ALPENA, Mich. – From July 29 through Aug. 11, northern Michigan is host to Northern Strike 17, the U.S. military's largest reserve component exercise with over 5,000 participants from the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard, as well as seven partner countries. The result is an influx of military aircraft flying over communities, lakes, and military installations throughout the area, to include Camp Grayling and Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center (CRTC).
Like many other military flying units from around the country, the Air National Guard's 174th Attack Wing, Syracuse, New York, is participating in Exercise Northern Strike. What makes the 174th's role in the exercise unique is that it operates the remotely piloted MQ-9 "Reaper," one of the U.S. Air Force's most progressive, cutting-edge technologies.
The MQ-9 is a remarkably versatile aircraft, employed primarily for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Its capabilities can also be applied to combat search and rescue (CSAR) and base defense operations. The aircraft is not to be confused with a "drone," in the colloquial sense. It has a 64-foot wingspan and carries enough fuel to stay airborne for approximately 20 hours. It is continuously piloted by a crew of professional aviators.
Maj. Stephen Swartz is an RPA pilot from the 174th who has integrated into the Wing Operations Center (WOC) at Alpena CRTC to be a liaison for MQ-9 operations for the duration of Northern Strike.
"This is significant for us," says Swartz. "Aside from flying training, we have the opportunity to practice doctrine and integration into planning cells with other units at the Wing Operations Center."
The 174th Attack Wing operates one of two MQ-9 training programs in the Air National Guard – the other is at March Air Reserve Base, California – where MQ-9 pilots can earn certifications stateside. Since the FAA still places limitations on where remotely piloted aircraft can operate in the United States, joint training opportunities with aircraft from other services are scarce for the New York-based schoolhouse.
"Almost all of our training opportunities at Syracuse are solo flights, fairly limited in the coordination that we can actually do," said Swartz. "Northern Strike is a remarkable opportunity because there are actual operations occurring on the ground and in the water that we can integrate our operations with."
Northern Strike is the first major joint training exercise for the 174th, and also the first to incorporate MQ-9 operations into maritime exercise scenarios stateside.
During Northern Strike, the MQ-9 from Syracuse is always unarmed. Since the exercise kicked off July 29, the Syracuse MQ-9 has been successful in providing ISR support for ground maneuvers at Camp Grayling, Michigan, as well as the military water range located about 40 miles off the shore of Lake Huron's Hammond Bay. However, the 174th's involvement with Northern Strike has not been without obstacle.
"Right now, our biggest obstacle has been weather," said Swartz. "Conditions have canceled or otherwise effected our training four out of six scheduled days this week."
Part of the challenge is that the MQ-9 must navigate an extremely narrow cross-country flight plan from Syracuse because of FAA regulations.
"The MQ-9 must stay in restricted areas of Class A airspace, within military operating areas (MOAs) that are coordinated with the FAA," said Swartz. "None of our ISR equipment can be turned on until we reach those MOAs, so when weather becomes a factor, we can't get to where we need to go for training."
Still, Swartz says that tremendous value has been added to the 174th Attack Wing's program during their affiliation with Northern Strike. Mission Intelligence Coordinators from the Air National Guard's 110th Attack Wing, Battle Creek Michigan – another unit that controls the MQ-9 – have also integrated into the Wing Operations Center to ensure proper mission planning and to maximize capability.
"Northern Michigan will always be a good place to train," said Swartz. "Alpena CRTC would be an excellent site for a permanent MQ-9 launch and recovery mission someday. It would make it so much easier to integrate MQ-9 operations into large-scale exercises like Northern Strike."
Northern Strike 17 is a National Guard Bureau-sponsored exercise uniting approximately 5,000 service members from 13 states and seven coalition countries during the first two weeks of August 2017 at the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center and Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, both located in northern Michigan and operated by the Michigan National Guard. The newly accredited NS 17 demonstrates the Michigan National Guard's ability to provide accessible, readiness-building opportunities for military units from all service branches to achieve and sustain proficiency in conducting mission command, air, sea, and ground maneuver integration, together with the synchronization of fires in a joint, multinational, decisive action environment.