Company Level Fire Support in Afghanistan During OEF IX and X
1LT Brian R. Buchholz
Prior to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division's deployment to Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom IX, we spent months certifying our 13F's, fire support specialists, in core competencies. Although this training ensured that our 13F's understood their jobs at the platoon level, I found that fire support officers at the company level received little guidance.
In particular, lessons learned at the company level from previous Afghanistan deployments were not passed down. Former fire support officers had already transferred by the time of our arrival in theater, and our battalion FSOs' prior deployments were mostly to Iraq.
FSOs have three different types of duties: lethal, nonlethal, and command and control. Unfortunately, we spend more time learning about the lethal side of our jobs than the nonlethal side at the Field Artillery Officer's Basic Course. Almost no time was spent on command and control. FSO's need expertise at all three of these skill sets in order to affect their company's success in theater. This article will focus on the lessons learned about these three skill sets, and suggest ways future FSOs can be successful throughout their deployment in Afghanistan.
Prior to deployment, there are several courses of action that you can take to improve the lethality of your fire support team. The majority of your junior FISTER's will be relatively fresh from advanced individual training, and will have less experience calling for fire than an FSO just out of the officer basic course. Most of your senior FISTER's will have at least one deployment under their belts; however they may not be experienced at "call for fire."
Because of the shortage of 13F's Army-wide, it's likely that at least one of your senior 13F's will be a re-class. With this in mind, it's obvious the first way you can prepare for your deployment is by shooting as much as possible.
While actual live-fire mortar and artillery shoots can be a challenge to schedule, rock drills and simulators are also effective training aids for 13F's. Fortunately for my FIST, our commander allowed us time to train instead of forcing the FO's to train with their platoons every day. Spending time with their platoons is valuable for 13F's, however, several hours practicing call for fire or in a "call for fire" trainer is more valuable than a class on M240 maintenance.
After finding out that 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team "call for fire" trainer was available, our FIST team obtained permission to use it and trained there almost every day. As deployment neared, other FIST teams began to use the simulator, but by then our FO's excelled at call for fire and our scheduled simulator days were used to train the company's platoon leaders through team leaders. Each platoon's FO's assisted their platoon's leadership in this training. This helped two fold; first by re-integrating the FO's with their platoons, and second through developing the confidence each platoon had in their FO's.
If the simulator was unavailable, we conducted rock drills in the company area, hands on training with our radios and Lightweight Laser Designator Rangefinder and conducted classes on fire support planning. During counterinsurgency training in late August 2008, my fire support NCO, SSG Jason Sanders, and I identified fire support planning as a major weakness in our FIST. We set out to correct this by conducting classes and practical exercises on maps. Next we progressed to practical exercises using maps and the simulator, and by the time we conducted the Platoon Fire Support Coordination Exercise in early November 2008, the battalion fire support officer commended our FIST as being the best at fire support planning in the battalion. This focus on fire support planning paid dividends in Afghanistan.
Lastly, attendance at the Joint Fires Observers Course also assisted greatly in our preparation for an Afghanistan deployment. Prior to Operating Enduring Freedom IX, I've been told that platoon leaders and forward observers regularly spoke with close air support aircraft and conducted ordinance drops. This has not been the case during OEF's IX and X. While air weapons teams have been willing to talk with and take guidance from platoon leaders, forward observers, and various NCO's, fixed-wing close air support consistently wants to be in communication with a qualified joint fire observer on the ground as well as the joint terminal attack controller at battalion headquarters. Attendance at the JFP course, greatly improves your usefulness at the company level, and ensures you will be on company level missions as part of the company tactical command post, instead of remaining in the rear at the tactical operations center. FSO's should do everything in their power to attend the course themselves and to enroll as many of their FISTER's as possible.
