Artillerymen returning to traditional roles
Stars and Stripes August 7, 2009
VILSECK, Germany — Artillerymen who have spent years training and fighting as infantry in Iraq are returning to traditional roles as the Army shifts its focus to the Afghan fight.
In Iraq, where the enemy has engaged U.S. forces with roadside bombs and small arms in built-up areas, there has been little use for large artillery pieces that are best suited to destroy tanks and blast apart bunkers. Many of the artillerymen deployed to Iraq left their big guns at home, converted to motorized infantry, and were charged with conducting raids and patrols alongside regular troops.
In Afghanistan, though, it’s a different story.
There, artillery still plays a vital role in supporting troops in skirmishes against the Taliban in a vast, rugged landscape. When insurgent attacks fall outside mortar range, commanders call for the howitzers.
During a stop at Forward Operating Base Fortress in May, then-U.S. Forces Afghanistan Command Sgt. Maj. Iuniasolua Savusa gathered soldiers around a 105 mm howitzer that troops said had been fired 2,348 times in just a few months.
As a result of the military’s shift in focus to Afghanistan, gunners from the Vilseck-based 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment — including some who haven’t fired a howitzer in years — are relearning old skills that they one day might use in Afghanistan but didn’t use in Iraq.
Staff Sgt. Bruce Wiles, a section chief with Battery A, Fires Squadron, 2nd Cav, stood in a grassy field near Vilseck on Monday helping other artillerymen set up one of his unit’s new lightweight M-777 howitzers.
“Artillery would be our main mission if and when we deploy to Afghanistan,” he said. “We’d actually be doing our job.”
The last time the 27-year-old Peru, Ind., native fired a big gun was 5½ years ago, when the M-777 was still in development.
Battery A spent 2nd Cav’s last deployment to Iraq, from 2007 to 2008, rolling like infantry in Humvees and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, he said.
To get used to firing artillery again, the battery will spend the next two weeks blasting targets inside Grafenwöhr Training Area.
Another Battery A section chief, Staff Sgt. Shawn Jones, 27, of Beckley, W.Va., said some artillerymen in the unit are new soldiers. Others haven’t used the M-777, which uses digital targeting to shoot farther and faster than any of its predecessors.
“Maybe they’ve fired an M-198 (howitzer), but not a 777,” he said.
The Fires Squadron recently received 18 M-777s, which can hit targets up to 18 miles away and is lighter and easier to place and remove from the battlefield than its predecessor, the M-198, he said. A single M-777 battery, which typically has six howitzers, can cover 5,000 square kilometers of battle space.
“In Afghanistan, they can be sling-loaded onto a Chinook helicopter to do air assault missions,” Jones said, adding that the guns also fire the super-accurate GPS-guided Excalibur round.
The Excalibur, which drops directly onto a target at a 90-degree angle, minimizes collateral damage, including civilian casualties, because it is less likely to strike surrounding buildings on its way to the target, Jones said. The Excalibur also is designed to disarm itself and fly to a safe landing zone if it loses its GPS signal in flight, he added.
Those traits are particularly important considering Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, issued a directive last month to avoid civilian casualties at all costs.
Once the 2nd Cavalry artillerymen have done initial training on the M-777s, they will loan them to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which has yet to receive its own.
The airborne soldiers will fall in on M-777s when they deploy to Afghanistan later this year, Wiles said.