XVIII Airborne Corps Fires: Fast, Flexible and Effective.
Q Although lightfighters tend to do a good job of training close supporting fires integrated with maneuver at home station, they sometimes experience challenges with responsiveness and accuracy at the CTCs [Combat Training Centers]. Based on your experiences as a brigade, division and now a corps commander, what are your thoughts on these challenges? What do the Army and FA need to do to improve our responsiveness and accuracy?
A The context of my responses to your questions will be based on what I know best in the artillery--that is the artillery of the units of the XVIII Airborne Corps. We are a multi-component, mixed-caliber and varied propulsion artillery force in this Corps. And while the XVIII Airborne Corps is often mistakenly called a lightfighter formation, we are anything but lightfighters.
If you use the analogy of prizefighting, the XVIII Airborne Corps would qualify at least as a middleweight force. With the M109A6 Paladins of the 3d Infantry Division (Mechanized) [Fort Stewart, Georgia] and the launchers of both the 3d Division and the Corps Artillery MLRS [multiple-launch rocket system] battalions, we have the reach to "hang in there" with the heavyweights. Nevertheless, the preponderance of the 303 tubes and launchers belonging to the XVIII Airborne Corps are towed pieces--three of the four divisions of this Corps are dependent on towed 105-mm howitzers for DS [direct support] artillery. Most of my comments in this interview will be oriented toward those towed artillery pieces.
We are not doing as well as we ought to do at melding fires with maneuver and the other BOS [battlefield operating systems] to achieve synergy-and that includes during home-station training. We all profess to be doing the greatest home-station training, but, somehow, it doesn't always result in responsive, effective fires at the CTCs.
First, I want to make clear that the lash up between fires and maneuver is not all "broken." Performance varies from unit to unit rotating through our CTCs. We do well in the deep fight, as we measure it in simulations. Our challenge is to consistently integrate fires and maneuver in the close fight to gain that synergy that's decisive.
I certainly don't take issue with our professional education system or the qualifications of those coming out of Fort Sill, from the junior NCOs to the senior commanders. As a matter of fact, the Field Artillery NCOs in the XVIII Airborne Corps, which I consider a microcosm of the entire Army, are the finest I've seen in my 32-plus years in the Army.
The Corps FSCOORDs [fire support coordinators] and FSOs [fire support officers] know how to advise their commanders and remain within arm's length from them during combat training. We have extraordinary training and certification programs for our gun crews and the big three: the battery XO [executive officer], chief of smoke and FDO [fire direction officer]. We have the right doctrine and TTP [tactics, techniques and procedures]. But, somehow, our firing units can't consistently move, shoot and communicate and go "tit for tat" with the maneuver units they support.
So the question is, "Why?" But, I'm not sure I know why. Fully integrated and effective fires is simple in theory but complex in execution. And it is not just a challenge for the Field Artillery, but for the entire Army as well.
For example, the Army needs to do a better job of replicating indirect fires at our CTCs. We do a better job of replicating these effects at the JRTC [Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, Louisiana] than at the NTC [National Training Center, Fort Irwin, California], but MILES [multiple integrated laser engagement system] does not create the effects we realistically can expect under live-fire conditions.
We need a computerized instrumentation system that automatically creates casualties down to the individual vehicle and soldier level in near real-time. Our antiquated MILES and fire marking systems--with delays that range from three to eight minutes--does not allow for realistic effects and can result in "negative" training.
One part of the responsiveness challenge is our inability to locate the target accurately and pass the information rapidly to the fire support asset for attack--not just our observers, but anyone who might call-for-fires. We need to shorten the sensor-to-shooter link.
I'm not sure we're taking advantage of new technology that could improve responsiveness. I see Palm Pilots and hand-held computers on the market that have tremendous capabilities. We could use such capabilities to locate a target accurately and send call-for-fire data through the clearance of fire process to the guns in near real-time. The soldier the longest distance away could "point and click" the small device at a target and, using GPS [global positioning system]-type capabilities, could accurately locate the target and, with the push of a button, pass the targeting data to a fire support asset for precision attack in a nano second--even use the device to lase the target for attack, as necessary.
Such a device would give our fire support system a quantum leap forward, affecting the training of the crews, the lash up of doctrine and TTP--just about every aspect of fire support. This digital target locator/rangefinder/laser device would be the stepping off point for greater technology in the future.