Our time spent learning fire support planning paid off during our deployment to Afghanistan, as our FO's planned targets, with minimal refinement on FalconView. FalconView is the mapping portion of the portable flight planning software, the foundation for the Army's Aviation Mission Planning System. We met collateral damage estimate requirements and ensured indirect fire assets supported every patrol. My FO's were able to bring their targets into the tactical operations center, have myself or the fire support NCO check them on FalconView, and then forward them to battalion for approval. This guaranteed that their platoon's specific concerns for each operation were covered by indirect fire assets.
Additionally, fire support rehearsals ensured each forward observer was ready and understood what to do in case of contact. Although this might seem to be common sense, conditions in the contemporary operating environment made these rehearsals absolutely essential to our success. Communications between maneuvering elements and their higher headquarters, for example, are extremely challenging in Afghanistan. Most FM radios are limited in range to several kilometers because of the mountainous terrain. Because of this, our company Fires net was not viable unless the patrol in contact was within eyesight of the company outpost. Our company command net on the other hand, was broadcast over a retransmission net and provided consistent communications throughout most of our area of operations. In a fire support rehearsal, this would result in one of our forward observers announcing a communications plan like this: "While the platoon leader sends up his initial contact report over (tactical satellite), I will try company fires. If Fires doesn't work, I'll send my call for fire over company command. If company command does not work, I will use Roshan (a local national cell phone company) or Thurya (satellite phone) to call the TOC Roshan or TOC Thurya."
Besides the traditional fire support rehearsal and communications rehearsal, we found rehearsing allocation of close air support and close combat attack assets was very valuable. On company missions, we initially have assets check in with either the company commander or myself. With air weapons teams, we usually keep the high bird under company control to maintain situational awareness of the entire battlefield, and push the low bird to the platoon in contact or the platoon maneuvering to give them dedicated aerial support. We typically maintain control of close air support at the company level, as it's easier for me to speak to the aircraft on Fires, common air to ground, or Strike nets than a platoon forward observer, who is maneuvering with his platoon.
Rehearsing this allocation prior to every mission allowed us to operate smoothly and efficiently, and did not lead to everyone on the net attempting to "grab" assets, which sometimes hinders operations by having multiple Soldiers providing conflicting guidance to aircraft.
Restricted operational zone. The next lesson we learned was activating the restricted operational zone to ensure all aircraft are clear of the gun target line and to allow for fire. At first, we thought you could send the request to get the ROZ hot immediately prior to a fire mission. However, our area of operations was along the glide path for civilian aircraft flying into Kabul, so the battalion Fires cell and higher had to deconflict not only military aircraft but also civilian aircraft. This deconfliction process occasionally caused significant delays for fire mission.
Although not always possible, we've found that activating the ROZ prior to the start and deactiviating it after the finish worked the best for short duration missions; however for longer missions this technique was not feasible. During longer duration missions we've found it useful to raise the ROZ prior to dawn and dusk, as many attacks occurred during those times. This allowed the platoon leader and forward observer on the ground to lay one of their indirect fire systems onto a target which greatly reduced the time necessary to get rounds down range.
Not all fire missions required the ROZ to be hot. For example, fire missions can proceed if the rounds' max ordinate is expected to fall below the coordinating altitude as dictated by the Air Force. If the ground commander can visually clear the airspace, and ensure no collateral damage within 500 meters of the target, he can assume risk and authorize the fire mission while the ROZ is in the process of getting hot. To take advantage of this rule and provide every patrol an indirect fire asset, each patrol takes with it a 60mm mortar.
Reverse echelonment of fire. Our most effective technique for bringing indirect fire onto the enemy was reverse echelonment of fire. As soon as the FO can accurately determine the enemy's location during contact, he adjusts the 60mm onto the target. While this is occurring, the FO calls back to the company tactical operations center and begins the process of getting the ROZ hot. If the target is in range of the company's 81mm or 120mm mortar, the ROZ will be hot and rounds will be headed down range within minutes of the initial contact. The clearance process takes longer for the 105mm and 155 mm howitzers.
