Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of National Guard Magazine
VOLK FIELD COMBAT READINESS TRAINING CENTER, Wis. — A small Air National Guard base in the rural heart of Wisconsin is fast becoming a popular training area for fighter units across the services.
The airspace is the big attraction. Compared to the typical military-operations area that tops out at 18,000 feet, the Volk Field Special Activity Airspace is expansive, with an altitude up to 50,000 feet during major exercises and supersonic operations authorized above 30,000 feet.
And Volk’s 9,000-foot runway lies directly underneath the VFSAA, which allows aircraft to operate in the airspace upon takeoff, making it one of the most realistic air-combat training areas in the United States.
This rare air was the center stage in August for the year’s second iteration of Northern Lightning, a joint exercise hosted by the Wisconsin Air National Guard that focuses on integrating fourth- and fifth-generation fighters.
The 18-2 installment was the largest in the relatively new series. It gathered more than 1,600 personnel from 14 Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force units and two contractors in a replicated deployed environment. They operated an array of aircraft, including F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-22 Raptors and F-35B Lightning IIs, the short-takeoff/vertical-landing (STOVL) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter.
Such integration on a unit-level basis can be difficult to find outside the Red Flag exercises in Nevada and Alaska, which have long been the gold standard for such training. However, the sheer size of those exercises can run counter to some unit’s specific training objectives, said Col. Chad “Chuck” Milne, the exercise director for Northern Lightning.
There are often “so many players involved that you may lose some of that tactical flexibility or maneuver space to execute with your weapons platform to the max extent possible,” he explained.
Northern Lightning fills that gap with scenarios specifically tailored to each participating unit’s desired objectives. “We’ve found our niche,” Milne said. “We find out what the participants have for training needs and our ultimate goal is to build complex, challenging scenarios that test their training objectives.”
This highly customized approach allows units to “focus more on the tactical aspect of the training rather than the huge operational exposure you may get at a Red Flag type of event,” he said.
The majority of the August exercise focused on offensive and defensive counter air, with additional close-air support breakouts directed by Navy Seal Joint Terminal Attack Controllers on the ground.
The VFSAA is capable of supporting various mission types, but is especially suited for the offensive-counter-air mission, defined by the Air Force as “varsity-level air-to-ground weapons employment using either precision-guided or unguided ordnance in a complicated threat environment.”
In such a scenario, the friendly, or ”Blue Force,” force must “fight their way deep into enemy territory against adversary aircraft and integrated air defense systems, employ weapons against targets and then return to friendly skies.” This definition closely parallels the Air Force doctrine of “counterland” operations, and the participants faced challenging scenarios of pursuing these objectives through contested and degraded operations.
Located within the VFSAA is Hardwood Range, which is equipped with tactical emitters that simulate various surface-to-air systems to provide realistic threat conditions. The range is available for live-laser and GPS-guided munitions delivery and strafing operations, and its location and threat capability within the airspace allows for multiple exercise scenarios that run central to the counterland premise of Northern Lightning.
“We’re into air interdiction here,” Milne said. “We’re going into hostile territory and fighting through both surface-to-air and air-to-air systems, dropping our weapons, and then fighting our way back out. Our training environment here is well-suited for that.”
Northern Lightning has drawn attention well beyond the Air Force. “For 18-2, we’ve got 600 Marines on base,” Milne said. “In the past, we’ve never even had 600 people total on base for one of our exercises. The Marine squadrons wanted to bring their full footprint and logistical team, and the same with the Navy.”
The Marines came with a squadron each of AV-8B Harriers, a STOVL fighter that has been around since the 1980s and F-35Bs. The Navy brought both F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers, an electronic-warfare aircraft, to Volk.
The F-22As, the other fifth-generation fighter in the exercise, were from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. Each morning during the exercise, four Raptors would depart Langley, fly to the exercise and recover to Volk to debrief the morning mission. The previous day’s pilots would then fly the F-22s back to Langley in the afternoon.
“That seems like a logistical nightmare,” Milne said. “But that’s what they are willing to do in order to participate.”
Several other aircraft also operated from distant locations, such KC-135 Stratotankers from Grissom Air Reserve Base, Indiana and the 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee, and F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison, Wisconsin.
Milne said the offsite participation often made briefing and debriefing a challenge, but noted that it also added to the realism, as combining aircraft from multiple bases for a mission overseas is not uncommon.
“In combat, an escort of F-22s may be flying from base ‘X’ while a suppression-of-enemy-air-defenses package may be flying from base ‘Y’, and they may join a strike package from base ‘Z’,” he said, “Having this capability is huge for us because we can plan and coordinate safely.”
Several aircraft served as adversaries, including T-38A Talons from the 71th Fighter Training Squadron at Langley Air Force Base supported by L-159 advanced-light-combat aircraft flown by civilian contractor Draken International.
F-16s with the 115th Fighter Wing at Truax and F/A-18s from Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, augmented the “Red Force.”
Operational testing has all become a prominent feature of the exercise. In 2017, it was the Air Force testing F-35A software. At 18-2, the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Command Test Center from Tucson, Arizona, was among multiple test units evaluating software and hardware upgrades to fourth-generation aircraft.
AATC was testing new software for active electronically scanned array, or AESA, radar and the AN/ASQ-236 Radar Pod, according to Maj. “Option” Clark (first name withheld at his request), a test pilot who added that most of the center’s work occurs over the Arizona desert.
“The dense forest and agricultural surface at NL gave us a very different environment to test the pod that was very helpful for tactics development,” he said.
While many units from across the services participate in the exercise, Northern Lightning’s biggest beneficiary may be a Wisconsin Air Guard oufit.
In addition to “great training in our own backyard,” said Maj. “Custer” (full name withheld at his request) of the 115th Fighter Wing, the “administrative side of running the exercise and capturing a lot of lessons learned for everyone involved helps us grow as a unit. It helps us see the bigger picture and how we’re going to fight a larger conflict should it happen in the future.
It also provided the unit with a glimpse of its future. In December, the Air Force announced that the 115th Fighter Wing is one of the service’s two additional preferred Air Guard units for the F-35A. Pending the outcome of environmental impact studies, the first F-35s are expected to arrive at Truax Field in 2023. This means that the Joint Strike Fighter will likely soon be a regular sight over Volk Field.
Northern Lighting has been on a similar trajectory. The exercise is only a few years old. In 2016, Wisconsin Guard officials worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to create the current 30,000-cubic-mile VFSAA to accommodate advanced tactical fighters. In May, the Joint National Training Committee accredited Northern Lightning. It now fits firmly within the National Guard Bureau’s Regional Exercise Program.
Being one of only seven nationally accredited Air Guard exercises “brings us credibility,” Milne said. “It also brings [units in] our sister services — both active and reserve components — funding sources and exercise credit they can get by coming here.”
Based on the successes of this year with two iterations, Northern Lightning will likely have two exercises each year for the foreseeable future.
“I think there is potential to expand that,” said Milne, “but it all depends on our limitations, too. In order to do that, we’ll need more staff filling more positions, as well as more funding.”
It’s a refrain heard often across the U.S. military.
Jonathan Derden is an aviation photojournalist from Charlottesville, Virginia. He currently flies the Boeing 737 for a major U.S. airline. He can be reached via