Battlefield Coordination Detachment breaks new ground at Northern Strike 20

Spc. David Vazquez of the 1-58 Air Operations Battalion works air traffic control at the 217th Air Operations Center, Battle Creek, Mich., during exercise Northern Strike 20, July 28, 2020.

Story by Master Sgt. Alec Lloyd

Michigan National Guard

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. – Held annually at the National All-Domain Warfighting Center in Northern Michigan, exercise Northern Strike has long been recognized as a premier joint fires training opportunity, designed to enable joint live-fire proficiency at the company/troop level and multi-component units from battalion to division level.

Last month, Northern Strike 20 (held July 19-31) took a new step forward by integrating a Battlefield Coordination Detachment (BCD) from the California Army National Guard into the training environment.
Co-located for the exercise at the 217th Air Operations Group’s Air Operations Center (AOC), Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Mich., the Soldiers added a critical dimension to the AOC’s support for
the exercise.

“An AOC covers a large span of area,” said Michigan Army National Guard Col. Bart Verbanic, deputy exercise director for Northern Strike 20. “As they go through the targeting process, if the Air Tasking Order requires precision munitions to be shot through a target area, they need a means to communicate directly down to a unit that’s on the ground that could possibly be affected by it: that is the role of the BCD.”

The deputy commander of the 251st Battlefield Coordination Detachment, Lt. Col. Daniel Anderson, was one of 13 California Army National Guard soldiers participating in the exercise. The 251st forms the vital link between Army forces and the AOC, ensuring seamless communication and synchronized operations in a joint environment.

“This is the first National Guard-driven exercise we’ve been to,” Anderson said. “It’s a unique opportunity to demonstrate the Guard’s capability. We appreciate the 217th’s invitation to host us.”

BCDs like the 251st bring intelligence, fires, air defense, aviation and airspace together and employ them at the operational environment. Like their partners in Michigan, Soldiers from the 251st have benefitted
from the Guard’s advantage in continuity and institutional knowledge – Northern Strike is adding to their experience and capability.

“The only way we can exercise our function is by working with an AOC,” Anderson said. “We’ve worked with a number of them over the years, but Northern Strike is unique in its scope and level of National Guard involvement including Army artillery and Air Force aircraft and ordnance in a joint environment.”

Another participant was a detachment of the Army’s 1-58th Airfield Operations Battalion, based out of Fort Rucker, Alabama. They operate the Tactical Airspace Integration System. This active duty unit has
participated in Northern Strike before, but never within an AOC.

“Last year we were at Camp Grayling, setting up antennas and communications,” said Spc. David Vazquez, responsible for air traffic control for the 1-58 Air Operations Battalion. “This puts us at another
level.”

The 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, normally operates within AOCs but this is their first experience in one belonging to the Air National Guard. Their task is to manage the Army’s defensive systems and ensure they do not conflict with friendly aircraft movements.

Assisting them is a subordinate unit from their brigade, the 5th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery. This is a unique opportunity for the two units to participate together, and one made even more ground-breaking by their ability to communicate with their home station units at Fort Sill.

“I’m directly linked to them (5-5 ADA) and can link back to Fort Sill,” said CW3 Gerald Forgione. “The challenges of COVID really opened our eyes [in terms of] how to do an exercise without bringing as
many people and equipment.”

For the Air National Guard members, the Army’s participation is a tremendous help, particularly in the use of Tactical Airspace Integration System, which not only tracks aircraft movement, but also the
munitions expended by artillery barrages.

While rare, it is possible for aircraft at certain altitudes to be hit by rocket and tube artillery projectiles in flight. Deconflicting these movements is an essential task for the AOC.

Senior Master Sgt. Carl Westphal, an Airspace Management Technician with the 217 th COS, explains: “Prior to TAIS integration, deconfliction was a lengthy and tedious process. One launch could generate
49 coordinates that had to be manually entered into the system, which also created opportunities for human error. TAIS makes this process 95 percent faster by importing that data directly into our system. It is a huge improvement to the enablement of joint fires.”

Northern Strike planners believe the presence of a BCD will be a fixture of future exercise iterations.

“In the National Guard, there are only two BCDs,” said Verbanic. “We’re looking at continuing that relationship to have one or the other back next year; they are a critical piece that ties into that joint targeting cycle and this is one of the only exercises with the capability to tie those pieces together.”

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