We've found that calling for fire on a collateral damage cleared planned target can shave 10 minutes or more off the time it takes to get howitzer rounds down range. Because the target is already cleared, approval at battalion is almost instantaneous. Once the rounds arrive it's easy to make subsequent adjustments to the rounds and to get effects onto the insurgent's position and allow the infantry to maneuver upon them.
The time necessary to identify, conduct call for fire, and get rounds on target is roughly equal to the time necessary to receive additional assets in the form of close air support or air weapons team. If you're achieving good effects with your IDF assets, we've found it best to deconflict laterally or through maximum ordinate in order to fix the enemy with the mortars and allow the air assets to kill them in position.
If you're not achieving good effects however, I'd advise you to stop indirect firing and guide the AWT on target. AWT can be guided using direction and distance from your position allowing Apaches to get "eyes on" the insurgents. The insurgents regularly break contact when AWT arrive on station, so it is critical to attempt to deconflict the gun target line of mortars and use them to fix the enemy so the AWT can kill them in position. When the insurgents don't break however, you're facing determined enemy and a serious kinetic engagement will most likely ensue.
Interdiction of rocket, artillery, and mortar. The last lesson we learned on the lethal side was that interdiction of rocket, artillery, and mortar missions can be effective in preventing your combat observation post from coming under IDF attacks, but they are seasonal mission based off of effective pattern analysis of insurgent trends. When we arrived in theater in January 2009, we took almost no contact until April. From this, and our COP's location next to the Sayed Abad District Center, we assumed that we would not face a high threat of indirect fire, and did not conduct improvised rocket assisted munitions missions for several months.
Initially, this was a correct decision, but as the fighting season occurred, we took increasing number of IDF attacks. Using pattern analysis, we discovered that our high threat times for IDF attacks were between 10 a.m. and noon and 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. We responded with interdiction of rocket artillery and mortar shoots during these times, which significantly lowered the number of IDF attacks. IRAM also proved useful when we received signal intelligence of attacks on the combat observation post ranging from suicide bombers to direct fire attacks. Most times, when possible attacks were reported by signal and we conducted an IRAM shoot in response to the threat, we later received intelligence that the attack was called off because of heavy activity.
Information operations. Shifting focus to nonlethal operations, the most important thing you can do prior to deployment is attend the Information Operations School at Fort Sill, Okla. None of our company level fire support officers attended this school, so we had to learn information operations "on the job." In theater, the IO aspect of your job is very time consuming. You'll compile various reports and send them to the battalion fires and effects coordination cell; which is compiling all of the reports into more slides and sending them to the brigade fires and effects coordination cell. IO is important to the brigade, so if you don't stay on top of your IO responsibilities, you'll find that they will take up all of your time, and your fire support NCO will take over your lethal duties while you spend every day compiling late IO reports.
You'll spend some time developing talking points for your company in response to input from the line platoon's patrols. When not developing talking points, your IO duties will consist of broadcasting messages on a radio in a box or on a local national radio station. Sayed Abad District, has a radio station attached to the COP and district center, so we take messages to them (either pre-recorded or written down so an interpreter can record them at the station) talk for a little bit with employees and then give them the message. Most combat outposts do not have a local radio station, so they broadcast messages over their RIAB's. RIAB is a 250-watt transmitter - in a box - set up inside a base. The Army has distributed thousands of hand-crank radios that can pick up the station. In a country where only one in eight Afghans can read and write, this is powerful stuff. While RIAB's are easier to use because there's no dependence on an outside organization to broadcast IO messages (RIAB's use interpreters as the disk jockeys). I'd recommend that you use a local national radio station if possible. The local radio station will already have an audience and interspersing International Security Assistance Force's messages with local programming presents a better image than a purely American station.
