‘Airborne object’ response builds on UAF, military partnership
March 16, 2023
Robert McCoy, director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, was driving to the movie theater in Fairbanks on a Saturday in mid-February when his cellphone showed an incoming call.
It was from someone with the Department of Defense’s Alaskan Command, a person he knows well. The caller had a request: Could the Geophysical Institute help search for the remains of an airborne object shot down by an Air Force fighter jet over Alaska’s Arctic Ocean seven days earlier?
From the theater parking lot, McCoy contacted Geophysical Institute experts in sea ice, snow, lidar, hyperspectral sensing, Arctic weather, synthetic aperture radar satellites and uncrewed aircraft systems.
Within hours, the institute’s researchers began acquiring and analyzing SAR satellite data, weather data and sea ice observations. The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration began preparing to deploy a SeaHunter drone to Prudhoe Bay for photogrammetric observations of the sea ice.
Commanders ultimately decided to call off the search a few days later without using Geophysical Institute resources, but the incident did focus their attention on the support the institute can offer the Defense Department and other government security agencies with growing Arctic interests.
“In many ways this interaction was an outstanding success for UAF and the Geophysical Institute because we were prepared immediately to assist with an urgent Department of Defense need, with a deep bench of Arctic experts, and use non-Defense Department satellites and drones,” McCoy said.
The effort showcased the ability of the UAF Geophysical Institute to be an essential partner in the federal government’s increased regional awareness.
The interaction bolsters the case for adding Arctic subjects to UAF’s mission as one of the Defense Department’s 15 university affiliated research centers, McCoy said. UARCs, each with a different expertise, serve as a bridge between the Defense Department and entities that can provide the services or facilities the department needs.
The Geophysical Institute operates Geophysical Detection of Nuclear Proliferation UARC. During the time the Geophysical Institute was preparing to be involved, the UARC’s director was sent to the Alaskan Command to coordinate efforts in a classified setting.
Remains of the airborne object, shot down Feb. 10 by a fighter jet from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, have reportedly not been found. The search has been halted.
The incident was just the latest Arctic-related contact the Geophysical Institute has had from military and government agencies.
Inquiries have come in recent months from the Alaskan Command, U.S. Northern Command, National Security Agency and Alaska National Guard, all wanting to know about Geophysical Institute capabilities. These include over-the-horizon radar, satellite downlink from polar orbiting satellites, satellite weather data, ground-based weather data, seismic, permafrost and volcano data.
Those inquiries show that the Geophysical Institute is ready to be the Defense Department’s source of Arctic knowledge while continuing its current scientific tasks, McCoy said. The Geophysical Institute’s UARC will be a major enabler of those potential partnerships.
The Geophysical Institute’s UARC assists the Department of Defense in its oversight and guidance of research, development, testing, evaluation and use of scientific and technological capabilities to better sense, locate, characterize and assess the threat potential of nuclear activities globally.
“As the Defense Department and U.S. Coast Guard encounter new challenges in the Arctic, UAF can be the place they turn to for all things Arctic — advice, technical assistance and access to industrial capabilities,” McCoy said. “The whole point of the nationwide system of UARCs is to provide university capabilities to the Defense Department rapidly and through long-term relationships.”
The U.S. Arctic Research Commission recommended in its goals for 2023-2024 that a UARC specializing in the Arctic be created or that an existing UARC be given that task.