Exercise Northern Lightning 2019

The goal of the United States Air Force (USAF)is to have an effective fighting force of 5th generation stealthy, hyper-situation-aware data-linked fighters. With the strength in numbers of the Lockheed F-22A Raptors as it stands today, and delays in the Lockheed F-35 Lightning II program, and given the taskings of the various deployments going on world-wide, the US Air Force is forced to come up with a synergistic approach between the 4th and the 5th generation fighters it wields at this place in time. The USAF is increasing its 5th generation combat aircraft footprint with the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter while filling the gaps with  fourth-generation aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-16 Viper, Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt, and Boeing F-15C/E Eagle/Strike-Eagle making up the workhorses of the fleet. Interoperation between the 5th generation aircraft and 4th generation aircraft is therefore an essential need, and training for that is an absolute mandatory requirement for effective success in any conflict. The focus of this year’s second edition of Exercise Northern Lightning was just that.

Exercise Northern Lightning is conducted twice every year at Volk Field Air National Guard Base in Wisconsin. The exercise began on August 12, 2019 and scheduled to run till August 23, 2019. Colonel David May, who is the commander of Volk Field, gave some historical background of the exercise. “This is our 21st Northern Lightning exercise, having started in 2003. The exercise has grown significantly in size since 2015 to its current shape that you see here today. Volk Field is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year as well – sixty five years ago this portion of the field became a field training site for the Air National Guard. And back then, like now, the most advanced fighter aircraft of the US Air Force and Air National Guard were training here for any security challenges they might face overseas. Fast forward to 2019, and still the most advanced fighter aircraft that our nation have, are training jointly mixing active Guard and Reserve components again, preparing for the security challenges that are present today. And Volk Field is uniquely qualified to do that. We think of ourselves as a national treasure, but when you combine our facilities, our people, our technology, our range, our airspace, what you have is the Air National Guard’s premier counter-land training facility.

The main objective of the exercise was to provide  tactical level joint training for the US Air Force, Navy and Marines, with a focus on objectives defined by the participating units that resulted in tailored, scenario based, full spectrum, high end training. The main scenarios played out were Opposed Air Interdiction (OAI) and Close Air Support (CAS) against a highly Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) composed of relevant surface-to-air and air-to-air threats in a Contested/Degraded Operational (CDO) environment. The range of missions varied from Offensive/Defensive Counter Air (OCA/DCA), Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD/DEAD) and CAS. There were two VULs (or missions) every day with the first “go” taking off at 0930-1000 Local Time (LT) and the afternoon one around 1400LT.

The base is also known as Volk Field CRTC (Combat Readiness Training Center). What makes Volk Field CRTC, Counterland Center the ideal location to conduct the training is as Col. David May explained “Volk Field CRTC airspace is equipped with automated instrumentation that provides effective simulated threats from the ground using “threat emitters” for the different kinds of SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) systems fielded by the adversaries. This makes it ideal grounds for aircrew training for the close-air support or strike missions as well as those conducting SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) missions.

The Volk Field airspace is divided into areas called Volk East and Lightning to the east, and Volk West and Volk South in the center and Falls to the west. The blue or friendly forces assemble in the Volk East and Volk South while the enemy forces stage to the west. The Counterland Center has one SA-3 UMTE (Unmanned Modular Threat Emitter), one SA-8 UMTE, one SA-15 UMTE, and one SA-6 UMTE. These can have a fixed location per week. It also has two Joint Threat Emitters (JTEs) and one Tactical Radar Threat Generator (TRTG) that are mobile and can replicate different threats within the VUL. These systems are designed to train aircrews to survive in a combat environment by simulating the variety of Russian SAM systems and AAA threat and radar signals which interact with the aircraft’s Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) and Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) to provide a realistic CDO environment. The threat emitters are spread across all the above areas that are occupied by the enemy forces.

Hardwood Range is centrally located in the air training corridor, allowing a full spectrum of target sets that support live, laser-guided and GPS-guided munitions, moving strafe, and synthetic aperture radar targets. Additionally, joint fire observers from Fort McCoy can be integrated into the exercise. The range also includes modern day city replicas as found in the conflict regions to train for urban close air support (Urban CAS) for the air crews.