Good things come to those who wait. The last lesson learned on the nonlethal side is patience. Everything on this side takes time. You can't send up a request for humanitarian assistance supplies three or four days in advance and expect results. You should send your request to the battalion S-9 at least a week, if not two weeks in advance. Once your request gets up to battalion, they have to process it, physically go to the supply yard to box up the supplies, wait until a convoy leaves for your COP and load the supplies onto the convoy. Because the fire support call supports your entire area of operations, it might take a week or longer for a combat logistics patrol to reach your combat observation post. So unless you submitted the request a week to two weeks in advance of your planned humanitarian assistance drop, you might not have the supplies on hand when the time comes.
It's also important to note that projects take a long time to complete. Most projects require at least three bids from local firms before a contractor is selected. These three bids can take weeks or longer to complete. After the contractor is selected, he has thirty days to start work. So what might be considered a small project will take at least three months to complete. One technique we've used has the executive officer assisting on projects as well as the fire support officer. You'll both be busy, but this team acting together results in constant coverage, and brings the XO's experience in contracting into the fold. The key to being successful with regards to various projects is staying in touch with the contractors and requiring updates on the progress on each project.
In between your hours spent on PowerPoint, and the weekly company mission, you'll assist your commander in command and control. Depending on the size of your COP, you'll probably spend six to 12 hours a day on shift as the battle captain. In this role, you'll monitor the situation in your area of operations and run the TOC. While you're on battle captain duty, you'll provide guidance and updates to your patrols as well as update the battalion TOC. When contact occurs and if the commander is not in the TOC, you'll have to request assets, push them to the unit in contact, keep battalion updated and fight the fight from the TOC until your commander arrives. This will be done in addition to your fire support duties of getting the ROZ hot, clearing collateral estimates, getting the mortar or howitzer crew ready, etc. When your commander arrives, he's going to want to know what's going on, as well as knowing what course of action you suggest. So, you're going to have to have a firm grasp of maneuver tactics in order to formulate several courses of action for your commander to evaluate. Once he arrives and you've suggested your courses of action, you can go back to your fire support duties while he takes charge.
While your C2 duties as battle captain are important, you can make an even greater contribution as an additional C2 asset in the field. On missions, you'll be right next to the commander. The commander, you and an radio-telephone operator or two will compose the company tactical command post. You'll be in a great position to maintain situational awareness, and unless you're talking to aircraft, your Fires net will be relatively quiet. Taking observer positions and coordinates and updates from your forward observers and shifting the guns won't take long. You'll be a great help to your unit if you maintain situational awareness and spell the commander from time to time. This'll free him up to leave the truck if mounted, and leave the C2 node if dismounted. Furthermore, as combat missions run 24 hours a day, you're going to get very little sleep on extended missions. If you're competent at C2 however, you can be a great help to your commander and cover down as the C2 element at various times throughout the day and night. While covering C2, the commander can get a few hours of sleep, attend a Shura, or just take a break to have lunch or dinner.
The only thing consistent is change. Fire support is a constantly evolving world. The duties have changed greatly over the past few years and vary between Iraq and Afghanistan. Although not traditionally a task of the fire support officer, I suggest that FSO's learn as much as possible about maneuver tactics in order to help their company as an additional C2 element. As it's becoming a core competency, I recommend that FSO's learn from the civil affairs personnel all they can about the projects process. Projects take a long time, and your battalion is going to want results quickly, so you must stay prepared and stay on top of projects in order to be successful. You're going to have to plan ahead to make progress in your nonlethal duties. If you can attend the IO school before deployment I'd highly recommend it. IO has been challenging for us as we weren't fully trained in it. Better training prior to deployment will help you in this.
Lastly, I'd suggest that your most important duties are still your lethal tasks. If you can attend the JFO School prior to deployment, train your FIST on the CFF and Fires planning, get the ROZ hot prior to missions and high risk times, and use reverse echelonment of fires to mitigate the time necessary to get fire mission approval, you'll be a great asset to your unit. By taking the suggestions I've made in this article, you'll be better prepared for your lethal, nonlethal, and command and control duties in the contemporary operating environment in Operation Enduring Freedom.