Afghanistan: The First Six Months
LTC Michael J. Forsyth, MAJ George L. Hammar, and MAJ Billy D. Siekman
The 2nd Battalion, 77th Field Artillery, deployed to Afghanistan and was tasked in the first six months with a dual mission of providing timely and accurate fires for maneuver units in 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, and securing an area of operations encompassing 1,200 square miles. From the beginning, we learned valuable lessons other units deploying to Afghanistan might find useful. Such lessons include application of fires in mountainous terrain, the indirect approach to maneuver operations, the criticality of field artillery operations and balancing maneuver missions with the fire support role, and we've learned the fact that fire support in Afghanistan requires skills beyond basic forward observer tasks. This article discusses lessons learned and offers solutions to issues we discovered. We organized the article into two sections, discussing the dual mission - owning an area of operations in Afghanistan and fires in counter-insurgency operations.
Owning an area of operations in Afghanistan
Because our brigade combat team was spread across an area of eastern Afghanistan covering more than 10,000 square miles, it was incumbent upon the brigade combat team to assign the battalion's headquarters an area of operations. Area of Operations Steel encompassed more than 1,200 square miles and four districts of two separate provinces in Afghanistan. This challenge was even more daunting when considering the assets available to secure such a large area with imposing mountainous terrain. With a maneuver platoon raised in house and other attached enablers, 2-77 Field Artillery implemented operations designed to secure the area enabling governance and developing building capacity successfully. In securing the area, we applied an indirect approach to facilitate success.
For 2-77 Field Artillery, it is the process of using many different assets, most of which were nonlethal, to produce effective security in our area. Upon arrival in Afghanistan, our unit came under attack on several occasions within the first 10 days of transition of authority. We had a decision to make at that point - whether or not to go out the gate hard with lethal operations or to take a softer approach using information operations, civil-military operations, engagement and relationship building with locals to enable security. The paucity of resources helped drive the decision toward the latter because a significant loss in manpower effectively nullified lethal operations. As it turns out, our focus on nonlethal operations, complemented by patrolling and presence in the area of operations, drove down the number of attacks several fold in the weeks following the first 10 days.
Lessons in maneuver operations. Before our deployment, the maneuver mission pressed the battalion to develop a cohesive platoon capable of dominating terrain to prevent insurgents from controlling the population in partnership with Afghan forces. This maneuver platoon consists of about 36 Soldiers from across the battalion from multiple military occupational specialties.
During the training for Afghanistan, the maneuver platoon rehearsed battle drills as a complete platoon. During the deployment however, mission requirements forced the battery commander to maintain an observation post at all times as well as maintain a maneuver element. This effectively reduced the platoon's ability to maintain a dismounted element larger than a fire team because it could never roll with more than two-thirds of the platoon. The lack of manpower reduced the platoon's ability to close with and destroy the enemy. This forced the platoon to adapt their battle drills to coordinate all systems bringing maximum fire power to the fight. Furthermore this allowed the platoon to remain mounted and dominate the enemy from the vehicles until additional brigade assets, such as close combat attack or close air support, are available to enhance the capabilities of the small element.
The early activities in our area of operations and limited manpower forced the battalion into an indirect approach of conducting operations. The battalion plans for the maneuver-platoon Soldiers to execute operations that combine nonlethal elements, while remaining prepared for lethal situations. This enabled us to maintain combat power for the long haul while also winning over the population so that we can implement programs to develop infrastructure, governance, and the Afghan National Security Force. These new tactics also allowed the battalion to achieve the objectives of securing the population and gaining support for the local government.
Implementing the maneuver platoon and key leader engagements by the battalion leadership was instrumental in exerting pressure on the enemy by leveraging the people's will. These methods forced the population to choose between the security and development we provided or the violence and poverty the Taliban provided. Our end state is to change the enemy's standing operating procedures, forcing him to take action that is detrimental to his objectives, thus informing the populace of the Taliban's true intentions.
Obviously, our training prepared the platoon for lethal combat operations. However, our staff and Soldiers realized victory does not come through destruction of the enemy or by dominating the terrain in counter-insurgency operations. Rather, success is quantified in the way you dominate the human terrain. This realization allowed the staff to develop courses of action for the maneuver element that focused on support of the local population and government. This approach was instrumental for us to achieve our objective without continuous lethal engagements with the Taliban during an extended deployment.
Partnership. The Afghanistan National Army artillery battery had many similarities to coalition artillery units in the current operational environment. It was the only ANA unit assigned to western Nuristan with a dual mission of direct support artillery and security operations. Therefore, it had to develop a dual systematic approach to establishing a security presence in western Nuristan while honing artillery skills to provide timely and accurate artillery fires in support of Afghanistan National Security Force.
