CAMP GRAYLING, Mich. –
The muzzle flash of an M240 machine gun chatters brightly against a snow-covered embankment. Below, military vehicles pulling field artillery guns grind to a halt as Soldiers duck and begin to return fire. A pickup truck blocks their way. From behind it, a man in tiger-striped camouflage fires a weapon that looks like a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
“CONTACT,” someone yells.
Today, Northern Michigan is a twenty-degree snow globe. And this is an ambush.
The scene is part of Northern Strike 23-1, an Army National Guard-sponsored exercise held Jan. 20-29 at the National All-Domain Warfighting Center in Northern Michigan. The Humvees are driven by Soldiers from the Wisconsin National Guard’s 1-120th Field Artillery Regiment, while the M240 and RGP launcher (using blanks) are fired by members of the Michigan National Guard’s Northern Strike planning team, who serve as opposing forces (OPFOR) in this battlefield scenario inject.
“The point of OPFOR is to give you a realistic training event so that the unit can build readiness,” said Sgt. 1st Class Todd Teuling, opposing forces manager for the Northern Strike planning team. “The big thing is the element of surprise, because they don’t know it’s coming.”
Teuling explains that throughout the 18-month planning cycle for the exercise, Northern Strike staff work with the units from round the Department of Defense who plan to participate, gathering input on the type of training they need to accomplish. This is often determined by upcoming deployment or mission requirements.
Teuling’s audience for Northern Strike 23-1 is approximately 600 personnel from across the active and reserve components of the U.S. Army, Air Force and Marine Corps. They have all traveled to Northern Michigan because of the geography, resources, and accessibility of the National All-Domain Warfighting Center, which includes Camp Grayling and Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center. The exercise is designed to build readiness in near-arctic conditions while training to meet objectives of the Department of Defense’s arctic strategy.
During execution, Teuling and other members of the Northern Strike planning team don tiger-striped fatigues and join civilian contractors to carry out the scenario injects, adding unpredictability to the training experience with many simulated weapons and tactics that force participating units to react and make real-time decisions under pressure.
“We try to cater to what the units want, and then we take that request and mold it into a scenario based on what we have to work with here on the ground,” said Teuling. “We can put different elements into it, whether it’s [small] unmanned aerial vehicles, simulated chemical attacks, machine gun fire, indirect fire, small probes and heavy attacks.”
All of this, added to the already challenging conditions of Northern Michigan in January, makes the Northern Strike winter exercise a trial of resilience for those training here.
“You don’t get to pick the enemy, the location, or the weather when it’s time to fight, so you have to train in all conditions,” said U.S. Army Maj. Rustin Billings, 120th FA brigade fire support officer, Wisconsin National Guard. “A lot of the soldiers build that character piece when it’s a natural thing you have to overcome; it’s not artificial.”