Providing further details, he added, “Volk Field CRTC has a 9,000 feet runway dedicated for military aircraft, and most importantly 12,000 square miles of airspace beginning from La Crosse in the west to Oshkosh in the east. The fighters can go supersonic during combat and fly as high as 50,000 feet. We coordinate with the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) centers in Minneapolis and Chicago so combat training traffic does not interfere with the commercial air traffic. In fact, we embed some of the FAA folks with us during the exercise for additional cooperation. It also exposes them as to what and how exactly training is conducted to prepare the crews for future conflicts. We secure the airspace prior to the day’s missions, and we give it back for commercial and general aviation traffic once the recoveries from each launch are completed.”

This year different types of aircraft from different parts of the country deployed to Volk Field. The United States Marine Corps (USMC) brought their F-35B Lightning IIs from VMFA-211 “Wake Island Avengers” from MCAS Yuma, Arizona. The USAF brought the F-35A from 58th Fighter Squadron “Mighty Gorillas” from Eglin AFB, Florida. Additionally, F-22A Raptors from the 94th Fighter Squadron “Hat in the Ring” and Northrop T-38 Talons from 71st Fighter Squadron “Ironmen” from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virgina participated in the exercise. The United States Navy (USN) was represented by Boeing EA-18G Growlers from VAQ-136 “Gauntlets” based at NAS Whidbey Island, from Washington State. The neighboring Minnesota Air National Guard had their F-16CM Vipers in Have Glass V scheme operating in the SEAD role. The F-16C Vipers from 176th Fighter Squadron of the Wisconsin Air National Guard launched and recovered from Truax Field, in Madison. Draken International had four of their Aero Vodochody L-159 Honey Badgers deployed from Nellis AFB.

The challenge today is to beef up the Red Air numbers for the 5th generation fighters. The Draken and the Talons represented the enemy air component. Sometimes to introduce variation in the scenario, a Growler or even couple of F-35s acted as the Red Air component.

Exercise Director Col. Bart “BVR” Van Roo mentioned that there were ground USAF squads that were practicing their M16 and pistol qualifications. These are members of the JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) who embed themselves with special forces and coordinate air attacks if the need arises. In a mission package, there are different aircraft taking up different roles that are needed for a successful outcome of the mission objectives. Aircraft like the F-22 Raptor are primary air supremacy aircraft, and provide domination of the skies during a strike, and provide protection from air threats to the other aircraft in the package. EA-18G Growlers from the US Navy provide SEAD/DEAD capabilities that jam enemy radars and force them to either shut down or render them incapable of detecting the friendly strike aircraft. F-16CMs specialize in DEAD – that is destruction of the enemy radar and missile sites that target the incoming strike package. F-35A from the Air Force also work with the F-22 Raptors in providing additional air support, while the F-35B from the Marines are the ones who provide interdiction/strike or close air support to friendly ground troops. This air supremacy mission is often termed as Offensive Counter Air – where the fight is taken to the enemy on their ground. Part of the subset of OCA is also SEAD and that is where the F-35A from the 58th FS worked with the fourth-generation aircraft like the F-16CM of the Duluth ANG providing them target information containing the location of enemy radars and missile sites.

On the question on this year’s focus on training for threats that are different from the previous years, Col. Van Roo explained “What we try and do is examine what the current threat scenarios are,  which units are participating in the exercise, and compare that with any specific training that is lacking, and will build towards that particular scenario. Units are also tasked with new mission sets and they are also searching for trying out approaches to certain scenarios. This year we are training for both the high-end dynamic threat in the air-to-air scenarios, as well as the traditional support of the ground troops, keeping in focus the integration of 4th and 5th generation assets. The fighting in the airspace is above 10,000 feet up to 50,000 feet and training in a high-density airspace of up to 40 aircraft in the airspace. We use the scenarios to validate if the technology works in the right way, providing effective tools to the aircrews in successfully executing the mission.”

