Vigilant Guard 2022 exercise brings national resources to 173rd Fighter Wing

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jefferson Thompson
  • 173rd Fighter Wing

The 173rd Fighter Wing, Oregon Air National Guard, sits on the east side of the Cascade mountains, which makes it less rainy, higher in elevation and less likely to suffer the after effects of a catastrophic earthquake.

At 235 miles inland, the base sits just beyond anticipated damage from a Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake and likely tsunami.

A subduction zone is where an oceanic plate rides underneath a continental plate, which causes volcanic and seismic action. And although these results are predictable, it’s anyone’s guess as to when.

“The biggest thing with a Cascadia Subduction Zone event is that it’s going to happen with no notice,” said Lt. Col. Michael Balzotti, the wing exercise coordinator.

This dynamic requires advance preparation and in that spirit the 173rd Fighter Wing hosted its first Vigilant Guard exercise, which is an annual large-scale exercise sponsored by U.S. Northern Command in conjunction with the National Guard Bureau and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“One of the things we wanted to test was devolution of command,” said Balzotti. “We’d take off our 173rd Fighter Wing hat and put on our Oregon National Guard Joint-Staff leadership hat.”

That hat means the 173rd FW commander becomes the acting adjutant general for the entire Oregon National Guard, and other base personnel fill the roles of the joint staff senior leadership.

This exercise simulated this expected chaos and the participants fought to bring order by accounting for every Oregon Guard member, bringing helping agencies resources to bear and providing needed relief to those trapped in damaged areas. 

In other words, locating command and control elements for disaster response at Kingsley Field, which has a high likelihood of remaining operational following what could be a massive devastation to areas west of the Cascade Mountains.

“Would we feel any shaking out here in Klamath Falls? We really don’t know, but based on the studies we should be okay out here,” he added.

More than 150 people from around the country converged on the Kingsley Field gym, standing up mobile communications including network capability, and even a simulated media platform to improve the realistic feel.

Balzotti says that these facilities are very important for the coordination of a possible influx of 30-thousand people arriving into the state to provide relief to affected areas. Those people and the critical supplies they bring will transit through Kingsley Field.

Among the lessons learned was the fact that the base can handle that influx for the initial response, while aerial port or cargo handling capability ramps up to handle that as well as the associated air traffic coordination.

Another lesson he stresses is that for people who live west of the Cascade Mountains, they have to be ready to support themselves as the relief efforts have tremendous challenges to overcome in order to reach them and it will take time. 

“We know bridges on the coast are going to be affected, we know roads are going to be affected; there is going to be landslides and tsunami damage, so really the only way to get to the coast will be via aircraft and in the immediate follow-through, that will be helicopters,” he said. 

He stressed that for everyone in the state and particularly those in the Cascadia footprint to be “Two Weeks Ready,” a campaign by the state of Oregon where residents have enough supplies on-hand to weather two weeks of total isolation.