RODRIGUEZ RANGE, South Korea — Tracers lit up the darkness followed by the boom of exploding shells during a three-week M1A1 tank gunnery exercise here Thursday.

Lt. Col. Norbert Jocz, of Dragon Force (2nd Battalion, 72nd Armored Regiment), who oversaw the training, said all 58 tank crews are now qualified in gunnery in the M1A1.

The crews, which consist of a tank commander, driver, gunner, and loader, are a mixture of experienced tank men and rookies.

All qualified on tank simulators before the range training, which started with individual tank training and finished with four-tank platoon exercises.

In Thursday night’s exercise, the tank platoon was split into two-tank sections that combined with an infantry squad, mortars and artillery.

“Because of the way we have to fight in Korea, we train with all these other assets,” Jocz said.

During the training, which 2ID commander Maj. Gen. John Wood observed, one tank section peeled off to the left flank while the other occupied high ground on the right, assisted by an infantry squad fighting in front of it.

For safety reasons, the tanks did a dry run before shooting with live rounds.

On the range, targets made of plywood and covered in thermal paper pop up or move along tracks to simulate enemy troops or equipment moving across the battlefield.

It’s all videotaped with a night-vision camera, and all of the radio communication between the crews is recorded so it can be reviewed afterward.

The rumble of engines signaled the start of the dry run, but as the tanks approached the range, two Korean deer appeared on the monitor, grazing innocently in the danger zone.

There was concern about the animals’ safety, but as the tanks drew nearer, the deer scampered off the range.

“Run Bambi, run,” an observer said as the deer ran off.

“I’m red direct,” said the tank commanders into their radios, signaling they were ready to fire, during the live-fire portion of the exercise.

Participants experienced another hiccup that kept their tanks from maneuvering when a Korean staff member drove onto the range without clearance.

“I’m green and clear,” the commanders said one after another, while waiting for the offending vehicle to be removed.

Finally, it was time for action. Out of the darkness the night-vision camera picked up glowing white targets representing approaching soldiers, armored personnel carriers and tanks.

Tracers flew through the darkness as machine guns cut down the enemy “troops” and shells pounded the armored personel carrier and tank targets. Mortars and artillery shells rained down on the hillside at the back of the range setting fire to vegetation while the infantry raided bunkers in front of the tanks.

“It has a thermal night view which allows you to see in the dark very well because it picks up heat signatures,” said Jocz, who was clearly enjoying the spectacle.

According to Jocz, the North Korean tanks opposing the M1A1s are old and “inferior in every way.” That is, they have less night-fighting capabilities, thinner armor and less range, and they’re slower and less reliable than the U.S. tanks, he explained.

If it came to war with the North, Jocz believes his tanks would mostly fight infantry.

“That’s why in my scenario, we have a significant number of troop targets,” he added.

Jocz said his crews did well in the exercise, “but they can always do better.”

“We want to be ruthless as far as identifying everything that we can do better, so when combat comes, it is easy,” he said.

Wood agreed.

“The scrimmage should be harder than the game,” he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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