Return of the King
LTC David Sink and CSM Dennis Woods
In early 2009, with a deployment to Afghanistan in support of OEF X looming on the horizon for 4-319th Field Artillery Regiment paratroopers, we knew it was time to take stock in our heritage as gunners and Redlegs. We knew we needed to train our paratroopers for a different war than most of our senior field artillery leaders have experienced. Today war places the responsibility on our junior leaders from those young section chiefs, to platoon sergeants and platoon leaders. As the direct support Fires battalion for the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, our mission is to provide accurate, timely, and deadly indirect Fires for our fellow warriors and to synchronize the lethal and non-lethal effects on today's battlefield.
Although our junior leaders and battery commanders have spent more than half their Army career in combat, most of those tours included tasks other than providing fire support. So taking this into consideration, we made the basics of gunnery and fire support a top priority in our battalion during the train up phase of our deployment. These basic skills included manual and digital gunnery, fire direction computational procedures, management of ammunition and muzzle velocity variations, crew drills, the advanced levels of survey, alternate methods of lay, direct fire, air assault and airborne operations, hip shoots, 2x gun raids in support of special missions and direct fire procedures during day and night operations in preparation for the defense of combat outposts. To ensure this battalion executed a vigorous, and comprehensive training program that promoted accomplishment of our fire support missions and focused on leader development, we wanted to take the opportunity during our 'dwell' period, to mold a team of gunners whose skills surpassed those of all potential enemies. We knew our junior leaders needed to be capable of executing not only their own jobs but also those of their leaders. Crucial to meeting the objective as with any crew-served weapon system, was the requirement for cross training.
As a M119A2 Fires battalion, the M119A2 is a tremendous weapon which provides the means for rapid and accurate indirect Fires for the infantryman in support of 'troops in contact' or in a defensive measure using direct fire procedures. In order to accomplish this we continued to review and rehearse M119A2 basics, refine our skills, and provide expanded training opportunities.
For example, our paratroopers and cannoneers are required to use the M119A2, the M777A2, and the 81mm or 120mm systems. That can be a lot of training, so in order to accomplish it in a timely manner we first identified common skill sets that applied to all indirect fire systems. By building on this base of 'standards of precision,' it allowed us to add different weapons and capabilities.
During the first five months of our reset phase, we fired more than 3,000 rounds, conducted six airborne operations, three drop-zone missions with heavy drop platforms, performed one tactical jump using the Adverse Weather Aerial Delivery System, and six platoon RAIDs using CH-47 Chinook helicopter support. To add complexity and realism to the training, we incorporated engineers from the 173rd Brigade Combat Team's Special Troops Battalion and constructed a fire base, with emphasis on forward operating base defense, direct fire procedures, and gun raids.
We also conducted ground assault convoys in support of illumination missions while a platoon within the firebase conducted the high explosive portion of the coordinated illumination. This exercise exposed the battalion to decentralized operations at the lowest levels, and provided additional training to our fire direction center's incorporating fire missions with a platoon outside the perimeter and facilitated the training of the BCTs forward observers.
The concept of the operation in order to get our junior leaders trained and ready to fight in a decentralized role was simple. As senior leaders in the battalion, we were stakeholders in the structuring of a training 'campaign plan' that would result in the fine-tuning of 'core' competencies, basic gunnery, and individual skills. None of this would have been possible without dedicated leadership that continued to focus on the battalion training priorities. Command guidance from brigade, review of the METL, configuring a long-term training plan, and establishment of a clear 'end state' has resulted in a winning solution fully supported by the brigade and battalion leadership. This battalion has a reputation; that continues to be validated with action in combat. We are truly 'King of the Herd.'
How we trained. Our training cycle started with Reset Phase IIIA in January 2009 with two internal battalion-level field training exercises, and culminated with Phase IIIB with a 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team pre-mission readiness exercise gunnery rotation to the Joint Multi National Training Center. During those five months, the battalion spent eight weeks at the JMTC focusing on the basics of our field artillery tasks with a small flavor of non-standard mission and warrior tasks.
Howitzer section certification, fire direction training and certification, gun/FDC crew drills, enforcement of both manual and digital computational data, alternate methods of lay, advanced survey operations, platoon level air assault raids, drop zone missions, and direct fire operations both day and night, and executing the perishable skills of operating within a fire base were all part of the plan.
For our first three-week FTX, we began with the basics. It included all batteries focusing on small arms ranges with the intent to train, zero and qualify paratroopers on personal weapons as well as crew served weapon systems. The battalion also conducted airborne operations that included the use of heavy drop platforms with the task of assemble on the platform, derig, place a howitzer into operation, and fire a mission in support of maneuver. We utilized this period to conduct Fires support team certification with the two maneuver battalions and a reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition squadron. The maneuver commanders, the airborne battalion combat team fire support element, and the FA battalion commander (fire support coordinator) supervised, advised, and ensured training and certification were not just a 'check the block' event.