I believe the technology is already out there and will only improve in the next few years.
I also believe every caliber indirect fire weapons system should have precision munitions: mortars, 155s, 105s, missiles and rockets. The technology is available, and we must be willing to expend the resources to develop precision munitions.
And, our indirect fire systems must weigh less. For example, it now takes 10 strong men to manhandle an M198 on the battlefield. Today, we can lighten our howitzers--it might mean, say, the tube has a shorter life span before it needs to be overhauled or replaced, but it would be worth it. We can use composite materials to lighten the base plate, trails and frame of the howitzers.
The logical follow on is that artillery rounds must retain maximum lethality yet weigh less. And our rounds need to shoot farther. When a main battle tank can direct fire nearly as far as some of our mortars and low-end howitzer munitions, then something is wrong with "this picture."
As the XVIII Airborne Corps Commander, I don't care what caliber of howitzer our Field Artillerymen have, as long as it is lethal, the lightest practical weight and agile--can be deployed by C-130 or equivalent, air-lifted by Black Hawk helicopter and easily manhandled on the battlefield and can fire light, versatile munitions, including precision munitions. If we go to one towed howitzer and it is a 155-mm howitzer--fine, as long as the new 155 and its munitions come in at the cube and weight to do the job for the dismounted formations.
To ensure our fires are flexible and fast in the near term, we need to secure funding for the TAD [towed artillery digital system] for the M119 howitzer that will allow the howitzer to self-lay. We experimented with two M119s with TAD during the JCF-AWE [Joint Contingency Force-Advanced Warfighting Experiment] at the JRTC last September, and it improved the gun line's speed and accuracy dramatically.
In terms of Fire support processes, I have one caution: fire supporters must not become so involved in their FA battalion commander's intent and tasks that they lose track of what drives fire support--the brigade commander's intent. They must not become a separate team within a team.
Q In the XVIII Airborne Corps' most recent BCTP [Battle Command Training Program] Warfighter exercise, the Corps won. To what do you attribute your victory?
A We had a successful training event in our recent Warfighter. Lots of actions contributed to our success, but probably two of the most significant are our abilities to focus our assets on achieving specific objectives and to visualize the battlefield and share one common picture to make decisions.
Early on, we decided the enemy's center of gravity was his long-range artillery. So we established his artillery as our priority target and first objective. Our DOCC [deep operations coordination cell] then focused a lot of battlefield functions to kill those targets. We focused all our sensors on finding the enemy artillery and continued to track the targets until we could attack them. We focused all shooters--the artillery, attack helicopters, Air Force and Navy aircraft, the ATO [air tasking order] cycle, the kill boxes--everything--on killing the priority targets to achieve our objective.
Once we achieved an objective, we shifted to systematically track and kill the enemy's maneuver or engineer assets--other corps objectives. For example, we didn't divide up the sensors and give one division a couple of hours of a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] if we needed the UAV to look for a corps target array. During the offensive phase, we would allow the divisions to have more CAS [close air support], but during the defensive phase, we would mass all the CAS we needed to achieve an objective. We did not deviate from our focus.
At the corps--the joint task force level--it is a very involved process, and at least part of our success was due to the DOCC's ability to fuse joint BOS functions and integrate the deep fight. The corps, more so than its divisions, is going to be in the business of deep operations. We had to take the DOCC, our deep operations fusion center, "out of hide," which was painful--everyone in the DOCC had another full-time job. So we need to resource the DOCC. The DOCC gives the corps near real-time sensing and the ability to rapidly order or reorder sensors and shooters to achieve objectives.
As part of the JCF-AWE last year, we gained software called Information Work Station. [IWS is a collaborative planning tool that assists in parallel staff planning (horizontal and vertical), allowing the real-time sharing of information via slides/briefings, message boards and conference calls.] We applied this remarkable software to command and control the Corps in this Warfighter exercise.
This software allowed commanders to see the same updates on the display screens of the computers and hear the same audio through little headsets in their CPs [command posts] at different locations--at the Corps, Corps Artillery, divisions, wherever. Now, granted, all the CPs were positioned to accommodate the BCTP simulations, so on an actual battlefield with greater distances between the CPs, command and control with this software would be more difficult.
