Southern Wisconsin’s three military bases: special tour breaks down daily operations
MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - South Central Wisconsin is home to three military bases and NBC15 got a special tour to learn what happens beyond the gates and in the sky each day.
Our first stop is the 115th Fighter Wing of the Wisconsin Air National Guard located at Truax field in Madison.
Twelve-hundred airmen and women train for combat so they are ready to support foreign and domestic operations when called upon, with roughly a third working at the base full-time.
“We support about 1,650 state jobs here in the guard. Our actual payroll is around $62-65 million a year, so that’s just in the Madison area,” said Col. Bart Van Roo, Commander of the 115th Fighter Wing.
Since 9/11, the 115th has deployed airmen across the globe on an 18-month cycle to locations including Korea, Africa, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
The 115th has also taught western fighting and defense tactics to military members of foreign state partners in Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, and Poland, the latter of which is shared with Illinois.
On a state level, the airmen support civil authorities in numerous ways including airport and fire rescue, explosive ordinance disposal, natural disaster response, emergency communications, and chemical, biological, and medical responses to emergencies.
Regarding the explosive ordinance disposal team, Col. Van Roo said, “probably the most common email I get for these guys is grandpa brought a grenade back from south Korea and stuffed in in a chest. Now the family finds that, and this team goes in to find out if it’s a real grenade, if it’s a live grenade. Surprisingly, there are live grenades.”
More recently, guard members were called upon to support local authorities during civil unrest amid protests and racial justice movements in the summer of 2020.
“A lot of them were community members, businessman, people that worked or grew up or lived in Madison or Kenosha for instance. It actually put a different face between some of the civil unrest and police,” said Col. Van Roo.
Guard members also ran testing and vaccine clinics during the COVID-19 pandemic, a mission that wrapped up in November of 2021.
FROM F-16 TO F-35
The 115th Fighter Wing currently flies F-16 fighter jets, but those are now phasing out.
“Designed in about 1976 and one of the biggest limitations we have is upgrading these airplanes, because they really didn’t have a lot of the computer technology that we have and we’re very limited on what we can change in it,” said Col. Van Roo.
Starting in the spring of next year, the 115th will get F-35 jets, receiving more than 20 in the span of a year.
These are 5th generation fighters and are equipped with the latest technology. That includes very low observable “stealth”, advanced sensors, electronic warfare capabilities and network enabled operation.
“If you think about the flip phone being the F-16 and the iPhone 13 with constant updates inside that iPhone, that’s a little bit more what an F-35 is,” explained Col. Van Roo.
The arrival of the F-35′s will make Truax Field only the second Air National Guard unit to receive these latest aircrafts, with the Vermont Air National Guard being the first.
Col. Van Roo said Truax was selected because of its proximity to Volk Field and Fort McCoy, with airspace that “enables a lot of great training and exchange of information.”
Another factor was also cost, Col. Van Roo said, “because day-to-day we’re only about 30 miles from our training airspace and a lot of other places were 100, 150 to 200 miles from where they’re training. So, you can imagine if you’re going to fly an hour or two hours and 90% of that is actual training, that’s a significant dollar savings over the life on an airplane.”
A space for four F-35 flight simulators is being built at Truax now and airmen will begin to use it for training this winter.
Col. Van Roo added that much of he and his team’s mission over the next year will be to communicate with local community members on their concerns surrounding the rollout of F-35′s, including noise concerns.
“I think the operation of the F35 and F16 are going to be really similar to the community day-to-day, so explaining that to our community partners, working with community members that we have is really important for us as well. We’ve always been cooperative as to minimize our noise impacts coming and going. Primarily we take off to the North and enter that airspace quickly,” explained Col. Van Roo.
An approximately 30-minute flight in one of the guard’s Black Hawk Helicopters lands our crew at Volk Field, an Air National Guard Base in Camp Douglas.
