Mix Of 4th And 5th Gen Fighters Conduct Integrated Air Warfare In Northern Lightning 2023


Northern Lightning 2023
VMFA-211 F-35B, Wake Island Avenger on left turn out from runway 27 to Wisconsin Range. (All images credit: Author, unless otherwise stated). In the boxes: one of the F-117s at Duluth (Misael Hernandez Ocasio) and a Top Aces F-16

We have been to Volk Field, Wisconsin, and talked with the crews involved in Northern Lightning 2023.

The two-week Northern Lightning 2023 exercise taking place at Volk Field, Wisconsin wrapped up last week. The exercise brought together a very unique combination of participants and features. The details surrounding this mix were discussed with members of the United States Marines at Volk Field. Let’s review some of this enlightening discussion that took place with three key members of the Marines.

Firstly, we heard from Major General John Kelliher, Commanding General 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, Marine Forces Reserve New Orleans, LA. The Major General outlined the enormous logistical and administrative chain involved with organizing, conducting and supporting a joint exercise in Wisconsin with units from all across the United States. “The Marine Corps are great at the pickup game, so we seek out any exercise as an opportunity for us to practice tactics, techniques and procedures”, said Major General Kelliher.

Secondly, Colonel Ryan Allen, Marine Air Control Group 48, Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois. Colonel Ryan is the commanding officer of the Reserve Aviation Command Organization. The Colonel is responsible for Marine Aviation Command and Control. Each of the four marine wings has a control group, Colonel Ryan is in charge of the reserve component. Ultimately what Major General Kelliher along with Colonel Allen’s Group bring to Marine Aviation is the expeditionary element. “We could potentially have the ability to create an airfield, operate it and support it. We like to pride ourselves in being organically self-sufficient and to move expeditiously within”.

Thirdly, Captain Christopher Streicher, F-35B Pilot, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, Yuma, Arizona. Captain Streicher has roughly 600 hours in the F-35 and was from the first crop of twenty students to fly the F-35 straight from flight school. In talking about the F-35B Captain Streicher spoke glowingly with regard to the fact that the Marines now bring a lot of capability to the MAGTF (Marine Air Ground Task Force). “We now have a seat at the table for the high-end fight during the very first days of the fight, against a near-pear adversary”.

Northern Lightning 2023
VMFA-211 F-35B’s returning from morning mission on approach to Volk Field Runway 27.

One relatively new facet for Captain Streicher’s training at this year’s Northern Lightning is the use of the Northrop Grumman AN/TPS-80, Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radar (G/ATOR). This multi-mission air surveillance system can detect, identify and track airborne threats common to combat environments. These include cruise missiles, aircraft and remotely piloted vehicles, as well as rocket, artillery, and mortar fire. This is only the second time that Captain Streicher has been controlled by the TPS-80. “It’s really cool to get some integration with them and see what they actually see, what we actually see and how to kind of fill those gaps as we move forward”, said Captain Streicher.

Integration is another key element that Captain Streicher stressed during his conversation with us. Integration not only with the fourth generation F-16 fighters present at the exercise from the 148th FW Duluth, MN. Air National Guard and the 180th FW Toledo, Ohio Air National Guard, but also with fellow fifth generation fighters from Eglin Air Force Base. Captain Streicher, “We have F-35’s from Eglin, It gives everybody the experience just from even the maintenance side making sure all of our crypto is on the same page so we can talk to each other. All of our data links work, real things that we are going to face if we do go into the Pacific and we have planes flying out of Guam”.

Northern Lightning 2023
F-16C 91-0420 Duluth, MN. ANG 148th FW on final approach to runway 27.

When it comes to the complex coordination with fourth generation fighters, Northern Lightning plays a vast role in providing scenarios to test out the collaboration with the F-16s from the Air National Guard. Captain Streicher pointed out a critical dimension that must be executed successfully in order to ensure air dominance. “So, the crucial part of the integration for specifically fifth gen. and F-35 is we carry four missiles. The F-16s are carrying six each. So, we’ve got to get them into the fight and make them survivable. If we lose them early, that’s a problem. So, our job is to quarterback the fight a little bit. We’ve got a lot of really good situational awareness of what’s out there with the systems from the TPS-80 to let us build that picture and then start picking away the higher threat stuff and keep the F-16’s survivable and lethal”.

VMFA-211 F-35B on special vertical landing runway 27.

All the F-16’s from the Air National Guard that are participating in Northern Lightning 2023 have been updated with new active electronically scanned array radar, (AESA). According to Captain Streicher, “It helps out the integration quite a bit because. (due to AESA), they have a lot of organic situational awareness”.

Top Aces F-16A
Top Aces F-16A N865TA in “slick” configuration.

As far as additional players in this year’s exercise, there is an interesting mix of civilian aircraft. For the first time at Northern Lightning, we have two contractors bringing in assets. Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC) have brought their Mirage F1s and Top Aces have added their F-16As to the fight. Each of these aircraft provide adversary threats (Red Air) to the friendly forces (Blue Air). The F1s are all configured with a center line fuel tank and the F-16A’s are flying “slick”.

T-38’s from Langley Air Force base are regulars at Northern Lightning year after year and can play multiple roles such as cruise missiles or strikers. F-35’s from the Wisconsin Air National Guard at Truax Field are participating in the exercise for the first time. According to Captain Streicher. “Their typical flow has been two airplanes, so they will throw two to the blue air, so we’ll do a split division of either two of the Eglin guys, so two can fly with two of the Madison Badger flight to make a four ship, or they’ll fly with us or they’ll get a red air two ship.”

Northern Lightning 2023
USAF T-38A FF 7FTS Langley AFB on straight out departure.

As already reported, there were a pair of F-117s flying out of Duluth International Airport. The 117s represent another red air, low-observable threat to the blue forces and they can also free up an F-35 from playing a low-observable red air candidate.

Lastly, when we asked Captain Streicher why he and his marine squadron like the intimacy of participating at Northern Lightning year after year he aptly summed it up. “We typically like to come up here because it’s a very good training evolution, it’s difficult enough that the experienced guys are still getting a lot of good training and it’s not overwhelming for some of the younger guys, this is a good place for everybody to really get good at blocking and tackling, and you got a chance to really maneuver the airplanes without being so concerned that there’s sixty other red airplanes out there that you’re worried about physically not hitting, and it gives everybody a chance to really prep our tactics”.

Howard German is a freelance aviation researcher and photographer based in the United States. His main areas of specialty are defense, intelligence, weapons systems and surveillance. He has been writing, archiving and photographing the history and operations of aerospace for over thirty-five years.


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