The previous year’s edition had units from the test community taking part in the exercise, for example F-35As from Edwards AFB participated as well as some of the test units from Eglin AFB. This time round it was the 58th Fighter Squadron, which is a regular training unit of the USAF, training incoming rookie pilots on the F-35A, and the pilots taking part in the exercise were Instructor pilots (IPs) from the unit. The reason for having test units be a part of the exercise is for them to test and validate how the new avionics software works in complex combat scenarios and for them to take feedback to the vendor on making it effective by improving or ironing out bugs in the software suite.

Capt. Zachary “Lips” Clements from the 58th FS flying the F-35As gave his perspective on what missions they were flying in the exercise, “We flew up here to integrate with 4th and 5th generation fighters and train for advanced surface-to-air threats which Volk Field Training Complex allows us to do. We are mainly flying Offensive Counter Air (OCA) and we normally fly a subset of that which is SEAD/DEAD mission set. It is the primary mission set of the 179th Fighter Squadron of the Duluth ANG flying the 4th generation F-16CMs and gives us a great opportunity to integrate the two generations in that particular mission set, and come up with a synergistic approach to deal with surface-to-air threats. ”

Commenting on the different versions of the Marine F-35Bs which are of the newer Block compared to the F-35A of the US Air Force, Lips explained, “We fly the one of the oldest F-35s that were made. So right now, at this exercise we have about six of the older F-35As which are upgraded and six that are not. The latter non-upgraded ones do present a challenge from a inter-connectivity aspect with the upgraded ones. All the upgraded jets communicate fine with the B model F-35s of the Marines out there and any other F-35 running a 30PO3 software, so there are no inherent limitations with the older jets that have been upgraded. And all of our jets are fragged to be upgraded.” Speaking on the limitations of the older jet, Lips mentioned “The F-35-to-F-35 data link is not compatible so the old ones are not compatible with the new ones from a data sharing aspect. The newer software also has much more advanced finding and fixing capabilities than the older software, to the point that the older jets do not have the full capability as the newer F-35s. The upgraded ones have the baseline capability of what you can expect from a combat coded F-35.”

Capt. Clements himself came from the SEAD F-16CM units from Misawa AB in Japan and is well-versed in the realm of SEAD/DEAD. Speaking on the SEAD capabilities, he said “We are a training unit and train pilots who are transitioning over to the F-35, as well as the new pilots graduating from flight training into operational units. We train everybody on the F-35 mission set and right now there are several F-35 bases there and coming up as well, but none of them is geared to specialize in SEAD and DEAD only. They practice all the mission sets of the F-35. Specifically, in this exercise we are practicing the SEAD mission set. The reason why we chose to come to Volk Field is because the training complex has an extensive layout of surface-to-air threat replicator systems, that are fairly expensive to get and train with, and also the fact that there are different airframes acting as adversaries,  so we are here to train for those scenarios as well. We use a mixture of bombs, stealth and electronic attack in our SEAD mission set. We use the stealth capabilities to approach close enough to the surface-to-air threats and drop bombs and other precision-guided munition, and also augment that with electronic attack. The F-35 does have more advanced non-kinetic capabilities against the surface-to-air threats than the Block 50s (referring to the F-16CMs), and the F-35 has alternate weapons to drop on the SAM site if required. We integrated with the Block 50s  of the Duluth ANG when it came to taking out the threat since the Block 50 has a reactive kinetic suppression weapon than we do, so they can actually shoot the AGM-88 HARM (High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile) at a surface-to-air threat.”

Currently the Fighter Weapons School has a course in it called “Fighter Integration” where tactics are practiced and refined using the 4th and 5th generation aircraft. Looking into the future, Exercise Northern Lightning at Volk Field is evolving to be an essential piece in the training field to bring all the arms of the armed forces – Air Force, National Guard, Navy, Marines – together and do joint training outside of Nellis AFB, given the fact that it has an instrumented range, with mobile SAMs and model cities for Urban CAS – all the necessary pieces of the modern day battlefield puzzle.

Many thanks to the personnel of the Public Affairs of 115th FW/Wisconsin ANG, Col. David May, Col. Bart Van Roo, and Maj. Matt Wunderlin for their support and access throughout the exercise.