National Guard chief visits Northern Lightning exercise at Volk Field

VOLK FIELD, Wis. -- Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Wisconsin last week (May 5) to observe Northern Lightning, an annual counterland joint training exercise involving active duty and National Guard units.

“One of my top priorities is to provide governors and the Army and Air Force ready forces,” Lengyel stated. “Exercises like Northern Lightning allow our Guard units to enhance their readiness.”

Northern Lightning, which began May 1, emphasizes air interdiction, low and high-threat close air support missions, and integrating fourth and fifth-generation aircraft. Aircraft involved in the exercise include the EA-18G Growler, F-16 Fighting Falcon, T-38 Talon, F-22 Raptor, and the F-35 Lightning II.

Lengyel said the Joint Chiefs have been told to build a ready force — lethal, feared by the nation’s enemies, and capable of doing the nation’s business around the world.

Col. David May, Volk Field commander, spoke about recent achievements that helped position the Air National Guard base to provide counterland training.

“That really set us on a path of future growth and development here at Volk Field, and relevant to the 4th and 5th-generation integrated training that’s going on,” May said.

Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, detailed the tailorable training provided by knowledgeable exercise staff, including seasoned F-16 pilots from the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing in Madison.

“These guys and gals understand the high-end fight here, and they’re being flexible enough that when the pilots come back down and want to try something different, they’re adjusting the exercise on the fly,” Dunbar said. “This is real training improvement — the needle is moving in the course of the two-week exercise.”

“That change in tactics was something the Air Force hadn’t done before. And it happened right here at Volk Field because pilots got together.”

Part of what makes Volk Field an effective joint training site is an air training corridor that is roughly 140 miles long and 60 miles wide. Coordination with FAA centers in Minneapolis and Chicago prevent combat training from interfering with commercial air traffic. According to one of the F-35 pilots, this allows a large enough area to run full 5th-generation tactics.

The Wisconsin Air National Guard’s Lt. Col. Ben Gerds explained that Volk Field’s highly automated instrumentation allows for effective simulated combat missions — devices called “threat emitters” transmit signals to participating aircraft that mimic actual threats to the aircraft, requiring appropriate responses.

Hardwood Range is centrally located in the air training corridor, allowing a full spectrum of target sets that support live, laser-guided and GPS-guided munitions, moving strafe, and synthetic aperture radar targets. Additionally, joint fires observers from Fort McCoy can be integrated into the exercise.

“I think what we do a good job of here is really getting a good bang for your buck,” Gerds said. “Overall, Northern Lightning is a fantastic exercise that really allows us to achieve our objectives, and from a squadron’s perspective put all the pieces together where we’re ready for that high-end fight.”

Lengyel agreed.

“This is a great exercise because of the realistic and challenging nature of the training,” he said.

Lt. Col. Nick Ihde, another F-35 pilot, praised Volk Field and Northern Lightning for offering an area that provides training at the fifth-generation aircraft level.

“There are very few places in the world that can do that capability — Nellis [Air Force base] is one,” Ihde said. “Volk Field is well on the way to becoming great. The airspace is phenomenal.

“Doing the joint fight here is the wave of the future,” Ihde continued. “Northern Lightning and Volk Field is on the cutting edge.”

Lengyel noted that the National Guard makes up 20 percent of the total force, and that support from local communities and states is vital in keeping the National Guard an operational force and part of the joint force.

“The support of the community, families and employers is vital to our business model,” Lengyel said. “We aren’t successful without their support.”