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Communicating Across the North: An Alaskan NORAD Region perspective

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Capt Kris Hjalmarson, an RCAF officer serving with the Alaska NORAD Region, visited a DEW Line radar station on Barter Island, Alaska Air Force Articles Capt Kris Hjalmarson, an RCAF officer serving with the Alaska NORAD Region, visited a DEW Line radar station on Barter Island, Alaska Air Force Articles

Being in the United States Air Force (or in my case, the Royal Canadian Air Force) allows people to see some pretty incredible parts of the world – places that no average person could possibly ever experience with their work, or even on a weekend vacation – to the last frontier.

I am a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) officer posted to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) in Alaska. I work with the 611th Air Communications Squadron (ACOMS) in communications support of the Alaskan NORAD Region (ANR) mission.

In an organization of about 25 United States Air Force personnel and 15 Department of Defense civilians, it is certainly a unique and wonderful experience being the sole Canadian in an entirely American organization. I am fully integrated within the Squadron and am embraced to focus on our common NORAD mission.

(In total, more than 35 Canadian Forces personnel work with the Canadian Detachment in support of the ANR at JBER near Anchorage.)

My current focal point is to oversee and monitor mid- to long-term project upgrades of ANR radars. I also champion movements on how to efficiently and effectively distribute radar and communications feeds to create maximum redundancy across the North.

This endeavor, I anticipate, will further link Canadian NORAD Region (CANR) and ANR together, creating an even stronger communications link and partnership across the North.

One incredible aspect of my job is the opportunity to travel to some of the remote radar locations across Alaska. I have been fortunate enough to travel in a USAF C-12 [a twin-engine turboprop aircraft manufactured by Beechcraft] to Sparrevohn, Tatalina, and Barter Island in Alaska.

At Barter Island in the Beaufort Sea, I had the wonderful experience of seeing the first Distant Early Warning Line (DEW) radar station, which is still holding strong to this day.

(Barter Island was a major trade center (circa 1900) for the Inupiat people and was especially important as a bartering place for Inupiat from Alaska and Inuit from Canada, hence its name.)

At Barter Island every year, the Inupiat people [near the community of Kaktovik] catch whales, and discard the unwanted parts of the hunt on the Island, attracting numerous polar bear every year, like clockwork.

On my trip in September 2012, I saw nine polar bears, having missed the 70 that were there at the same time only one week before.

Communications infrastructure certainly takes you to some very interesting areas of the world!

The North is a wonderful and majestic place. The ground is untouched by human presence. Flying above much of Alaska, I see no fields, roads, or power lines – no signs of smoke or pollution. This peaceful, rugged expanse is quite honestly one of the last frontiers of America.

I have experienced the Arctic in places such as Thule, Greenland, as well as Fort MacPherson, N.W.T., and Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut, where I spent three months in 2006 as an officer cadet doing “on-the-job training”.

Now, having a slightly broader perspective of the Arctic (albeit largely from a military perspective), I have come to cultivate a fondness to the North American Arctic. The Arctic is the only spot I know of where you can stop your car, turn off the engine, get out, and experience absolute silence.

However, as the North is experiencing more change from one year to the next, we must pause for a moment and consider something. There is the potential that this eerie silence and untouched landscape may not fully exist within the lifetime of our next generation.

I do genuinely feel that the North is certainly something worth protecting. In order to keep up with this changing environment I believe it is important that Canadians, Americans, and members of our armed forces stay ahead of the curve, and continue to invest our thoughts, our ideas, and our continued presence in the North.

Working with the United States in the Arctic is a very unique and gratifying experience. I find both Canada and the U.S. take great pride in the North, and we both experience and appreciate this land in similar ways. As the distance narrows between the lines of longitude towards the North Pole, the Arctic becomes ever increasingly a smaller and smaller place; sets of values will need to be shared and many countries will need to cooperate and embrace this area together.

I believe Canada and the U.S. have been, and continue to be pioneers in leading the way, sharing partnered responsibility for protection of our territories through the NORAD mission, helping to keep this last brilliant wilderness glorious and free while we move north to the future.

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