A convoy of military vehicles rolled over gravel roads and splashed dust into the cool air. Polish 18th Airborne Battalion infantrymen exited their vehicles and began preparing their equipment.
Nearby, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Sam Salcedo, 146th Air Support Operations Squadron tactical air control party specialist, was also prepping his equipment. He was mentoring U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Jonathan Moran, 146 ASOS tactical air control party specialist, who recently graduated one of the first stages of TACP technical training.
Moran was double checking his lists and following instruction from Salcedo when the 18th Airborne Battalion ground commander emerged from the cloud of settling dust.
Salcedo reached towards the ground commander and they shook hands.
“I’ll be your main JTAC [joint terminal attack controller],” Salcedo said to the ground commander.
“Okay, we’re going live tonight,” he replied with a smile.
Although there was a slight communication barrier, both buzzed with excitement for the scenario.
The 146 ASOS TACPs fell into one of the two foot patrols, and another night mission at Northern Strike 17 began.
Northern Strike is a massive, one-of-a-kind joint terminal air attack controller-centric exercise that spans more than 100 miles across the northern portion of Michigan.
Since its creation in 2011, the exercise has grown from 500 participants to attracting more than 5,500 in 2017. The intention of the exercise is to prepare military personnel for a deployed environment, which means working alongside joint and integrated forces.
So far, it’s proved successful.
In 2017, Northern Strike became one of 43 programs worldwide to receive Joint National Training Capability accreditation.
JNTC is a program of the Department of Defense working to better prepare military personnel in realistic joint environments with other services. Receiving the accreditation validates not only the importance of Northern Strike, but also the quality of training for the participants.
At the heart of the exercise, Master Sgt. Ben Lake, 146 ASOS standards and evaluations evaluator, and Maj. Karl Hurdle, 146 ASOS air liaison officer, worked tirelessly months before and during NS17 coordinating schedules.
Lake had to fill more than 540 flying hours of close air support for the exercise. With more than 70 TACPs to choose from, he hand picked them based on skill level and experience to best fulfill the needs of the mission set.
“I was very happy to know that my guys got the training I provided for them,” Lake said. “This type of training has further prepared them to save someone else’s life, save their own life and be combat ready when they deploy.”
There were 22 TACPs with the 146 ASOS at NS17. They made up the largest TACP contingent of the exercise, and all of them experienced live-fire scenarios, many with multi-national partners.
Each qualified TACP specialist was able to communicate with the involved ground commanders and pilots before each scenario began. The real-world experience of serving as a liaison between the aircraft and the ground commanders benefitted both seasoned TACP specialists and newcomers.
“The exercise encompasses everything you would find downrange, minus getting shot at,” said Staff Sgt. Zach Scheffler, 146 ASOS TACP instructor. “You know, it’s overwhelming at first. But, seeing stuff like this at Northern Strike is only going to make our guys more prepared for a deployment.”
The training scenarios had virtually endless possibilities. On some ranges, JTACs were able to integrate with large U.S. Army National Guard maneuver elements during live-fire scenarios. On others, they integrated with U.S. Marines Forces Reserve and controlled airspace from amphibious assault vehicles.
These mission sets also created multiple opportunities for experienced TACPs to work with younger Airmen on facing challenges that may arise when deployed.
“This was crucial for our younger Airman to be here at Northern Strike,” said Salcedo. “It’s easy to train in a classroom environment when there is air conditioning and we’re sitting down. But it’s so much harder to do things when we are actually in the field, like following a combat maneuver team with live CAS [close air support] flying and live bullets flying around. It’s crucial for these young guys to get thrown into environments like this.”
Northern Strike 17 benefited the 146 ASOS on many levels. The exercise provided incredibly rare training experiences, the opportunity to integrate with joint forces and a vessel for mentorship.
After the night mission with the Polish 18th Airborne Infantry Battalion, Salcedo and Moran sat under a starry Michigan sky for a few minutes to talk about improving on their next mission set.
Both of them are at different skill levels, and both of them are ready for the next challenge. For one, that means the next phase of training and for the other a probable deployment.
Whatever comes next, whatever the call may be, Northern Strike 17 has only made them even more ready for the challenges ahead.
Story was originally published on page 30 of the December 2017 issue of the “Air Observer.” It may also be found at https://www.dvidshub.net/publication/issues/36849.