As the weather warms and the school year draws to a close, most Americans dream of leaving behind cubicles or factory floors to live out their vacation plans. But for members of the National Guard, the summer heat represents an altogether different set of plans: annual training.
“Over the past few years, it’s been pretty difficult to train and train effectively given COVID,” said Brig. Gen. Robert Davis, assistant director of Army National Guard Operations, Plans and Training at the National Guard Bureau. “2023 annual training season is really our opportunity to get back out in the field holistically and start training together to build readiness.”
Close to home
As highlighted by the never-ending wildfires in California and last year’s flash floods in Kentucky, the National Guard’s domestic-response mission is what distinguishes it from the rest of the Armed Forces.
“We all joined the Alaska Guard because we love Alaska and we want to take care of Alaska,” said Air Force Col. Matt Kirby, operations officer for the Alaska National Guard. “On our state’s most tough day, we are ready to respond.”
In early May, the Alaska Guard’s joint staff will participate in Arctic Eagle, wherein it will “jump” its Tactical Operations Center hundreds of miles from Anchorage to Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. The impetus for the move: a 9.2-magnitude earthquake has rocked Anchorage, closing roadways and communications that breathe life into the rest of the state. The scenario is rooted in reality: Alaska was home to the nation’s largest recorded earthquake in 1964, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale.
“It seems like the science is saying it’s not a matter of if, but when,” Kirby said. “And that’s our mindset.”
Given its size – Alaska is about two and half times the size of Texas – its guardsmen face logistical nightmares rarely encountered in the Lower 48. Operation Orca will test the 103rd Civil Support Team’s ability to cover thousands of miles in countering weapons of mass destruction, such as homemade explosives and chemical weapons, across several Alaskan sites. Cooperation with partner civilian agencies is fundamental to the exercise, said its planners.
“These are the people we’re going to be on scene with at a live call,” said Army Capt. Ralph Harris. “The first time we’re getting comfortable with each other (shouldn’t be) when things are on fire.”
Earlier this spring, FEMA Region IX’s California Homeland Response Force, led by the 49th Military Police Brigade, conducted a fast-moving, evaluation exercise on Camp Roberts, the California Guard’s flagship training post. For 36 hours, hundreds of participants navigated a constant stream of “injects” – scenarios designed to test the core competencies of Air and Army Guard emergency responders. Realism, said HRF leadership, was the driving consideration.
“We resourced this event with victim role players with moulage injuries that needed to be triaged and decontaminated,” said Army Lt. Col. Adam Rix, adding the exercise involved a complex “rubble pile which required breaching and breaking, hazard detection, and technical rescue” of role players by search and extraction teams.
The call to arms
While disaster response might be the Guard’s calling card, it remains at its core a fighting force, as evidenced by heavy participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s no surprise, then, that combat plays prominently in this year’s annual training.
“This exercise (Northern Strike) allows soldiers and airmen to actually do what they signed up to do,” said Command Sgt. Major Kevin Palmatier, Michigan Army National Guardsman and senior enlisted advisor for exercise plans.
Several Michigan military installations – past and present – will host about 8,000 participants from almost every component and agency imaginable for Northern Strike. Sponsored by “Big Army”, the multi-echelon exercise will test combat readiness and interoperability down to the granular level, calling for integrated live fires from fixed and rotary wing aircraft and ground artillery, as well as close air support, air assault, and sustainment operations. In short, no stone will be left unturned.
“We integrate all those little things that during the month, during the year they’ve done a great job of training on,” Palmatier said. “Well, now we integrate it all the way through,”
Fitting for a state that rests about a mile above sea level, much of the Colorado Guard’s combat training this summer will focus on the skies above – and beyond.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind mission; there’s nothing like it in the National Guard, or the active duty,” said Maj. Kyle Kelso, chief of weapons and tactics for the Colorado Air Guard’s 233d Space Group.
In lay terms, Kelso said, the Greeley-based unit works alongside Space Force personnel to monitor satellites with infrared sensors that detect the large heat signature of a missile launch on the Earth’s surface.
“It’s definitely not a mission we hope to exercise, but … we have to execute our annual training in order to maintain that readiness,” Kelso said.
Their Army Guard counterparts will be focused skyward this AT, as well. Based in Colorado Springs, the 100th Missile Defense Brigade will train on its mission as the “only unit capable of intercepting incoming long-range ICBMs, likely carrying nuclear warheads, in the U.S. military, and the world for that matter,” said Capt. Aaron Gatzke.
A foreign focus for annual training
Closer to earth (but elevated nonetheless), Colorado’s 1st Battalion, 157th Infantry (Mountain), will take to the Julian Alps to conduct live fire exercises alongside Slovenia and other partner nations. One of only three mountain infantry battalions in the Army, its guardsmen will test their mettle in a force-on-force field exercise amid Europe’s towering peaks.
“That’s really a part of the greatness of what the Guard can do because we have deep enduring relationships with those nation-states that endures year after year,” said NGB’s Brig. Gen. Davis. “Those relationships aren’t transactional; they’re built on trust over many, many years of participating in partner events.”
To mark its 20 years of partnership with Morocco’s armed forces, about 550 Utah guardsmen will use AT to participate in African Lion, an immense combat exercise involving more than 20 partner nations. Alongside that effort, about 50 of its medical providers will erect a medical “tent city” in rural Morocco, conducting tens of thousands of live-changing procedures in a few weeks’ time.
“We have probably the strongest partnership on the continent,” said Army Maj. Matt McPhee, Utah’s State Partnership Program director. “They really value the partnership. It’s impressive to seen how it’s grown over the last 20 years.”Read comments