The assessment of the U.S. Marine Corps embedded training team and our leadership, upon arrival at Forward Operating Base Kalagush, was the artillery battery was incapable of providing artillery fires or comprehending its role as the Afghanistan National Security Force element responsible for security in western Nuristan. Its artillery skills were rudimentary with only an ability to conduct direct fire missions and basic crew drills. Specifically, the fire direction center could not process a fire mission in a timely manner; the forward observers had no understanding of map reading, spotting elevation or conducting target refinement; and only a handful of cannon crewmen could lay the howitzer. Furthermore, only the first sergeant understood tactics well enough to close with and defeat the enemy.
As artillerymen, it was a sobering realization that our focus in western Nuristan must include partnering with the ANA artillery battery to increase its competency in the five requirements for accurate predicted fire. First and foremost, we had to develop a D30 certification program to ensure the unit was capable of providing accurate and timely artillery fires in support of Afghanistan National Security Force and, ultimately, fires in support of any coalition forces as required. This certification program used Field Manual 3-09.8 Field Artillery Gunnery as a guideline.
The ultimate objective of the certification program was to train the ANA artillery sections at Forward Operating Base Kalagush in a deliberate, thorough process, culminating in a section live fire in a six-to-eight week period. During the training period, our fire direction center trained and certified the ANA fire direction center in the manual computation of firing data and the digital computation of firing data using the ANA artillery computer system. Our firing platoon similarly trained and certified the platoon leadership in all tasks from occupation to effective crew drill procedures. This was a daunting task and was only achievable through the sheer determination of our trainers and the eagerness to learn by the ANA leaders and soldiers as they modified years of traditional practices to improve their efficiency.
The ANA's practices and doctrine tended to over-centralize tasks with the leaders personally, doing jobs subordinates perform in our Army. Therefore, the battery commander, the lieutenants and the first sergeant acted as the observers, the fire direction center and the section chief for the howitzer. This practice, naturally, did not facilitate training the entire battery on proper crew drill procedures or individual soldier responsibility. The ANA leadership's lack of trust in subordinates derailed the training program and extended the section certification from eight weeks to fourteen weeks.
However, after a change in leadership and a refinement of duties and responsibilities, the ANA artillery battery in Western Nuristan was now capable of providing timely and accurate artillery fires in support of the Afghanistan National Security Force. The leaders understood accurate artillery fires would defeat the enemy and reduce collateral damage and injury to civilians, and ultimately increase support from the local population for its security force. This is an important realization as coalition forces and Afghanistan National Security Force attempted to build credibility with the local government and the population.
Once the sections were certified, they maintained operational capability 24 hours a day. We had to rely on our brothers in arms on 13 to 14 November 2009. On these days, our mortar and gun sections were supporting our observation post during a fire fight with the Taliban. The ANA artillery section was prepared and ready to provide timely and accurate fires in support of a fire fight to retain control of Forward Operating Base Kalagush and the Observation Post Loyalty. On this occasion, the embedded training team observed a mortar team emplacing and guided the ANA observer on the target. The observer conducted a map spot of the grid location and relayed the call for fire to the fire direction center. The fire direction center computed the data manually, requested airspace clearance and sent the information to the howitzers. The howitzers were laid on target and received clearance to fire and achieved effects on target with the first round. This achievement represented the best validation of the training model we implemented with the ANA artillery battery in Area of Operations Steel.
Fires in counter-insurgency
The nature of the insurgency in Afghanistan proved more conducive to the use of indirect fires than in Iraq because the insurgency tended to base itself in rural areas in the mountains rather than in urban areas. That said, much metal is thrown around in Afghanistan. However, the true measure of success for our fires in counter-insurgency is not how much indirect fire was used, but how much the use of fires was reduced over time. Therefore, much of our effort in coordinating fire support across the brigade area of operations focused on doing things to reduce expenditures. Among the initiatives we implemented were fielding the Meteorological Measuring Set-Profiler AN/TMQ-52 meteorological station, which conducted fire support team certification to reduce target location error, developing an escalation of force matrix for artillery fires and using an attack guidance matrix.
Fire support in restrictive terrain. During predeployment training at home station and the Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La., we placed emphasis on the ability to achieve first round effects on the target. The forward observer's ability to locate the target accurately was the critical requirement in the restrictive and dominating terrain of Afghanistan. The majority of the main supply routes were dominated by higher elevation terrain, and the enemy typically initiated attacks from above our patrols on this terrain. Therefore, the forward observer had to mitigate target location and elevation errors to achieve first round effects on target.
