GRAYLING — The largest joint military training exercise of its kind was smaller this year.
Just more than a thousand troops from multiple branches of the armed forces descended upon Camp Grayling for Northern Strike, the annual training exercise conducted by the Michigan National Guard at Camp Grayling open to the public.
More than 5,000 would participate in years past, but its attendance was reduced this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The event featured a live-round battlefield simulation in an operation treated as if it were a NATO mission. Participating units came from several states and even Latvia to Camp Grayling’s air-to-ground range east of the Hartwick Pines State Park in front of some-250 spectators in masks.
“This kind of thing shows that we’re from the community,” said 2nd Lt. Nikolas Discher, also the lead maneuver planner for Northern Strike and a native of Iona. “We’re not the big scary guys coming from some mythical government organization or something along those lines. We live locally, in the community, and we’re just here to help our community.”
Radio communications between the planes and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers on the ground were broadcasted through speakers as a soldier interpreted what spectators were seeing and hearing.
To some, it felt much more like an air show.
The planes, A-10 fighter jets based out of Selfridge Air National Guard Base and F-16 aircraft from the 180th Fighter Wing in Toledo, entered the battlefield from the west and flew low and close to demonstrate a “show of force.”
Later an A-10 aircraft returned to the airspace to fire a chain of rounds toward a target. The explosion could be seen without being heard for a few seconds — that’s because the rounds travel through the air at supersonic speed, more than 768 miles per hour, or the speed of sound.
“I was pretty impressed,” said Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, who traveled to attend the event for the second year in a row. “I’ve never heard a sound like that chain on an A-10 before and I don’t think I’m going to forget that.”
Gilchrist was briefed by and toured with Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers of the Michigan National Guard upon arriving at the observation post. Multiple state legislators attended as well.
Rogers, among other leaders of the state’s National Guard bases at Alpena, Selfridge and Battle Creek, held a presentation on what each base has the ability to do just before the Northern Strike training event.
There the general spoke about some of the ideas in expanding Camp Grayling.
He said the Michigan National Guard hired a firm to investigate what’s necessary to be relevant decades from now. The hope is to eventually add a 2-mile runway to Grayling Army Airfield so both larger military aircraft and commercial aircraft would be able to use it. Other improvements would be additional airspace dedications, rail space, hangars and unmanned aircraft capabilities.
The financial impact to the region could be substantial.
“Although our monies are invested for military readiness, and that’s our focus, we also look to see, ‘OK, what’s the economic benefit for the local community?’” Rogers said. “Our success is based on the success of our communities and the vibrancy and energy of our communities. So if we can invest money for our military applications, but there’s a secondary commercial application that benefits economic development, we always look to that.”
Funding for the project, however, is something that has to be proven at the national level. Rogers said that’s why Northern Strike is so important to show the national value of investing in northern Michigan.
Camp Grayling has 147,000 acres of training space available, the largest in the National Guard. In the air it has 17,000 square miles of designated special use airspace that extends over Lake Huron, the largest east of the Mississippi, with restricted airspace within Lake Huron for maritime operations.
“(Northern Strike) is unique because Michigan is unique,” Rogers said. “Michigan provides a national asset, it’s an incredible training environment.”
Gilchrist said the base is already a “tremendous” asset to the state.
“The ability to be able to train more people with more precision, where they have been able to understand the kind of coordination that happens here, I mean, you can’t get this any place else in the country,” Gilchrist said.
“I think anything that makes Michigan even more unique is something that we’re always gonna be proud of, and we’re gonna fight for to support.”