CAMP GRAYLING, Mich. — The muzzle flash of an M240 machine gun illuminates a snow-covered embankment. Below, military vehicles pulling field artillery guns grind to a halt as Soldiers duck and begin to return fire. A pickup truck blocks their way. From behind it, a man in tiger-striped camouflage fires a weapon that looks like a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
“Contact!” someone yells.
Today, Northern Michigan is a 20-degree snow globe, and this is an ambush.
The scene is part of Northern Strike 23-1, an Army National Guard exercise that was held Jan. 20-29 at the National All-Domain Warfighting Center in Northern Michigan. Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers from the 1-120th Field Artillery Regiment drove Humvees, while members of the Michigan National Guard’s Northern Strike planning team — serving as opposing forces (OPFOR) in this battlefield scenario — fired the M240 and RGP launchers with blanks.
“The point of OPFOR is to give you a realistic training event so that the unit can build readiness,” said Sgt. 1st Class Todd Teuling, opposing forces manager for the Northern Strike planning team. “The big thing is the element of surprise, because they don’t know it’s coming.”
Teuling said Northern Strike staff work with units that plan to participate, gathering input on the training they need — often based on the requirements of upcoming deployments or missions.
Teuling’s audience for Northern Strike 23-1 is about 600 personnel from the active and reserve components of the U.S. Army, Air Force and Marine Corps. They have traveled to Northern Michigan because of the geography, resources and accessibility of the National All-Domain Warfighting Center, which includes Camp Grayling and Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center. The exercise builds readiness in near-arctic conditions to meet the objectives of the Department of Defense’s Arctic strategy.
Members of the Northern Strike planning team don fatigues and join civilian contractors to carry out the scenario injects, adding unpredictability with many simulated weapons and tactics that force participating units to react and make decisions under pressure.
“We try to cater to what the units want, and then we take that request and mold it into a scenario based on what we have to work with here on the ground,” said Tueling. “We can put different elements into it, whether it’s [small] unmanned aerial vehicles, simulated chemical attacks, machine-gun fire, indirect fire, small probes and heavy attacks.”
All of this, added to the already challenging conditions of Northern Michigan in January, makes the winter exercise a trial of resilience.
“You don’t get to pick the enemy, the location, or the weather when it’s time to fight, so you have to train in all conditions,” said U.S. Army Maj. Rustin Billings, 120th FA brigade fire support officer, Wisconsin National Guard. “A lot of the Soldiers build that character piece when it’s a natural thing you have to overcome; it’s not artificial.”