JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
Besides her distinctively mottled Canadian Disruptive Pattern uniform and a habit of pronouncing lieutenant as “left-tenant,” there is nothing differentiating Royal Canadian Air Force Capt. Elyse O’Brien, 176th Air Defense Squadron air battle manager, from her fellow “Top Rock” squadron members.
While monitoring her radar-display scope directing F-22 Raptor fighters, O’Brien works shoulder-to-shoulder with her American counterparts from the Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Wing.
Alaska Air National Guard Lt. Col. James Fowley, 176th ADS commander, said the relationship between the U.S. Air Force, the Alaska Air National Guard and the RCAF spans decades as the constituent parts of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
“The foundation of the relationship goes back to the founding of NORAD in the ‘50s,” he said. “NORAD was founded as a bi-national command meaning Canadians and Americans were joined at the start for the defense of North America, which includes both of our countries. As that relationship has grown and evolved through the years, it has come to the point where we have Canadian officers and enlisted personnel stationed at Elmendorf, and those people are embedded with the 176th Air Defense Squadron as well as the 962nd (Airborne Air Control Squadron). The only difference is the different uniforms and occasionally a different turn of phrase.”
From the secure, high-tech Region operations floor on JBER, the 176th ADS keeps continuous watch on the skies over North America. The ADS is part of the Alaskan NORAD Region (ANR). Squadron Airmen work with regular Air Force members of the ANR, the 11th Air Force and the 611th Air Operations Center to detect and intercept any intrusion into U.S. or Canadian airspace. The line of demarcation often used is the air defense identification zone.
“The air defense identification zone is a piece of airspace where we have the responsibility and the control to be able to identify different air tracks that enter the ADIZ,” O’Brien said. “That allows us to identify who is coming into our airspace – Are they friendly? Do we know who they are? – and that’s a really important piece of understanding who is coming into our airspace.”
At O’Brien’s fingertips is an ADS computer on the receiving end of a lot of radar data covering Alaska and the surrounding region.
“Our scopes give us a broad-level view of being able to see the Alaska airspace,” she said. “We are able to see radar data, and we get those feeds from different radar sites. This lets us know who it is and potentially what altitude they are at and some of their identifiers through some of the modes and codes that they squawk.”
The modes and codes are transmitted by the aircraft transponder and help identify it as civilian or military.
If ANR leadership should decide to intercept, they will direct the 611th AOC to issue the order, and 176th ADS would work closely with Raptor pilots of 3rd Wing’s 90th and 525th Fighter Squadrons, Reserve component F-22 pilots from the 302nd Fighter Squadron as well as E-3 Sentry air battle managers of 962nd AACS.
“We are responsible at the tactical level to provide direction to the fighters,” O’Brien said, further explaining strategic command and guidance come from U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Krumm, 11th Air Force and ANR commander. “I am one of the Airmen reaching out to pilots over the radio, contacting them over the phone pre-mission as well as being a key piece of the command-and-control component within the NORAD enterprise.”
A native of Bradford, Ontario, 40 minutes outside of Toronto, O’Brien was three years into earning a psychology degree before she decided to pursue a military commission. She said she was influenced by service members from the nearby Royal Military College of Canada and other local military facilities.
“I think I really fell into the military,” O’Brien said. “There is a base in Kingston as well as a military college, so you start to get to know people who go there, and you start to think, ‘Oh, this is a pretty decent job.’”
O’Brien said she chose the RCAF aerospace control officer career field.
“This was a job I happened to qualify for based on aptitude, testing and my degree, so I heard weapons was one of the options, I thought it sounded pretty cool, and that’s how I got into it,” she said.
O’Brien said she looked at Washington and Alaska as outside-Canada, called OUTCAN, assignments of choice. As fate would have it, she was posted to Canada’s northern neighbor state.
“Alaska is not like where I’m from,” she explained. “I’m not used to the mountains because there are mostly just hills in southern Ontario. For me, Alaska is absolutely beautiful, and it doesn’t get old.”
O’Brien said she has two military homes at JBER in the 176th ADS and the Canadian Detachment JBER.
“There is definitely a pretty strong Canadian component here,” she said. “It makes things interesting. We definitely do get made fun of for how we say things sometimes, but other than that, I think we bring trainings that, maybe, Americans don’t have, and they bring training that we don’t have, so we’re able to fill in a lot of those gaps.”
Fowley echoed O’Brien’s assessment of the blend of experience.
“A lot of the Canadians spend a large portion if not their entire career in the air defense organization, so they bring a wealth of knowledge with them when they check into the unit, knowledge our Guardsmen may not have based on their background,” he said before mentioning other benefits of the RCAF integration. “When you’re working a 24/7/365 operation, it’s really nice to have three in a crew position instead of two. It really gives you some relief from the night schedule but the benefit goes far beyond that.”
Fowley said RCAF Airmen and Alaska Air National Guardsmen are trained to the same standard and are employed in an identical manner. Additionally, RCAF officers and noncommissioned officers are vested with the same authorities.
“I like to say, when I give folks tours, that there are times at 2 in the morning when Alaska is defended by a Canadian mission crew commander, a Canadian mission crew technician/enlisted member, the senior director is Canadian, and the controller on call is Canadian as well, so Team Canada is protecting Alaska from inside Alaska,” he said. “Canadians are truly integrated in the entire mission of defending North America. We can’t do it without them.”
Fowley said he has been impressed with O’Brien’s work ethic and her ability to take the records from a defensive counter-air mission, analyze those records, and then work with the Americans to improve processes.
“She is an extremely dedicated and hard-working individual,” he said. “What I mean by that is she is really taken the lead for some of the Americans to help show them from a debrief perspective what they can and should be doing.”
After serving in the squadron, O’Brien said she relishes the assignment.
“From a professional standpoint, I feel grateful and really lucky to be here,” she said. “I know that there are some opportunities that I may not get in Canada that I do get here. It’s definitely somewhere where if you want to get really good at your job as a controller, this is the place to be.”