NORTHERN LIGHTNING 2023

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Story and photos by Scott Jankowski
The 2023 version of the annual Northern Lightning exercise was held at the Volk Field CRTC (Combat Readiness Training Center) from August 7th to August 18th, 2023. This annual exercise held in the skies over Central Wisconsin once again featured several 4th and 5th generation air assets from active-duty United States Air Force, United States Marine Corps units as well as units from the Air National Guard as well. A pair of contracted companies also provided adversarial air support or “Red Air” this year. This year’s iteration of Northern Lightning focused on “defensive counter air” operations and how 5th generation Lockheed Martin F-35A and B model Lightning II’s can work in tandem with 4th generation Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcons. It is this teamwork and coordination between 4th and 5th generation air assets that will become critical in the success of future conflicts. Once again, this year I was invited to Media Day on Thursday August 10th to get a closer look at Northern Lightning 2023.

Air assets for this year’s exercise included Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II’s from the 58th Fighter Wing known as the “Gorillas” and based at Eglin Air Force Base Florida. Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II’s from VMFA-211 known as the “Wake Island Avengers” based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma Arizona. Additional Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II’s came from the 115th Fighter Wing nicknamed the “Flying Badgers: and based nearby at Truax Air National Guard Base Madison Wisconsin. The Air National Guard also provided Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcons block 50 variants from the 148th Fighter Wing better known as “The Bulldogs” and based at the Duluth Minnesota International Airport. Also, on hand were block 42 variants from the Toledo Ohio based 180TH Fighter Wing nicknamed the “Stingers”. The F-16’s taking part in this year’s exercise are equipped with the new Northrup/Grumman AN/APG-83 AESA (active-electronically-scanned-array) radars. This gives the F-16 the ability to spot targets faster and at longer ranges with greater tracking precision. As with previous years Tanker support was provided by Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers from the 128th Air Refueling Wing based at Milwaukee Wisconsin and United States Marine Corps Lockheed KC-130T Hercules aircraft based at Madison Wisconsin.

Adversary or “Red Air” support was provided by the Joint Langley Eustis Virginia based 71ST Fighter Training Squadron, known as the “Ironmen” and flying the venerable gloss black painted Northrop T-38C Talon. Newport News Virginia based ATAC (Airborne Tactical Advantage Company) had both single and two seat Dassault F-1B, F-1CR, and F-1CT Mirages at Volk Field once again. These aircraft would represent a few different threats including supersonic cruise missiles and 4th generation fighters. New to Northern Lightning this year was Top Aces and their former Israeli Air Force F-16A Fighting Falcons which also carry the AESA radar and several other updates which make them a very formidable threat. On occasion the F-35’s will also join “Red Air” depending on what the training scenario dictates. It is worth noting that the Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk also played a part in this year’s exercise with three aircraft being based out of Duluth International Airport in Minnesota. It is speculated that the F-117’s acted as a stealthy cruise missile threat, no F-117’s were seen at Volk Field the day of my visit.

Upon arrival at Volk Field, we were provided with an extremely detailed briefing from several United States Marine Corps Officers. These officers included Major General John Kelliher the Commander of the 4th Marine Wing, Colonel Ryan Allen the head of Marine Air Control Group 48, and Captain Christopher “Melon” Streicher F-35B Pilot assigned to VMFA-211 (Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211). In this exercise stealthy F-35A&B’s have been working with non-stealthy F-16C’s to more effectively deploy their larger missile loads (6 air to air missiles vs 4 air to air missiles) to bear against enemy fighters and enemy cruise missiles. Currently all models of the F-35 can only carry a total of 4 AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range, Air to Air Missiles (AMRAAM) internally. The F-35 can carry additional munitions externally on wing mounted pylons but that negates the stealthy characteristics of the aircraft. Development is underway to allow the A and C models of the F-35 to carry 6 AIM-120’s internally called a sidekick. The F-16’s can carry 6 missiles each according to Captain Streicher “We’ve got to get them into the fight and make them survivable, we lose them early that’s a problem.”

Captain Streicher continued “We got a seat at the table for the high-end fight, for the very first days of a fight against a near-peer adversary. It is very critical to us that we continue to train.” In this exercise “You’re defending an arbitrary line, but that line can be anything. It can be a Forward Operating Base (FOB) for us it could be a carrier. Pick your important item, so we are trying to keep them (adversaries or Red Air) from getting into their weapons release zone where they can impact that.” Another major focus area for Northern Lightning 2023 is the defense against incoming cruise missile strikes. Captain Streicher added cruise missile defense “is difficult just by the nature of cruise missiles which are also low observable stealthy targets. They are down low, so it’s about the worst scenario you can put a radar in to look down at the ground and try to find something small.”

