Northern Search ‘22 marks first-ever combined ISR exercise hosted by 319th RW

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Brandon Shapiro
  • 319th Reconnaissance Wing

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- After years of participating in cross-country air exercises, the 319th RW hosted the first Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance exercise in the Wing’s storied history.

Typically, the group launches its RQ-4 Global Hawks from the base, later positioning the aircraft in training ranges scattered across the Nevada desert. Oftentimes, this necessitates prepositioning liaison officers at Nellis Air Force Base to facilitate communication between participating organizations and to ensure a mutual understanding of purpose. 

Maj. Ryan Blakeney, an RQ-4 pilot, evaluator, and weapons school graduate working in the 319th Operations Group, knew there was a better alternative; ultimately, one that he would engineer and benchmark.

“After participating in dozens of combined exercises and building relationships with bases that regularly fly near Grand Forks (AFB), I thought, ‘why not us?’” said Blakeney. “Instead of spending millions of dollars for everyone to go down to Nellis (AFB), we can host the event in MOAs (Military Operations Areas) near us, and everyone can work from their home station.”

That’s exactly what Blakeney created: a specialized group that would plan remotely and exercise nearby.

Partnering in the Northern Search exercise were crewmembers of the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint from Offutt AFB, Nebraska, MQ-9 Reapers from the Fargo Air National Guard Base, and RQ-4 Global Hawks from Grand Forks AFB. Weapons Instructor Course students from Nellis AFB, Nevada, and intelligence specialists from the II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, also participated.

The objective of the exercise was concise and pointed – integration; the utilization of both airborne and ground assets (cross-cueing) to provide the most accurate and efficient intelligence. The emphasis is exceptionally important given the RQ-4 Block 40 has no inherent Positive Identification (PID) capability; therefore, it is most effective when cross-cued with other sensors and assets.

“As Global Hawk crewmembers we do a fantastic job collecting intelligence,” Blakeney said. “Where we could improve is through the education of other airborne capabilities and how to optimize integration.

“Our ultimate goal is to complete the ‘kill chain.’ We accomplish this through threat warning indications, the positive ID of radar data, and the completion of the find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess (F2T2EA) process.”

The operation was conducted at the Powder River Training Complex (PRTC) MOA and coordinated from the Grand Forks AFB Reconnaissance Operations Center. PRTC spans the skies over North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. The expansive training airspace allows Air Force pilots and crews to perform the critical training needed in conditions that closely resemble combat missions.

In this case, an F2T2EA kill chain mission would interweave the capabilities of movement intelligence, signals intelligence, geospatial intelligence, and persistent attack. Although not everything went as planned, because of weather and maintenance, the objectives of the collaboration were met, solidifying the months of preparation and war-gaming. 

“One of the two most impactful take-aways was how RC-135 crews can corroborate with an RQ-4 on collection and further refine tactics, techniques, and procedures when the two employ in force.” said Will Eby, an ISR Analyst from Offutt AFB. “The other was how similar communities can get together and participate in productive training starting with a phone call.”