BATTLE CREEK, Mich. - With 6,400 participants from 10 countries and 22 states, Northern Strike 18 was the Department of Defense's largest joint, reserve-component exercise of 2018. Hosted annually by the Michigan National Guard at Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center and Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, it's no surprise that planning for Northern Strike's massive, joint fires environment is a year-round process.

From Dec. 4-6, 2018, more than 275 personnel convened at Fort Custer Training Center, Battle Creek, Mich., for Northern Strike 19's initial planning conference (IPC). The participants represented the Michigan National Guard, as well as both active and reserve components of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force -- along with coalition partners from the U.K.

"This initial planning conference is when we try to identify the capability and needs of the participating units," said Lt. Col. Bart Verbanic, Northern Strike operations group deputy commander. "I've been involved with Northern Strike as a planner for the last three years, and indirectly with the exercise since 2013. In that time, it's grown tremendously -- from just an idea to a massive, complete-integration exercise."

According to exercise participants, Northern Strike's unique flavor of joint, multinational, combined-arms training sets it apart as one of the best opportunities for integrated warfighting drills nationwide.

Lt. Col. Kenneth Walsh, 2d General Support Aviation Battalion (GSAB), 135th Aviation Regiment, Colorado National Guard, attended Northern Strike for the first time in 2018. He forecasts his unit's perennial involvement in the exercise because of its realistic preparation for conflict with a "near-peer" adversary, as well as overall deployment readiness.

"The user-friendliness of this exercise is what drew us in," Walsh said. "We can see this a probably an enduring thing for us because we have to operate internationally, and the opportunity to integrate as a total force package -- active duty, guard, reserve, is really valuable."

In opening remarks for the conference, Maj. Gen. Gregory Vadnais, Michigan National Guard adjutant general, highlighted the importance of multinational training to meet contemporary strategic requirements. He cited Camp Grayling's 147,000 acres of training space and Alpena CRTC's massive airspace training box - the largest of its kind east of the Mississippi River - as the ideal venue for such an exercise.

"We fight joint, and we fight multinational," said Vadnais. "We aren't going anywhere where we won't have our allies with us, so this is an opportunity to get on the ground and bring the team together."

Visiting representatives from the U.K. agree that the significance of joint, multinational training in a realistic setting cannot be underestimated.

"It looks like a fantastically well-organized and resourced exercise which will hopefully provide us with the best training opportunities and experience," said Maj. Mark Lewis, executive officer, 3rd Battalion, Royal Welsh infantry regiment. "In terms of interoperability, we're very much looking forward to the training opportunities available at the exercise, working in that defense engagement forum with our NATO partners and allies."

Troops from the Netherlands and Latvia are also slated to participate in Northern Strike 19, among other countries. Latvia is partnered with the Michigan National Guard under the Department of Defense's State Partnership Program (SPP).

Exercise planners believe that while the total number of participants in 2019 will mirror figures from Northern Strike 18, the upcoming exercise will include several new facets, including the participation of an Infantry Brigade Combat Team at Camp Grayling.

According to Lt. Col. Matthew Trumble, Northern Strike exercise director (air), an MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft launch and recovery element (LRE) could join the exercise at Alpena CRTC, as well as a Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS), which enables processing of Intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance data.

Regardless of the exercise's complexity and scope, Verbanic says the top priority is ensuring the training requirements of visit units are met.

"Every year, we've essentially tailored this to the training audience, and every year it seems to grow a little bigger based on needs and capability, he said. "We will do what we can to work through the steps and get them the training they need when it comes to the integration of fires."

Northern Strike 19 participants will convene again for additional planning conferences in February and May. In between, there are a number of scenario build-out sessions and communications exercises set to fine-tune command and control of the exercise in advance of execution.

The projected dates for Northern Strike 19 are July 21 -- Aug. 3, 2019.