As the USAF realigns its strategy towards "great power competition" with potential peer state enemies like Russia and China, high-profile displays of readiness among its combat aircraft fleets are becoming far more common than they were in the past. This time around, 3rd Wing based at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, Alaska showed off its might by concurrently generating a whopping 24 stealthy F-22 Raptors, an E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning And Control System aircraft, and a C-17 Globemaster III cargo jet—all of which call the base home.
The 3rd Wing's "elephant walk," which occurred on March 26th, 2019, is uniquely important as the aircraft and airmen that make up the Wing would be among the first to rush to a crisis zone in the Pacific region. On top of that, the F-22s and E-3s based at Elmendorf AFB are the tip of America's air defense spear for a huge block of airspace that backs up right against Russia's own territory and the increasingly strategic Arctic region.
24 hours a day and 365 days a year, within a matter of minutes from when the klaxon sounds, a pair of fully armed and tanked-up F-22s can be scrambled into the air and race towards potential threats operating near U.S. airspace. Often times, a fully crewed E-3 follows right behind them. This happens far more often than most realize in an age of resurgent Russian long-range aviation forces. Russian strategic bombers, tankers, early warning and spy aircraft, and even escorting fighters are common visitors to the airspace off Alaska's frigid shores.
On a larger scale, during a big emergency or contingency operation, the airman at Elmendorf AFB may be tasked with generating as many Raptor sorties as possible in a minimal amount of time. So this elephant walk isn't just a grand photo op, it is an opportunity for high-tempo training and internal evaluation.
A total of 47 F-22s called Elmendorf AFB home before Hurricane Michael slammed into Florida's Tyndall AFB last October. Since then, a handful of that base's jets have been redistributed to Alaska. As such, the total number of F-22s now assigned to the base is unknown.
With this in mind, the elephant walk featured less than half of the Raptors housed there. This sounds a bit disappointing, but it really is quite impressive. The F-22A fleet suffers from less than stellar availability rates and at least three aircraft are sitting alert duty at any given time. In addition, it isn't clear if any of the other Raptors stationed at Elmendorf AFB were away for training exercises, deployments, or depot-level maintenance work when the elephant walk occurred. Also, we know for a fact that a number of F-22s assigned to the base—at least three—were damaged in mishaps in 2018. These aircraft may not have been fully repaired and ready to fly when the exercise took place.
So, 3rd Wing did an impressive job showing its air combat muscle to the world and the inclusion of the E-3 and C-17 was absolutely great because it served as a reminder that the F-22 couldn't do its job to anywhere near its potential without the help of those aircraft and the airmen who work so hard to keep them flying.
It's also worth noting that every single F-22 pictured is fitted with a pair of 600-gallon external fuel tanks. These jets weren't just generated as they sat, they were configured to actually deploy abroad or to execute long-range air defense missions over the frigid northern reaches of American territory. This is also the same configuration of the base's alert jets.
With all that said, let's enjoy some shots of Raptors in the wild set among some gorgeous Alaskan backdrops:
Update: 12:50pm PDT—
Apparently, this elephant walk is tied into a larger exercise called Polar Force. According to 3rd Wing, the "two-week exercise gives squadrons an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities to forward deploy and deliver overwhelming combat airpower." So, we may see more unique action out of the base in the days to come.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com