FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHANK, Afghanistan — “Incoming, incoming,” blares a prerecorded voice across the base, warning of a Taliban rocket attack. When the all-clear sounds, troops and civilian contractors step out of their concrete bunkers.
This rocket landed on base, but in an open area by the airfield; no one was hurt.
For the soldiers of Task Force Vanguard headquartered at Forward Operating Base Shank it’s a warning that rings out nearly every day.
“Sometimes we don’t have any attacks one day, and the next day we’ll have two. It’s hard to say,” said Maj. Matthew Fontaine, Shank’s public affairs officer.
The constant threat of indirect fire has caused soldiers and contractors living there to nickname the base — the largest in Logar and Wardak provinces — “Rocket City.” The nickname also serves as a reminder that Taliban insurgents remain very much present in the area, where they have been strong throughout the 12-year war.
The threat has caused multiple disruptions on base, including the cancellation of many recreational activities. At certain times of the day the gym, Exchange and restaurants are shut down; there are no activities allowed where soldiers might congregate in large groups.
While casualties per rocket attack have been very low, with most rockets landing in open fields and Shank’s less-populated areas, there have been fatalities. Two soldiers were killed a few months ago in such an attack.
Officials say there have been about 90 recorded indirect-fire attacks on Shank since the beginning of the year. The high number prompted the U.S. Army to implement the C-RAM, or Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar system — one of the first in Afghanistan — earlier this month.
“This weapon system is amazing for the amount of firepower that it puts out ... and almost creates a wall of steel to counter rockets and mortars,” said Capt. Eric Jayne, with Battery B, 2nd Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment based out of Shank.
The rapid-fire 20mm cannon was introduced by the U.S. Navy to intercept incoming anti-ship missiles. The technology was passed to the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2005. The system recorded more than 200 successful interceptions in Iraq.
Jayne’s unit was the first to try out the counter-artillery system in RC East.
Most bases that come under heavy fire have a sense-and-warn system that detects the threat and issues a warning via the PA system, but the battery at FOB Shank was the first to attempt to intercept incoming rounds.
According to Platoon Sgt. Eric Torres sometimes there could be just a few seconds from the time the system detects it.
The gun — nicknamed “Storm” — had intercepted one rocket in the first week it was active.
“There were a lot of ‘hooahs,’ congrats and shaking hands,” said 1st Lt. Geoffrey Utter. “I couldn’t describe the feeling. It rattles your bones.”
“We named this gun ‘Storm’ because we can let them know if they send rockets and mortars, there is going to be a storm of bullets coming their way,” said Staff Sgt. Kenneth Scarlett, with the Intercept Platoon.
The goal is for the defense system to intercept all rockets, but it isn’t there yet and, meanwhile, rockets continue to land on the base.
Sgt. Bob Yarbrough pointed to the site of a rocket that landed a couple hundred feet from where he works and sleeps. “That’s one of those things that make you tighten up a little.”