ALPENA — Northeast Michigan residents with their eyes to the skies in the next week may catch a glimpse of giant aircraft overhead, evading enemy gunfire and dodging oncoming airplanes.
The simulations are part of Mobility Guardian, a training exercise currently underway at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center.
About 1,000 military personnel from New Jersey, California, Arkansas, and 14 other military installations across the country have taken up residence at the CRTC for a two-week exercise in the prized airspace above Northeast Michigan.
Such exercises allow Alpena to have impact far beyond Northeast Michigan, according to Lt. Col. Brian Thomasson, exercise director for Mobilility Guardian 2021.
The every-two-years training exercise, which began over the weekend and continues until May 27, made its way to Alpena for the first time this year. The large-scale event is designed to keep sharp the skills of Air Force personnel assigned to transport people and supplies during wartime.
Unlike the sharp-nosed attack fighters or military helicopters that filled runways at the base at recent trainings, giant carrier aircraft take center stage at Mobility Guardian.
From a distance, the gray behemoths dwarf the buildings of the CRTC and the Alpena County Regional Airport.
A giant truck carrying an enormous rocket can drive onto one of the carriers, Thomasson said.
Loading such massive equipment is one of the Mobility Guardian exercises meant to boost efficiency and prepare for the unexpected.
During the event, uniformed men and women will practice providing in-flight medical care, rearming firecraft in a remote environment, and rapidly refueling a just-landed aircraft for an immediate takeoff.
The CRTC hosts training exercises such as Mobility Guardian so those defending the nation can not just get better at what they do, but get better at handling challenges, according to CRTC Commander Col. Jim Rossi.
Such exercises deliberately create “contested and degraded environments,” simulating actual wartime challenges, Rossi said.
Some Mobility Guardian participants impersonate enemy forces, attacking the Air Force members in the air and through simulated gunfire from the ground — threats representing those posed by highly capable adversaries, such as China or Russia.
The exercises extend to a base in Wisconsin, where fighter jets are stationed, and the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, where airmen practice mid-air refueling techniques.
Filling an aircraft’s gas tank mid-flight is like driving on a highway as close to another vehicle as possible, connected by an oversized soda straw, “only in three dimensions and at 300 miles per hour,” Thomasson said.
Such maneuvers shouldn’t be attempted for the first time in the heat of battle, or when rushing to deliver aid after a natural disaster. Training — especially under duress — prepares the military to do “the task that we don’t want to do but need to be ready to do if it becomes necessary,” Thomasson said.
Alpena’s Combat Readiness Training Center, especially as a new environment for the training exercise, provides an ideal location for such training, especially with its extensive airspace suitable for training, the largest of its kind east of the Mississippi River, according to Thomasson.
“It’s not just about what happens here,” Thomasson said. “Alpena is investing in our ability to go out around the world and make an impact elsewhere. Which I think is a pretty cool thing.”