We were fortunate to initiate our training at our home station, Fort Carson, Colo. The terrain in the training areas has similarities to Afghanistan's terrain. However, home station training practices tend to rely on fixed observer locations or known target locations on which observers have refined their skills during many observer training events. To negate the familiarity of terrain for the observers, it is imperative to force the observers to conduct moving shoots to acclimate the observers to conducting call for fires while on dismounted or mounted patrols. The majority of fire missions executed in Afghanistan came from either dismounted or mounted patrols.
Executing this deliberate training plan at home station forced the observer to update his observer location constantly, forcing the fire direction center to battle track constantly and remove the bad habits of garrison operations. Polar missions are the preferred method to call for fire by our observers. To ensure accuracy, battle tracking is vital, but we required a modification to the pertinent information in the call for fire. The observer had to include target elevation with the standard requirements for the polar fire mission. This allowed the fire direction center an independent check of target elevation and helped account for vertical interval.
Fire support in Afghanistan and the counter-insurgency environment required graduate-level expertise. Direct and indirect fires, used in combination, were essential to providing maximum fire power to the maneuver forces on the ground. Fire support could not be an afterthought of the maneuver commander or the forward observer. When direct and indirect fires were employed together in Afghanistan, it proved, time and again, the decisive element for defeating the enemy. The key to success was sound planning of fires before every patrol and rapid employment of those fires when engaged.
Field artillery operations
In our role as the direct support field artillery battalion for the brigade, we were tasked to oversee the standards of discipline and precision of the gunnery solution. This meant maintaining 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week support to our maneuver elements across the brigade area of operations. Management of ammunition resupply and the five elements of accurate predicted fire required the staff's daily oversight. As the fight ebbed and flowed, the logistic staff had to monitor ammunition expenditures accurately to ensure we maintained adequate stock at all locations. Further, fires in the counter-insurgency fight required accuracy to reduce civilian casualties and help manage ammunition expenditures while also ensuring fires had the element of surprise. This casted the battalion fire direction officer back in his traditional role of monitoring expenditure rates while also overseeing the maintenance of the five elements of accurate predicted fire.
Ammunition resupply in Afghanistan required close management. The remote locations of our firebases and forward operating bases made ammunition resupply problematic and the battery commanders had to manage expenditures and resupply requests down to the minute detail.
During the deployment to Operation Enduring Freedom, Task Force Steel had to resupply nine different firebases comprised of three different howitzers (M777A1, M119A2 and M198) and one 120-mm mortar. These firebases were located throughout the brigade's footprint. Resupply was difficult due to the nature of the terrain and the ebb and flow of combat, requiring flexibility throughout the formation.
Our administrative logistic operation center was collocated with the brigade support battalion and brigade ammunition transfer point, facilitating several things. First, it was the central hub for all supplies and facilitates receipt and onward movement to the firebases. Second, our administrative logistic operation center had two Military Occupational Specialty 13B Cannon Crewmember staff sergeants attached, and they ensured that artillery ammunition was configured correctly for proper shell-fuze combinations and propellant lots before pushing out to the firebases. Field artillery battalions no longer had a service battery and, thus, did not have artillerymen in the logistic companies (forward support companies).
The decision to attach two 13B NCOs proved critical, because it ensured ammo configurations and saved the firing batteries time by not calibrating different lots delivered by every combat logistics patrol. Due to the large number of propellant lots on-hand, we determined that a key task was lot management at the ammunition transfer point. Our 13Bs at the ammunition transfer point facilitate the shipment of single lots of ammo to reduce the need for constant calibration or the stockpiling of "trash" lots at firebases that tend to go unused. This eased a great burden from the batteries in ammunition management.
There were several times during the deployment that the ammunition transfer point went critically short during our combat operations. One instance was during the fighting at Combat Outpost Keating on 3 October 2009. During that fight, one firebase nearly ran out of M232 propellant and rocket assisted projectile rounds within two hours of the initial call for fire. The ammunition transfer point had a small number of M232 on hand and a small number of RAP rounds. Our immediate action drill was to cross-level ammunition from our firebases experiencing little to no action, and push it up to the fire bases heavily engaged. This enabled the firebase supporting the close fight at Combat Outpost Keating to maintain a constant stock level for seamless support. Initially, we pulled ammo from the closest firebase and coordinated with the brigade support operations to push additional propellants, RAP rounds and fuzes by air from outlying firebases. The threat from ground attacks along the main supply route forced us to move the ammo by air versus ground; plus it rapidly built the stocks.
The firing platoon supporting Combat Outpost Keating continued a steady rate of fire for several more days taxing our logistics system. However, the flexibility demonstrated by the brigade SPO, combined with our attaching the 13B staff sergeants to the administrative logistic operation center collocated with the brigade ammunition transfer point, ensured the Soldiers engaged in the desperate fight at Combat Outpost Keating had continuous fire support.
