May 1, 2010  

The Red Leg counterinsurgent

Field artillery assets in Afghanistan are not being properly managed

Since the spring of 2002, the soldiers of the field artillery branch have been asked to be jacks of all trades, required to perform a plethora of duties. Several of these duties include operations as maneuver elements, convoy security and police training.

A number of units have lost proficiency in the traditional field artillery mission of massing indirect fires on the target in either training or combat due to mission sets and rotation schedules. The skills required to maintain proficiency in the field artillery tradecraft are perishable. If you don’t use them, you lose them. You can’t just pick them back up like riding a bicycle and send an artillery round downrange without endangering people and property.

In the not-so-distant past, individual gun sections trained until the platoon sergeant, affectionately referred to as “Smoke,” had enough confidence to send them through an external certification process. If they passed, they were certified to fire live missions unsupervised. The Fire Direction Center (FDC) was also required to undergo a certification process. Both the gun section and FDC could be decertified at any time based on a number of reasons that included safety violations, lack of proficiency, firing incidents or key personnel changeover.

An artillery firing unit has tactics, techniques and procedures to ensure that maneuver units do not suffer casualties from friendly artillery fires and that collateral damage is avoided. A good firing unit can achieve effects on a target with its initial round. This is achievable as long as the unit is trained and certified on the weapon system and it applies the five requirements for accurate predictive fires, which are:

• Accurate meteorological data.

• Accurate firing unit locations.

• Accurate weapon and ammunition information.

• Accurate target location.

• Accurate computational procedures.

Some of the challenges associated with being in Afghanistan include:

• Inaccurate meteorological data.

• Inaccurate individual piece data, sometimes not updated after repositioning or moving to a different location on the forward operating base.

• Inaccurate tracking or updating of muzzle velocity variables.

• Inaccurate database tracking.

• Bad ammunition causing errant calibration and firing issues in support of real-world missions.

• Inaccurate or undeclinated aiming circle (negligible effect in Afghanistan).

• Personnel not utilizing the weapon system they are trained on. Some units moving between artillery systems to mortars.

• Lack of appropriate command and control, checks and oversight.

• Different military occupational specialties conducting FDC duties.

It is essential to take a hard look at indirect firing requirements and capabilities in the counterinsurgency (COIN) atmosphere of Afghanistan. In the population-centric COIN environment, indirect fires are most likely defensive in nature and need to be precise. Errant rounds will not be an issue until there are civilian casualties, and this should be avoided at all costs.

Field artillery assets across Afghanistan are not being properly managed. The assets are dispersed into two-gun firing sections and, in some instances, there is no senior or junior leadership to provide oversight. This is because of an inadequate number of leaders, the additional requirements to perform maneuver or other unrelated field artillery duties, and the disposition of the assets.

A quick look at the dispersion pattern of the “Red Leg” counterinsurgent in Afghanistan:

• Division: Field artillery personnel are manning a portion of the current operations section and the Fusion Center.

• Brigade: Field artillery personnel are assigned a maneuver mission and, in some cases, there is only one fire support coordinator in the effects cell that has a requirement for two.

• Battalion: Field artillery personnel are conducting a maneuver mission, and assets are disbursed across the battle space.

• Battery: Field artillery personnel are either assigned a maneuver mission or circulate around the battlefield. Some battery commanders are not career course graduates.

• Fire support personnel at the infantry and cavalry troop are often responsible for managing the company intelligence support team, any contracts for construction, the commander’s emergency relief program, information operations and fire support duties.

When these aspects are considered, it is apparent that mitigating risks may be overlooked because of mission requirements. In addition, field artillery units being deployed to Afghanistan are required to maintain their artillery skill sets as well as train for the inevitable tasks as a maneuver element. Both the field artillery and maneuver certification processes require a full pre-deployment training cycle, but field artillery units synthesize the training. With this in mind, the field artillery unit prioritizes its available training time to accomplish both mission sets, which would challenge even the best and brightest of commanders.

This perpetuates the shallowness of the field artillery, the diminishing competencies to execute the massing of indirect fires in support of force-on-force warfare, and the inevitability that these units are going to have to rebuild themselves. Because of the disposition of field artillery assets, capabilities, personnel and diversity of mission sets, many of the field artillery systems in Afghanistan are now unmanned. In some regions, it can equate to a diminished indirect firing capability of approximately 40 percent. In other words, the commander’s operational readiness rating for field artillery systems is only 60 percent. Historically, that would be unacceptable. Why is it acceptable now?

There are two courses of action that could begin to improve the field artillery situation in Afghanistan. The first is to decisively assign the field artillery direct support battalions to execute the direct support field artillery battalion mission. The second is to establish a field artillery headquarters at the division or regional command level to provide direct oversight of all field artillery assets in its area of responsibility.

At the slightest sign of stability in Afghanistan, the field artillery will inevitably bear the burden of protecting the maneuver element once again. One can envision the Air Force quickly drawing down its assets in Afghanistan, as it has historically done during other operations. Therefore, measures should be emplaced to ensure field artillery units and assets are ready and can unquestionably answer the call for fire. AFJ

MAJ. SEAN P. MCKENNA (Ret.) is a former Special Forces and field artillery officer now working on the ISAF Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team in Afghanistan.