central-eastern Alberta. Winter temperatures there can average -30 degrees Celsius or colder, for weeks on end, providing the perfect proving ground for extreme cold weather technological solutions.

The plan is to build two more of these shelters, and evaluate their performance, in case similar structures are required further north during real world NORAD or humanitarian missions.

Canada is no stranger to year-round extreme cold weather domestic operations. As previously mentioned, North America’s most northern permanently inhabited settlement (CFS Alert) is located in Canada, a mere 500 nautical miles south of the North Pole, and actually closer to Moscow than it is to Ottawa.

Resupplying this extremely cold and remote location takes a year-round effort, with small, monthly resupply flights, punctuated by two large-scale supply runs – once in the fall, and once in the spring during an operation called “Boxtop.” Normally this operation is staged out of the United States Air Force’s northernmost base, Thule Air Base, near Qaanaaq, Greenland. Recently, as a result of COVID-19 precautions, some Thule based missions for this spring were staged directly out of Trenton, in Ontario, and Yellowknife, in Northwest Territories.

This presented a significant challenge, mostly in terms of covering the vast distance from Trenton to Alert while carrying the “normal” volume of supplies and fuel.

What emerged as the most viable solution to the problem was what the RCAF call “Mini-Boxtops,” which when rolled together as a group are coming to be known as “Boxtop Next.” Mini-Boxtops are a series of smaller supply runs – yet still larger than the normal monthly resupply of mail, fresh food and other supplies – every month.

The plan is to develop Boxtop Next over the coming months, as a means to possibly establish a more resilient and sustainable way of conducting resupply missions into CFS Alert, and other Arctic locations.

All this increased activity in Canada’s far north requires a great deal of coordination with our partners at Joint Task Force – North (JTF-N), based out of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. As part of their support to operations in Canada’s north, JTF-N leads planning and execution for what the CAF refers to as our “N-Series” of exercises, under the Op NANOOK banner of operations.

The RCAF’s role in this series of exercises is coordinated within JTF-N by an element known as the Air Component Coordination Element – North, or ACCE-North. Currently, this role is led by recently promoted Lieutenant Colonel Steve Thompson, a CC-138 Twin Otter pilot and former pilot with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds – he spoke at the Seminar.

“Our connection to the people and communities in the Arctic are vital to our ability to provide Air Power to the Chain of Command in the Arctic,” said Lieutenant Colonel Thompson, JTF-N ACCE.

“We serve the Commander of JTF-N as an advisor, and liaise with all RCAF units to plan and conduct operations and activities in the JTF-N area of responsibility, which as you can imagine is an enormous territory.”

LCol Thompson and his team work with the JTF-N staff to ensure proper coordination takes place between RCAF units and local communities, and that appropriate notification processes take place regarding land use in the Arctic. They also ensure the Commander of JTF-N is aware of all RCAF activity in the region, thus providing situational awareness of the region.

The mandate LCol Thompson supports, as well as the operations and exercises he helps manage were discussed during the Seminar. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, many of the “N-Series” of exercises are on hold or greatly reduced this year (e.g. Nunalivut, Nunakput and Tatigiit); but the ACCE-North team continue to plan for future operations and support all northern activities within JTF-N.

Another project JTF-N is working to support, and which was discussed during the seminar is a Deputy Joint Forces Air Component Commander initiative known as the Northern Airfield Survey, spearheaded by 2 Air Expeditionary Wing out of Bagotville, Quebec. This project aims to visit nearly three-dozen small and remote communities across Canada’s north, to evaluate their airport infrastructure as potential locations for RCAF operations.

The goal is to build a network of operating locations to support contingent operations such as humanitarian or environmental disaster relief, as well as NORAD operations or exercises.

“As with any mission in Canada’s vast north, we rely heavily on partnership with local communities, which is why having Joint Task Force – North at the lead is such an integral part of our strategy when working with Canadians in the Arctic,” highlighted Brig Gen Vaughan.

“They are the link we need with inter-government officials, 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, as well as the towns and hamlets throughout the region, so together we can protect our collective interests,” he said.

Similar airfield surveys have been conducted over the years, but never on this large of a scale, and in this much detail. The plan is to make this project a driver for change, to identify available capabilities, and use the working relationships established during opportunities like these seminars to further develop them.

The next iteration of the Seminar may also be conducted virtually; but as COVID-19 restrictions across Canada are lifted, there may be an opportunity to once again meet in person, perhaps in one of our amazing northern communities, to continue this collaborative process, and drive further innovation in Canada’s north.


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