As artillerymen, we understood the requirement to compensate for nonstandard conditions through the five requirements of accurate predicted fire to ensure the artillery unit was capable of providing first round effects on the target for the maneuver commander. The firing platoons' ability to execute fires to standard in accordance with the five requirements for accurate predicted fire was what would produce the greatest effects on the enemy and further providing indirect fires to our maneuver elements.
Management of ammunition was also aided by ruthless adherence to standards of precision through the five elements of accurate predicted fire. The battalion fire direction officer oversaw the adherence to these standards within the battalion. Our emphasis on this enabled the battalion to reduce the expenditure of ammunition during our deployment. This aided the logistic system by reducing haul requirements for artillery ammunition; and expending less ammo by hitting the target helped enhance fighting in the counter-insurgency environment.
With available technology and a conventional environment, a trained forward observer can achieve effects with the first round on target. However, after years of conducting a counter-insurgency fight, we have seen a degradation of knowledge in the use of forward observer equipment combined with a lack of synchronization of fires with the scheme of maneuver among our field artillery junior leaders and forward observers. These deficiencies significantly contribute to target inaccuracies. Every patrol that leaves the forward operating base must conduct a fires rehearsal to ensure the maneuver element and observers understand the fire plan and what assets are available.
Firing unit location
Across our brigade area of operations, the artillery and mortars provided indirect fires to their supported maneuver task force. However, there was no requirement for the artillery to mass fires in Afghanistan.
That stated, the artillery and the mortars still had to have accurate weapon location in the fire direction center to ensure accurate range and deflection. The battalion did not operate the Improved Position and Azimuth Determining System for survey and did not operate on common survey for the reasons stated before. However, the howitzers and mortars required accurate survey. In our brigade area of operations, the batteries provided fifth order of survey to the indirect systems within their associated task force area of operation using Global Positioning System and Global Locating Positioning System.
Weapon and ammunition information
Ammunition management was the hardest task the platoon leader and platoon sergeant had to manage. Each howitzer in our brigade area of operations had its own ammunition basic load and, therefore, the crews had to manage the projectile family and propellants effectively. On average, each fire direction center maintained proper muzzle velocity and calibration data on 30 different lots of ammunition and propellants.
At the battalion level, the fire direction officer, in coordination with the battalion S4, ensured he properly distributed the ammunition and propellants to alleviate the unit maintaining 'trash' lots that were not in sufficient quantity to calibrate properly. When the battalion staff and the platoon leaders managed the weapon and ammunition information properly, the fire direction center could compute accurate firing data.
The common practice to provide meteorological information in Afghanistan was to use the Interactive Grid Analysis and Display System to fulfill this requirement. However, Interactive Grid Analysis and Display System was a predicted meteorological that was not interpolated. Therefore, we had not used the best available technology to provide meteorological data to meet the five requirements. Each artillery battalion had a Profiler system organic to the unit to provide more accurate meteorological information to the fire direction center. The Profiler system, in coordination with the Navy Operational Global Atmospheric Prediction System, was capable of interpolating atmospheric conditions across a 60 kilometer radius to provide real-time information, ensuring the artillery unit met the requirement of the five requirements of accurate predicted fire. We employed our Profiler system to provide meteorological data for our firing batteries. This provided better accuracy and contributed to a reduction in ammo expenditure as fewer rounds were used in adjustment. Our battalion fire direction officer took the lead in establishing the meteorological station in a location that would support the firebases that are spread over a wide area in the brigade area of operations and ensuring the data was transmitted in a timely manner for use by the fire direction centers.
Fire direction centers were very efficient in the battalion at executing proper computation procedures and conducting independent checks before processing the fire mission. These checks included processing the mission on multiple systems, validating proper meteorological data, ammunition data and observe locations. It is imperative the fire direction center was the secondary independent check for target elevation. For this independent check, the fire direction center used Falcon View or Tactical Ground Reporting system Net. The fire direction centers in theater did not compute data manually as a secondary check because there was often little room inside the command post to set it up. However, they did use a second Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System and Centaur hand-held fire direction computer to conduct the independent checks.
Our first six months in Afghanistan were challenging and demonstrated that, while our training plan was sound for preparing for deployment, there were a number of areas that predeployment training could not adequately cover. The tyranny of the terrain tested our gunnery skills and maneuver elements as we began operating in our area. However, adhering to basic principles of field artillery employment and fire support planning can enable any unit to meet the daunting challenges of delivering fires in Afghanistan. Further, maneuver operations must incorporate elements of an indirect approach to leverage all available resources and remain true to the spirit of counter-insurgency operations. From our experience, the indirect approach we had taken to maneuver operations produced the best results within our area of operations. The key to this was setting the team early and ensuring those engaged in the maneuver fight understood this methodology so they can implement according to the intent.