There is a tremendous amount of scheduling and logistics that goes into planning for the now annual Northern Lightning exercise held at the Volk Field CRTC (Combat Readiness and Training Center) and Hardwood Firing Range located around the Tomah Wisconsin area. The planning that goes into an exercise of this size includes typical items such as billeting for visiting personnel, provisions for visiting personnel, and having enough jet fuel on hand for visiting aircraft. It does not include how to safely hold a world class training exercise in the midst of a global pandemic. Those are the circumstances that planners found themselves in this year, safety has always been a top most priority for Northern Lightning, but this year the health and well-being of everyone involved took a very different turn. New precautions and changes had to be made such as social distancing and mandatory face coverings to be worn in any building to ensure a successful 2020 exercise, changes that no other Northern Lightning exercise have seen.
Northern Lightning has been held since the early 2000’s and is a tactical level, joint training exercise that replicates today’s air battle space with current and future weapons platforms. A variety of the world’s most advanced aircraft including 5th generation fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor and the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II were participants again this year. Northern Lightning 2020 focused on offensive counter air, with simulated surface to air threats, and the integration of multiple air platforms. These training environments include the use of adversary aircraft, electronic jamming, and simulated surface to air attacks. The vast airspace that the Volk MOA (Military Operating Area) encompasses is the perfect environment to provide this type of training.
A typical Northern lightning exercise will include over 50 various aircraft and approximately 1,500 personnel from close to 20 different units across all branches of the military. The ongoing pandemic has brought several changes to this year’s exercise however, these changes were quite evident during my visit this year. Northern Lightning 2020 still had around 50 various aircraft participating, but several staged from other bases in the area. There were also fewer personnel that participated, approximately 1,000 much fewer than previous years. The Volk Field ramp which is normally packed with 4th and 5th generation fighters had plenty of space this year with aircraft from the visiting units operating out of Volk Field more spread out than previous years.
There was still a good variety of aircraft and units that participated, these included VFA-151 from NAS (Naval Air Station) Lemoore CA. VFA-151 is better known as “The Vigilantes” and brought the 4th generation Boeing FA-18E Super Hornet to Volk Field. It is worth noting that Super Hornet bureau number 168478 carries special markings to honor Lieutenant Charles “JTACz” Walker. Lieutenant Walker was tragically killed during a low-level training mission through Rainbow Canyon in Death Valley California.
5th generation air assets included Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptors from the 27th Fighter Squadron which are part of the 1st Fighter Wing and based at Joint Base Langley-Eustis Virginia. The Virginia Air National Guard’s 192d Fighter Wing was also a participant this year and is co-located with the 1st Fighter Wing at Joint Base Langley.
The Vermont Air National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing better known as “The Green Mountain Boys” brought their 5th generation Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II’s to Northern Lightning 2020. The 158th is based at the Burlington Vermont International Airport, and recently converted to the F-35A from the F-16C, and flies some of the newest F-35’s just weeks old off the production line. This was the 158th’s first deployment with the F-35 since transitioning out of the F-16.
The role of adversary or “Red Air” once again was fulfilled by the gloss black painted Northrop T-38C Talon’s of the 71st Fighter Training Squadron. The 71st is better known as “The Ironmen” and is also based at Joint Base Langley-Eustis Virginia.
Draken International backed up the 71st Fighter Training Squadron flying the Aero Vodochody/Boeing L-159E “Honey Badger”. These virtually brand new 4th generation fighters are highly modified and have advanced technology on board to be able to simulate a wide range of threats.
Other 2020 participants included Lockheed Martin F-16C Vipers from the 179th Fighter Squadron based at Duluth International Airport Minnesota and from the 176th Fighter Squadron based at the Truax Air National Guard Base located at Madison Wisconsin. These units conducted all of its missions from their home bases. No major exercise would be possible without aerial refueling and tanker support. The 128th Air Refueling Wing based at General Mitchell International Airport, Milwaukee Wisconsin flew several missions each day in support of Northern Lightning 2020 from their home base as well.
Northern Lightning 2020 ran from August 10th through the 21st and provided invaluable training to our men and women of the National Guard, Air Force, Army and Navy. Despite the ongoing pandemic, and the necessary changes as a result, top notch training must continue no matter what the circumstances are. The men and women that serve at Volk Field stand ready to fulfil the Northern Lightning vision of “Delivering a premier Air National Guard joint training environment that represents todays battle space with current and future weapons platforms.” I would like to thank the entire Volk Field Public Affairs Office, and everyone who made this visit possible. I would like to especially thank Major Matthew Wunderlin for his time, help, and assistance during my visit.
Until next time, “Blue Skies to All!”