During the exercise, we all could sit in our CPs and see the same B-52 strikes down the same corridor on our displays. We could send Predator to a NAI [named area of interest] and watch the UAV feeds. We could watch the JSTARS [joint surveillance and target attack radar system], the graphics in AFATDS [advanced fire support tactical data system] Fire Support Client software and other feeds.
With Fire Support Client, we could see the blue vectors of the gun-target lines of the enemy artillery firing as acquired by the Firefinder radar focused in on NAIs. We had a visual of where the enemy was firing and could begin to see what he was trying to do.
With this kind of information, you can become active vice reactive. For example, every night before our aviation deep strikes, we determined where the enemy would be and the best areas in which to engage him. Right before we launched the aircraft, we got last minute intelligence updates for electronic signatures of where the enemy's air defenses were, suppressed the air defenses and launched the aircraft through selected air corridors.
We used the corridors very efficiently. For example, we coordinated an air corridor with a division in its deep attack and used one SEAD [suppression of enemy air defenses] package. The We used nonlethal jamming SEAD, and the Corps piggybacked on the division's corridor with the aircraft divided by time and space.
We used all these sources of near real-time information to strike the enemy before he struck us. As we all looked at the same screen on our individual displays, I could point my arrow at something and say, "What's going on here?" and get feedback from my commanders in real time.
We had a picture of the battlefield. We knew the terrain and had analyzed the enemy's courses of actions--had a decision matrix. So we could track and monitor the enemy and then extrapolate his intent.
We read the enemy and projected that he would be on "such and such" terrain under "such and such" conditions at "such and such" time--projected his tactical disposition in the future. We then repositioned assets to kill the projected target array, but not without accepting some risks.
At one point, we took MLRS and some tubes away from the divisions, their GSR [general support reinforcing] artillery, at a time when the divisions needed their artillery--had a pretty good fight going. Then we moved the systems forward to mass on the enemy in anticipation of where the enemy was going to be.
We even considered taking some of the divisions' DS artillery and sending it forward. But my division commanders, who already had fought the loss of their other artillery, fought even harder to retain their DS artillery--just exactly what I would have done when I was the 82d Airborne Division commander.
It was a calculated risk. We "jerry-rigged" a number of battlefield functions and reordered and rearranged some of our military intelligence assets to focus in on where we extrapolated from our battlefield information that we needed to focus. Then we sent shooters forward to kill the enemy in a future location.
Now, would I take away my divisions' artillery during battle as a routine matter of course? No. I owe it to the divisions to give them the resources to fight. But an opportunity presented itself at one point in time, and I took the chance. It worked.
Q What role do you see the air assault and airborne forces playing in the Objective Force?
A Clearly our air assault and airborne divisions will be part of the legacy force. But I also believe they have roles to play in the Objective Force.
The value of the vertical envelopment capabilities they provide is irrefutable. And that vertical envelopment can come in two ways: parachute assault or helicopter assault.
So, as we move down the road toward the Objective Force, in the next year or two, we need to go through the intellectual process of looking at these two unique forces and how they need to change. We need to glean all the information we can from Fort Lewis [Washington], which is leading the transformation process, and export some of their concepts into these divisions to make them more capable, flexible forces for the new operating environment.
I think that in seven or eight years hence, our air assault and airborne divisions will look more like the Objective Force than the legacy force.
Q What message would you like to send Army and Marine Field Artillerymen stationed around the world?
A The business you are in is incredibly complex. You battery and company commanders and your first sergeants are carrying a far greater load than I had to carry as a company commander in the late 1970s--and you do it well. Thank you.
The combined arms live-fire exercises we routinely conduct at our installations are invaluable. They allow soldiers to understand the impact of artillery and learn to trust rounds flying over their heads and landing very close. Once in a while, we need to be reminded how awesome live fire is.
Lieutenant General Dan K. McNeill commands the XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He also served as the Chief of Staff and G3 of the XVIII Airborne Corps. He commanded the 82d Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, the same division in which he served as the 3d Brigade Commander, G3 and as a Battalion Commander. He was the Assistant Division Commander far Maneuver of the 2d Infantry Division in Korea. He is a combat veteran of Vietnam and Operations Just Cause in Panama, Desert Shield and Storm in the Gulf and Uphold Democracy in Haiti. Lieutenant General McNeill is a graduate of the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.