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The view through a laser-designator: A derelict truck disappears in smoke after being hit by a Copperhead round at Udairi Range, Kuwait.

The view through a laser-designator: A derelict truck disappears in smoke after being hit by a Copperhead round at Udairi Range, Kuwait. (Seth Robson / S&S)

The view through a laser-designator: A derelict truck disappears in smoke after being hit by a Copperhead round at Udairi Range, Kuwait.

The view through a laser-designator: A derelict truck disappears in smoke after being hit by a Copperhead round at Udairi Range, Kuwait. (Seth Robson / S&S)

A 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment Paladin Howitzer fires a Copperhead laser-guided round at Udairi Range, Kuwait.

A 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment Paladin Howitzer fires a Copperhead laser-guided round at Udairi Range, Kuwait. (Seth Robson / S&S)

UDAIRI RANGE, Kuwait — If it is possible for one part of a desert to be more desertlike than another, then the artillery training area at Udairi Range is such a place.

Training there last week, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment dubbed the vast expanse of rolling sand dunes “Tattooine” after the desert planet from the “Star Wars” film series.

During downtime, soldiers amused themselves with impersonations of “Star Wars” characters, such as the Tuscan Raiders, by putting on their goggles and wrapping their faces in scarves, shielding themselves from the fierce sandstorms that whip up from time to time.

But it wasn’t just the impersonations that gave the range a “Star Wars” feel on Thursday. It was also the 24 Copperhead laser-guided rounds that 2-17 soldiers fired from their Paladin Howitzers that lent an air of science fiction excitement to the desert.

For Sgt. Jonathan Humphries, the atmosphere was right on target.

Humphries, one of the 2-17 soldiers helping “paint” targets using a laser designator, is a big “Star Wars” fan. In South Korea, where 2-17 was based before the Middle East deployment, the young soldier spent his free time playing Star Wars Galaxies, an online game based on the film series, he said.

“Star Wars” aside, for Sgt. 1st Class James Gray, 36, from Fort Knox, Ky., it was just an unusual training opportunity.

“It is a great opportunity because you don’t get to shoot Copperheads that often, even in the States,” said Gray, of the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Manchus,” who also used the laser designators. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. We don’t do it that often because of the cost of the ammo and the safety factors involved.”

Copperhead rounds cost several thousand dollars, said the 2-17 commander, Lt. Col John Fant, who observed the training.

That’s not the only issue that restricts live-fire training with the Copperhead rounds. The Army doesn’t shoot Copperheads in South Korea because of safety concerns, he said.

The Udairi Range artillery impact area is about 7 miles by 5½ miles. At the Saint Barbara Training Area where 2-17 trained in South Korea, the impact area is about about 837 square yards, soldiers said.

South Korea is the only place in the world where U.S. artillery fires directly over people’s houses during training. That means it is too dangerous to fire Copperheads there, Fant said.

“Because this is a fin-stabilized munition, if the fins fail, the round will become unstable and tumble into some place you don’t want it to go. But when you are out here in the desert it is an ideal situation,” Fant said.

However, even in the desert shooting artillery can be dangerous for the locals. Udairi Range is home to nomadic Bedouin shepherds and camel herders who wander among the guns with their flocks, seemingly oblivious to the risk. And the targets — a group of wrecked vehicles — attracted people, apparently scavengers, which delayed the shooting.

But whatever the concerns about safety, the Copperhead is extremely accurate, Fant said.

“It gives the artillery a laser-guided precision munition to defeat hardened targets. Its primary purpose is to kill tanks and armor and other hardened targets,” he said.

The Copperhead is accurate to within a couple of feet, soldiers said.

Fant said it could decrease collateral damage — that is damage to private property and injuries to civilians — in certain situations in Iraq.

Once the scavengers moved on, the 2-17 soldiers “painted” a target — a wrecked truck about a mile away — by aiming the laser at it.

The information was relayed to the Paladins, which were spread out in the desert another mile away, and a Copperhead was fired. Moments later there was an explosion and smoke rose from the truck, which was split asunder by the blast, while the soldier who painted the target whooped with joy.

A short time later, Sgt. George Yakop, 25, of Elizabeth, N.J., prepared to shoot another Copperhead.

His crew unpacked the round from its box and carefully loaded it into the barrel, taking care not to damage the large, clear “eyeball” at the front that allowed it to lock onto the laser fired by the designator.

The Copperhead, just over a yard long, was at least twice as big as the other artillery rounds packed inside the Paladin.

A set of fins was visible at the tail of the round, set into its body so it would fit in the gun tube. There is also a series of dials that allow gunners to lock it onto a particular laser designator’s beam or cause it to explode before hitting its target.

When they received the command, Yakop and his crew fired the gun, filling their compartment with the smell of sulphur as the missile sped on its way.

Training in the desert brought back childhood memories for the young soldier, whose parents are Egyptian.

“There are a lot of reminders of Egypt here,” said Yakop, who went there as a youngster.

Shooting the Copperhead is a rare experience for a gunner, he said.

“There are probably a couple of times in your career that you get to shoot a Copperhead. You feel the adrenalin pumping hard when you see a bigger round coming out of the tube,” 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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