“Our primary mission is the Combat Readiness Training Center. There’s four of them in the Air National Guard. We’re actually probably the largest right now. Our bread and butter is truly the airspace that we provide here. Which air units like to come here quite a bit. We host usually about 8 large-scale exercises a year,” said Lt. Col. Tom Bauer, Vice Commander of Volk Field.
The size and location of the airspace here makes training at Volk time and cost efficient.
“As soon as they take off here, they’re in the airspace. So, they’re not wasting any time or travel going back and forth to their training area, they’re in it right away,” said Lt. Col. Bauer.
The airspace is about 40,000 cubic miles, with a 50-mile x 200-mile path. The top of the airspace is 50,000 feet, which allows airmen to train like they would fight in combat.
One of the largest training events held at Volk is called Northern Lightning. It’s a major, joint-level exercise with various military branches. That includes Air National Guard, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, and Navy Reserve.
With the recent withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, these trainings are shifting to focus on what is called the near-peer fight.
“We’re training for advisories that have aircraft that are just as good if not better than ours, service-to-air missile systems that are just as good if not better than ours and then also cyber-attacks and space involvement in these fights,” said Lt. Col. Ben Staats, Northern Lightning Exercise Director & Director of Operations for WI Air National Guard.
Lt. Col. Staats explained why Wisconsin is continually chosen for large-scale training operations like this.
“Wisconsin in the gentle giant of the DOD enterprise. We have a lot of assets here; we have a lot of training capabilities and most importantly we have a lot of support from the community and also amazing troops and airmen and soldiers that support our efforts here,” said Lt. Col. Staats.
THE REACT CENTER
Volk Field also houses Wisconsin Emergency Management’s Regional All Climate Training or REACT Center.
“The REACT center was developed post 9/11 post September 11th. It was recognized by the federal government that one of the capabilities gaps was in technical rescue, particularly structural collapse rescue,” said Paul Cooke, Executive Bureau Director for Response & Recovery with the Wisconsin Emergency Management.
The training yard on site is called The Badger Den. It contains custom-built structures for technical rescue training.
Search and rescue teams and law enforcement officials train here, but primarily they instruct members of the military.
From homes to office buildings, individuals are taught to torch, drill or smash through different materials to gain entry and rescue victims from building collapse simulations during all types of weather events.
“There’s only a handful of training programs like this in the nation that can provide the depth of training that we provide here,” said Cooke.
Back in the Black Hawk we go to head to our final destination of the tour, Fort McCoy. This a U.S. Army installation in Monroe County.
Many may remember that this base provided temporary housing for nearly 13,000 Afghans following the military evacuation of Afghanistan last year. The last group of evacuees left the base in February to resettle in new homes across the U.S.
Fort McCoy is a Regional Training Institute. Fort McCoy serves both the federal and state government, but the primary mission here is to teach fundamental military skills to around 2,000 students a year.
“Understanding what the technical side is as opposed to here’s how I’ve been trained tactically. So they have that understanding of what right is supposed to look like and then they can go back and apply that tactically,” said Lt. Col. Jeremy Oleary, the Administrative Officer & First Battalion Commander 426 RTI.
Frequently training at Fort McCoy is the 1st battalion of the 147th Aviation regiment, which has 15 Black Hawk helicopters in Madison.
On the federal side the 147th air assault unit out of Madison primarily transports troops and equipment overseas. Pilots also respond to domestic missions within the state, including supporting local law enforcement and Department of Natural Resources during emergencies.
“We utilize the aircraft out of Madison mainly for their wild-land firefighting support with water buckets, where dip out of lakes and help the DNR. We also have done some civil disturbance response where we have supported local law enforcement and then we’ve also supported local law enforcement in emergency response during local floods,” explained Dan Allen, Commander of the 1st Battalion of the 147th Aviation Regiment.
In West Bend, the 147th provides a aerial medical and ambulatory patient transport (medevac) services and responds to search and rescue calls.
Allen said their pilots, crew chiefs, mechanics and support staff members are all Wisconsinites, so providing these services is something his unit takes pride in.
“It’s very rewarding when you actually get launched on a real mission and you can support the local communities within the state,” said Allen.
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