Story By Capt. Andrew Layton
Michigan National Guard
GRAYLING, Mich. – Summer in Northern Michigan means boating, fishing – and increasingly, premier Joint Fires readiness training.
Since 2012, Northern Strike, the National Guard Bureau’s largest joint, multi-component exercise, has been held at the pristine training grounds of Camp Grayling Maneuver Training Center and Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center. This year, those facilities are being christened the National All-Domain Warfighting Center, a fitting nod to the unique capabilities and integral support these locations in Northern Michigan contribute to the U.S. National Defense Strategy.
By definition, Northern Strike is a decisive action, joint collective training event. Participants increase Mission Essential Task proficiency in synchronizing Joint fires with ground maneuver elements through repetitious execution of task iterations at echelon. This is accomplished over four-season terrain sets more consistent with the anticipated future operating environment, set over 13,500+ square miles of special use airspace and integrated within nearly 148,000 acres of maneuver training area, 4.3 square miles of artillery impact area and 17 square miles of inert impact area.
While this terminology may sound every bit as complex as the synchronized art of calling in an airstrike from a blazing-fast A-10 Thunderbolt jet, the heart of Northern Strike comes down to one thing: teamwork.
“The bottom line is joint fires – joint fires are difficult to do,” said Michigan Army National Guard Col. Bart Verbanic, Northern Strike deputy exercise director. “We have a tendency as services to focus on our skills and be able to accomplish the mission by ourselves, but in order to win in combat, what makes the U.S. military so phenomenal is joint fires; it truly is, because we can’t do it without each other.”
Venture into the training spaces of Northern Strike and you will see U.S. Marine Corps joint forward observers directing U.S. Army artillery and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers from NATO partner countries coordinating with U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft. Bringing together these multicomponent warfighters with diverse skillsets and experiences – and challenging them to problem-solve together in realistic situations – is what Verbanic is talking about.
This is the type of training that takes basic warfighting skills to the graduate level.
This is the type of training that wins wars.
“Northern Strike is a good opportunity for our Soldiers who normally don’t get to use close air support, with F-16s coming from other states, incorporating our ground training with what’s happening in the air, as well as field artillery units from other states, and incorporating their fires into our mission planning,” said U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Bickerstaff, full-time training officer, 125th Infantry Regiment, Michigan National Guard. “It’s a great joint exercise, where we typically don’t get to do that on an inactive duty training (IDT) weekend.”
Joint fires specialists from other services agree.
“Northern Strike proves to be an awesome opportunity for our unit to come together with Guard and Reserve units,” said U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. William Weisberg, a fire control team chief with 6th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO), Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. “Blending our training practices, we can come together in this massive training environment and be seamless on the battlefield together.”
While Northern Strike’s primary training audience consists of Army National Guard Infantry Brigade Combat Teams with their organic, direct-support field artillery battalions merged with aligned Air National Guard Air Support Operations Squadrons, the exercise has routinely attracted as many as 6,000 to 7,000 personnel from all service components and more than 20 U.S. states. Numerous coalition partners including NATO forces from countries like Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have also attended, bringing a dynamic that takes the interoperability between multicomponent, multinational, and interagency partners to the next level.
“This exercise is different because we can integrate close air support with different types of units – at the lowest level ground forces, but also different types of aircraft and different types of tasks performed by the ground forces and by the JTACs,” said Sgt. Edijs Hermansons, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller with the Latvian National Armed Forces. “This environment allows us to test the interoperability of our forces with our partners. This is my third year at Northern Strike and maintaining our currency and our proficiency are the two main points that we always take away from attending this exercise.”
Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern Strike planners have partnered with public health officials to build a comprehensive plan that allows the exercise to carry on its mission, fusing the capabilities of the National All-Domain Warfighting Center to provide a low-cost joint fires training construct capable of all-domain integration.
“What we’ve built here at Northern Strike is the opportunity to do a complete train-up focused on that joint fires process,” said Verbanic. “The resources that are brought to bear here at Northern Strike are a forcing function to get you to be really good at it.”