Airmen take on the role of a lifetime during Northern Lightning

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Erik Figi
  • 115th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

The audible rumble of jets over the skies in and around Volk Field Air National Guard Base permeated the airspace May 6-17. This was to be expected as Northern Lightning, one of the premier Air National Guard bi-annual exercises focused on close air support, or CAS, was underway. The exercise featured various branches of service and units from across the country, all with unique missions and stories.  While the jets circling above may have drawn the eyes of the locals upwards, there was something equally as exciting and vital happening on the ground around them. Whether the public knew it or not, Airmen were loitering about in the countryside and in the local towns, acting as bad guys for both the pilots in the skies above and the joint terminal attack controllers or JTACs, on the ground.

Three Airmen from the 115th Fighter Wing, Tech. Sgt. Grant R. Coisman, an aircraft mechanic, Staff Sgt. Allen D. Hughes and Senior Airman. Ryan P. Kramer, both crew chiefs, Madison, Wis., were joined by Staff Sgt. Christina A. Dibacco, an intel analyst from the 103rd Airlift Wing, Connecticut. Air National Guard, to participate in what’s commonly referred to as an “OP-4” role, or “opposing forces.”  

“Basically, we’re playing the bad guys,” Hughes said. “I think, as I understand it, the U.S. Air Force needed someone to go up against the U.S. Navy Seals, and they figured that Hughes, Kramer, and Coisman were their best option.”

These were the original Three Musketeers, with Staff Sgt. Dibacco joining them for one day out of the two weeks, serving as the D’Artagnan to their Athos, Aramis, and Porthos personas.

Kramer volunteered for this training because it sounded like a cool opportunity to work with Navy Seals and JTACs, something not typically afforded to him as a crew chief on an F-16 aircraft, he said.

“Basically, the pilots are up there flying around, and the JTACs are spying on us, letting them know where we potentially are, and they [the pilots] try and find us with their pod and pretend to blow us up,” Kramer said. “In the more populated areas, they’re looking for the right spot to hit you while they’re in the air. Like on a bridge, so there’s no collateral damage to the civilians.”

Coisman spoke to the very real feeling that they were like college kids, getting to be hooligans in and around town, he said. After all, they were dressed in civilian clothes and moving in and around local businesses, with verbal approval of course, and acting suspiciously.

Hughes related that in one scenario in an urban environment, they split up into two groups, with one vehicle stopping at several restaurants to simulate the "bad guys" attempting to poison the food and environment. While this was happening, the other group simulated that they had ambushed some of the JTAC observers and that they required close air support to neutralize the insurgent threat. In both instances, the good guys won and our bad guys lost.

Coisman and Hughes spoke to another scenario in which their team was instructed to move to a rural setting to portray two enemy targets meeting at an undisclosed location. It was at this point that JTACs called in an airstrike from a pair of F-16s and the crew got an experience most “hooligans” don’t get—“seeing the F-16s roll in on you in a strafing run was a very unique experience, but also a little hair-raising—getting that full-frontal view of a fighter jet bearing in on you, knowing what it could be doing, or what it is capable of doing,” said Hughes.

For Coisman, Hughes, Dibacco, and Kramer, the highlight of the OP-4 training experience was visiting Hardwood Range and getting to witness the aircraft and JTACs up close, doing what they do best—CAS.

For Dibacco, it was especially rewarding, as she got a ride in an Army helicopter. “I did get to go out to Hardwood [Range] in a Blackhawk. That was probably my favorite experience—way better than a Chinook,” said Dibacco.

The OP-4 role was critical in facilitating the optimal training environment for the JTAC students and their instructors, as well as for the pilots in the skies above. It allowed for a more realistic and fluid experience and provided ample opportunities to practice rules of engagement, effective communication between the forces on the ground and those in the air, as well as the ability to change the scenarios on the fly.

With a sarcastic grin, Hughes spoke of his experience.

“I guess now I can technically say I’ve trained with SEAL Team Two and SEAL Team Eight, and that would not technically be a lie,” he said.

The larger of the two annual Northern Lightning exercises will return August 12-23, 2019 and will focus on Opposed Air Interdiction against a highly integrated air defense network composed of relevant surface-to-air and air-to-air threats. Additionally, other mission sets such as pilot recovery, defensive counter air, and low/high threat close air support, will be a part of the exercise. Perhaps the rag-tag crew of Coisman, Hughes, Dibacco, and Kramer will return to reprise their roles—this time with more JTACs, more aircraft, and bigger scenarios. After all, the rules dictate that the sequel is always bigger!