Finally, the battalion shifted its focus to section and platoon certification with an introduction to 105mm howitzer direct fire procedures, 'direct lay and killer junior.' We trained everyone to standard on direct fire while using thermal sites and lasers, which allowed us to effectively engage dismounted enemy troops at night.
Defending our positions with the largest weapon available at the greatest range possible allowed us to transition from defending at the far tree line, to defending at the far ridgeline, at a time when the enemy is most likely to attack. This training would prove life saving to hundreds of our fellow comrades just one year later. During our combat tour in Afghanistan both batteries employed howitzers in direct fire from a defensive position.
Developing experience. While in the local training areas, the firing batteries focused on the basic field artillery skills necessary to certify howitzer sections and fire direction centers. For the NCO's, that task was to become subject matter experts on their weapon systems. The NCO's experience base would be narrow but extensive where it concerned their assigned duties. The officer's task was to develop a wide experience base and learn enough to understand and operate the unit's systems. This division of labor ensured that when officers reached command they knew enough about the total system to operate a unit. This method nested nicely with a normal span of control. The officers planned and organized and accomplished the units' missions by employing the units' subject matter experts, the NCO's. The NCO's were also expected to run the daily operations without their officer counterparts.
During this timeframe, the battalion also instituted a NCO re-education program with the intent of redeveloping a deep bench of artillery and NCO skills. As part of the adaptive leadership program, every platoon had an extra fully-certified section chief, gunner, and ammo team chief. As additional cross training, we required every section chief certify on basic gunnery sergeant task, as well as every platoon have at least one section chief who successfully completed the platoon sergeant certification test.
Our senior NCOs and platoon sergeants also routinely performed the duties of a first sergeant in both field and garrison environments. First sergeants also performed the duties of a battalion command sergeant major ensuring the battalion had a deep bench of cross-trained NCO talent.
For this to occur successfully, leadership and discipline were enforced, and the making of agile and adaptive leaders began to show progress within the organization. This set our NCOs up for success by having the ability to assume higher levels of responsibility when called on, which would later be evident during the deployment.
While our firing battery's focused on what they do best, providing 'steel rain,' our HHB focused on establishing the command and control structure of the battalion's tactical, administrative and logistical operation centers as well as developing the tracking and reporting standards for the battalion. Our forward support company, Golf Battery, continued to sustain the battalion through logistical support that included maintenance, field feeding, and distribution of supplies and ammunition.
After our final FTX, we were able to conduct two additional airborne operations, enhancing our paratrooper proficiency, but were also able to use the available resources, and add to the complexity of the mission by adding a heavy drop platform with M119A2s to the operation. This allowed our young paratroopers to accomplish a drop zone mission; one of the reasons they joined the 'airborne artillery.'
The airborne drop zone mission was a straightforward mission, but required detailed planning. In the summer of 2009, for the first time in this new battalion's history, we executed a successful drop zone mission with rigor, enthusiasm, and precision. The paratroopers were able to drop from a C-130 with combat equipment, assemble on the platform, during it, lay and safe the howitzer, establish communications with the observer, and be 'in-order' with data on the gun within 25 minutes.
Our end state was a professional, lethal battalion trained to execute its assigned indirect Fires or non-standard mission.
Always flexible. But in the few months prior to our deployment, the 173d ABCT and 4-319th AFAR were once again called upon to be that flexible, adaptive organization and were told to prepare to deploy with M777A2s (155mm), even though we were organized as a M119A2 (105mm) howitzer battalion. We had to quickly transform into a two-battery, six-platoon, six-FDC battalion, capable of decentralized operations in support of forward operating bases and combat outposts throughout an area of operation using M777A2s and M119s.
We signed for a few M777A2s, from 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, Howitzer Squadron, and then received a 30-day NET training from Fort Sill, which included live-fire training and certification on this 'new' system prior to our mission rehearsal exercise at the Joint Multi-national Readiness Center. This training required our NCOs and officers to step up to the plate and show adaptive leadership we so regularly enforced. Our NCOs now had to become the 'expert' in a weapon system that they had never deployed with. Our FDCs had to re-learn 155mm ammunition, and conduct special missions with two different systems while occupying one position.
Additionally, in order to build two extra fire direction centers, as required by our new mission, we had to take our 13Ds (Fire Direction Specialists) out of the battalion TOC and assign them to batteries. This enhanced the Fires capabilities within the districts and provinces of our area of operation, Task Force Bayonet.
While the training piece posed a challenge, the manning requirement necessary to accomplish this task was also difficult, mainly sue to the fact the battalion is built on 16 x 6-man sections. With the transition, we were required to man numerous M777A2s with the requirement of a 10-man section.
When we initially arrived in theatre, we were task organized as a maneuver battalion and Fires battalion. Later on we would transition to police trainers for two provinces along with maintaining the requirement to provide Fires capability across the AO. We had a M777A2, and M119A2 located at six command outposts to provide decentralized Fires and overlapping coverage for the entire AO Bayonet. Having both of these systems on a COP gave us the flexibility in special munitions, and the ability to compensate for the minimum and maximum range issues that we would encounter later in the deployment. Using the M119A2 and M777A2 in tandem also provided the ability to tailor desired effects on a given target. In some troops' contact fire missions, the smaller 105mm high explosive munitions allowed for closer Fires and created less collateral damage. During our deployment to Afghanistan, on numerous occasions our training was validated with successful combat actions.