Learning how to closely coordinate with other friendly aircraft in the battlespace, regardless of type is extremely important too. The F-35’s ability to coordinate the fight for stealthy and non-stealthy aircraft in future operations is one of the key attributes of the aircraft. The sensor and electronic warfare equipment the F-35 carries along with its ability to “fuse” data from all these sources together and distribute to other air assets quickly is one of the areas the aircraft excels above others. The F-35 also has the capability to add additional data from other sources adding to what it can with its onboard equipment. Captain Streicher made it clear that these capabilities have been in full use during Northern Lightning 2023. The Marine Air Wing brought with them several ground-based radars in order to assist F-35 pilots get a better picture of the battlespace around them. “We are already situational awareness on what’s out there, with assistance from the TPS-80 (One of the ground-based radar platforms) let us help build that picture.” “With this information we can then start picking away at the higher threat stuff to keep the F-16’s survivable, spot and fight for as long as possible.” Working with the upgraded F-16’s with the AESA Radar is a major improvement, “they are a lot better at being able to see their own picture, however they still don’t have anywhere near the same capabilities of the F-35 or the capability to “fuse” that data.” Captain Streicher continued “communications get really big, sharing information can be just as important as the total number missiles an aircraft has when it comes to determining success or failure in a tactical context.” Face to face conversations are just as important, “We get so used to being very, very survivable really deep in a high threat environment. Jets like the F-16 can’t count on the same things we do and that’s something we do not understand unless we really talk to them about it.”

Captain Streicher wrapped up his comments stating, “The airspace available for use during Northern Lightning is significantly smaller than huge events like Red Flag, making it more intimate training environment.” That is why VMFA-211 actively fights to get a spot in the exercise each year. Major General Kelliher added his comments in regard to sending Marines to participate in Northern Lightning. “It offers us a dissimilar location to train in far from the typical aerial training ranges like the Corps uses on the east or west coasts of the United States.” The Major General continued” It is then also an opportunity to exercise a variety of logistical and other skill sets just in getting to Wisconsin from their home stations. VMFA-211, for instance, is based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma Arizona some 1,500 miles from Volk Field. The ability of Marine aviation units to readily deploy, especially to remote and austere locations, is a core element of the new expeditionary and distributed concepts of operations the service is still refining.” He added “We move fast. We are lighter, mobile, and with the combination of the control group and the Marine Wing Support Squadron, we can potentially just go and create an airfield. Create it, operate it, and support it, and then we let people with the shiny toys come on in.”

Major General Kelliher would continue his comments by adding “All that leads to basically winning and competition, so that every day, our enemies wake up and the calculus of their decision making says ‘not today’. That’s what we all want, should we fail at that, then we bring immensurable amounts of lethality to the fight.” He would close our time with these comments” We will seek out any exercise as an opportunity for us to practice tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). Anytime there’s an exercise out there, anytime there’s a fight going, we want in. This is another training opportunity for them to train with other people who are looking at best practices, exchanging ideas, and TTPs.” With those final remarks we thanked the Marine Corps Officers for the most thorough and informative briefing on Northern Lightning that I have heard to date. It was time to head out to the ramp to photograph the morning launch under spectacular light and blue skies. In between waves of departing F-35’s, F-16’s, T-38’s, and Mirages several Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters arrived and dropped off several government officials. Due to time constraints, we were unable to remain on base for the recovery of the morning launch, but there are several spots off base in which you can cover the launch and recovery of aircraft. We spent the remainder of our day on the west and east ends of Runway 9/27. We managed to shoot the entire afternoon launch and recovery from these locations.

Northern Lightning is one of the premier exercises held every year with an incredible team effort by all the men and women based at Volk Air National Guard Base as they help all branches of the U.S. Military Fly, Fight and Win. I would like to thank the entire Public Relations team at Volk Field, the Wisconsin Air National Guard, and the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing for their time and hospitality in making this article possible. Until next time, “Blue Skies To All!”.

Scott Jankowski

Scott Jankowski - Franklin, Wisconsin Like so many others my love of aviation started when I was young, very young. I was only three years old when my Parents took me to my first air show here in Milwaukee, the rest you could say is “history”. I would read aviation magazines instead of Comic Books. I would prefer my Dad take me to the airport to watch airplanes instead of throwing a Football around. I grew up watching Convair 580’s, DC9’s and 727’s from the terminal here in Milwaukee, no Stage Three noise compliance back then! I started to seriously take pictures in the Mid 1980’s , for my birthday that year I finally had my first decent camera. I would head down to the airport with my pockets full of Kodak Film and take pictures of anything and everything. It did not matter if it was a Air Wisconsin Dash-7 or a 128TH ARW KC-135E if it had an engine I took a picture of it. I would drop those rolls off to be developed and three days later tear into the envelopes to see the results, which to be honest were not that good but there were a few keepers every once and a while. Fast forwarding to today with much better equipment and skills I spend as much time as I can at both General Mitchell International and Chicago O’Hare which are my Hometown Airports. While times and aircraft have changed the excitement is still as great as it was back all of those years ago. It makes no difference if it is 737, P-51, F-16, or Lear 35 I will not pass on any photo opportunity as you may not get that chance again. Even though my primary focus is on Commercial Aviation I still frequent as many Air shows as I can in the short Summer Season. I am fortunate enough to have EAA Air Venture in my backyard only being only an Hour and Half from my home. I routinely attend Air shows here in Milwaukee, Rockford, Chicago, Ypsilanti and the Quad Cities. I am very fortunate to be part of the Photorecon.Net and PHX Spotters Team and am looking forward to bringing everyone some Air show and Airliner action from the Midwest Region!

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