Training validated in combat. In one particular fire fight involving our Alpha Battery, we had one gun crew use both the M777A2 and the M119A2. The engagement started with a dramatic direct fire mission using the 105mm against enemy dismounts; as the fire fight developed, an indirect counter-fire mission against an insurgent rocket position was ordered. For this mission the lone artillery crew sprinted from the 105mm M119A2 and manned the 155mm M777A2. Firing high explosive rounds, they destroyed enemy crews as they attempted to emplace additional rockets.
As the fight continued additional enemy contact developed in the vicinity of a mosque. In order to support this troop's 'in contact' mission the M777A2 was employed for illumination and the M119A2 for high explosive. As a learning organization able to accept change, we were able to support a delicate mission on restricted terrain. With cross-trained FDC's and cannon crews, we were able to employ two guns in one fight with one crew.
A second combat operation validating our training plan occurred involving our Bravo Battery. The battle that evening began as a standard Fires mission for 1st Platoon, Bravo Battery, 4-319th AFAR, as they supported the paratroopers of C Troop 1-91 CAV, with indirect fire support coverage while they were out on a scheduled mission. During this 11-hour mission, the day turned to night, and an enemy ground attack on the outpost developed. Using civilians as a human shield, insurgents slipped from crowded mud houses and gathered for an attack on our combat outpost, despite being crushed a month prior with 18 rounds of direct fire delivered by a thermal sighted cannon. That fight consisted of a line of sight artillery duel (Napoleonic style) against four separate enemy positions. Our lone 105mm slugged it out with one rocket and two machine guns breaking the enemy attack. Learning from that experience, the enemy began this assault by suppressing the artillery position first with machine gun fire.
As this ground assault increased in force, artillerymen hurriedly ran uphill to again use the M119A2 cannon as a large bore, crew-served weapon. As they moved up hill, enemy fighters used high-walled sunken roads surrounding the outpost to approach to within 460 meters. From defilade positions, they fired PKM automatic weapons and RPG's against our gun position. As we raced up the hill, they entered a covered trench shielding them from the grazing fire overhead. In the dark confines of the trench, paratroopers were ordered to man machine guns, and the cannon gun pit. With the section's machine gun now added to that of the guard towers, small arms fire was directed at the closest enemy position.
Overhead in the gun pit, rounds skipped off of the howitzer. As bullets continued to zip over the covered trench, an unidentified fragmentation device detonated inside the HESCO walls of the gun position. As the cavalry troops' first sergeant and commander organized the defense, the machine gun Fires inability to penetrate or suppress the enemy's position was realized. Using the forward guard tower and local camera array as observers, artillery support was requested.
As paratroopers assembled in the trench as if on a parachute jump, the command "Over the top; fire mission!" was given. With rounds zipping through the night air, tracers seemed as if they were only inches away. As men entered the open ground, the tainted smell of a fragmentation burst still hung in the air. Employing a thermal weapon sight and a laser aimer on the GELON mount, a 'Killer Junior' mission was conducted. This technique calls for firing high-explosive projectiles with time fuses set at two seconds or greater to burst approximately 30 feet off the ground at ranges of 200 to 1,000 meters. Meanwhile, searching for targets through the sight, the gunner found enemy fighters repositioning forward on the sunken road.
Within seconds of the first rounds detonation, the volume of enemy fire was reduced. On this engagement, unlike others where survivors often remove the dead and dying, this time, no one was left. Controlled artillery strikes had done an ugly job in a crude manner. Enemy dismounts not under artillery fire quickly withdrew.
Accomplishing firsts. As a new airborne artillery battalion, this combat rotation accomplished a lot of "firsts" for the 4-319th:
Warrior ethos. The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and the 4-319th have produced a warrior ethos that resounds across the organization. The complex computational procedures and theory of gunnery are all perishable skills. Those who grew up in the 'days of training' are slowly dwindling from our ranks. Today's Soldiers, NCOs, and young officers only know training for the next deployment. Our ranks are only as good as our last deployment; whatever mission they may have had. As our new leaders continue to rack up tours in Iraq and Afghanistan the most prominent problems occur when 'good enough' becomes the standard. As leaders in our organizations we must enforce the standards, starting with the basics. It's up to the senior leaders within this branch to make it known to our higher HQ, that returning to the basics during the training phase prior to the next deployment is key, not only for the next fight, but for the next generation of professional Redlegs. Training for both lethal Fires and nonstandard missions can be accomplished, but only after having leaders who are involved in setting the priorities, with clear guidance, intent, key tasks, and a feasible end state.
Train hard, fight hard! King of the Herd, Sky Soldiers, Airborne!