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A current assessment of Excalibur employment in Afghanistan.

In November 2011, I had the opportunity to lead a four-man assessment team from the Fires Center of Excellence (FCoE) at Fort Sill, Okla., exploring the operational employment of the 155mm Excalibur and other precision munitions in Afghanistan. One of our objectives was to determine why U.S. Army forces were employing a limited number of Excalibur projectiles in Afghanistan. As we conducted our survey, we quickly realized there were multiple reasons for the limited number of Excalibur projectiles being fired, and this was a symptom of a much larger issue with indirect fires (IDF) as a whole. We organized these reasons into seven focus areas:

1. Combined joint task force (CJTF)/regional command (RC) fire support element (FSE) capability;

2. Combined arms Excalibur live-fire training;

3. Fire support team (FIST) collective training;

4. Employment, institutional and Field Artillery (FA) schools training;

5. Close air support (CAS) employment;

6. Firing unit capabilities; and

7. Airspace management.

Although Excalibur usage can and should be increased due to its accuracy, we also recognize this munition, like all others, has its strengths and weaknesses. Excalibur is neither the Field Artillery's nor the maneuver commander's precision weapon panacea; rather it is one of a select group of precision or near-precision munitions available. Therefore, the focus areas we identified are not necessarily exclusive to Excalibur employment but can be applied to most IDF.

FA Organization for Combat

To discuss the current Excalibur employment, it is necessary to understand how U.S. Army FA is employed and organized for combat in Afghanistan. The majority of deployed firing units are organized in the same way, employing two gun platoons of M777A2s, M198s, or M119s. RC-East consists of eight brigades, of which five resemble standard U.S. Army brigade combat teams (BCTs). Of these five BCTs, only four have deployed their organic fires battalions. RC-South consists of five brigades, of which three resemble standard U.S. Army BCTs. RC-South has only one fires battalion that provides IDF for the entire RC. Due to the size of the battlespace in both RC-East and RC-South, there are not enough fires battalions to ensure FA coverage for all maneuver forces, much less coverage by a weapon system that can deliver Excalibur.

CJTF/RC FSE capability. One of the most detrimental aspects to surface-to-surface IDF employment and FSE capability has been the loss of the division artillery (DIVARTY) and or the lack of a deployed force field artillery (FFA) headquarters (HQ). There is no 06-level (colonel) command authority at the CJTF/division level to enforce standardization and certification; share IDF tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs); much less advocate for Excalibur or other surface-to-surface IDF. Although the division increased the FSEs personnel authorized strength to offset the loss of DIVARTY, it was not sufficient to allow them to perform the same functions as the 150-personnel DIVARTY staff or FFA HQ. Couple this with some of the division FSEs personnel shortages and it is easy to see why there has been a degradation of surface-to-surface IDF employment, as a whole, with the second order effect of limited precision munitions employment. Without a deployed FFA HQ, fires battalions assigned to BCTs are forced to accept additional responsibilities that would otherwise be considered the duties of the FFA HQ. The lack of FFA HQ and diminished capability of the CJTF/division FSEs places the onus of Excalibur employment on fires battalion commanders and junior fire support personnel.

To better influence the IDF fight, a fires brigade (FiB) or a FiB HQs, at a minimum, should deploy with each division headquarters to provide FFA functions and fires experience and expertise for the CJTF. If that is not possible, a post brigade commander with a staff designed to execute FFA functions should deploy with the CJTF. CJTF/division fire support coordinators (FSCOORDs) and FSEs should be manned at authorized modified table of organization and equipment (MTOE) levels with the commensurate level of expertise required to perform their mission.

Combined arms Excalibur live fire training. Combined arms Excalibur live-fire training at home station and/or at the Army's combat training centers (CTCs) is inadequate for units preparing to deploy. In many cases, Excalibur capabilities are misunderstood by maneuver commanders and fire support teams alike. The first time many units live-fire an Excalibur round is in Afghanistan. This is primarily due to the fact they cannot fire Excalibur at home station and/or during their pre-deployment training at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), Fort Polk, La. Units with pre-deployment training opportunities at the National Training Center (NTC), Fort Irwin, Calif., do not fare much better since they are limited to only one live-fire round if it functions properly. Additionally, the CTC training is often focused on the target packet and concept of the operations (CONOP) process, opposed to the conditions they will face in Afghanistan. CTC Excalibur training does not offer experience in solving problem sets that deployed units encounter, such as airspace coordination, tactical employment, collateral damage estimate (CDE) concerns, ballistic impact point (BIP) consideration, target location, and the mensuration of 10-digit grids. Due to this limited exposure and incomplete training, units do not understand Excalibur employment TTPs. In addition to this situation at the CTCs, when units deploy to Afghanistan, Excalibur live-fire training is not conducted frequently. Not unlike the missions fired at the CTCs, rounds fired down range seem to degrade some maneuver commanders and fire supporter's opinions of Excalibur, rather than gain their confidence. In the relatively small sampling of training rounds fired in Afghanistan, any resulting 'fail-to-function' or 'precise miss' skews the perception of the munition's actual dependability.

To facilitate better understanding among fire support personnel and maneuver commanders alike, the Excalibur round must be fired during home station live-fire training. The Excalibur project manager needs to support this requirement by immediately implementing a technical solution to reduce the size of the surface danger zone. CTC Excalibur training should be scenario driven, to include procedures and battle drills required to accurately locate the target, clear airspace, synchronization and cross talk between fire support officers (FSOs) and fire direction centers (FDCs) to produce a BIP plan integrated with pre-planned airspace coordination measures (ACM). Units should shoot Excalibur early and often during their rotation, demonstrating to maneuver commanders Excalibur's effectiveness, as well as training the entire fire support team.

FIST collective training/employment Collective FIST training is currently not adequate to support more frequent use of Excalibur. As a consequence of modularity, many FISTs do not conduct pre-deployment training with the fires units they will serve with in Afghanistan. Fire support teams further decrease their ability to employ surface-to-surface IDF by training for nonstandard missions at the expense of their core competencies. Acknowledging this is not a new concern, the impact is even more apparent when trying to employ a complex munition, such as Excalibur. Precision capability was further degraded when units did not train using the required digital equipment accurately employing precision munitions. Additionally, FISTs often do not carry the required equipment to obtain the 10-digit grid required for precision fires because they are carrying the additional equipment necessary and required by their patrolling units.

Commanders are increasingly relying on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to provide observation for fires. Assets that provide real-time or near real-time feeds to tactical operations center are preferred over dismounted observers due to their ability to aid in CDE decisions. Providing target grids, which can be mensurated with precision strike suite for special operations forces (PSS-SOF), with ISR assets designed for force protection is an effective practice. However, it removes the ground-based observer from the situation and further erodes the maneuver commander's confidence in the observer to do his job.

Continuing support for the current force design update (FDU), which aligns FIST training and oversight with the fires battalion commander, will correct a great deal of the noted training inadequacies. The FCoE needs to promote the importance of the fire supporter's priorities through continued discussion with the Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE). The FCoE needs to refocus FA junior officer development on fire support tasks to produce surface-to-surface fires experts. Most importantly, FIST personnel at all levels need to be proponents for fire support expertise by training and certifying their subordinates in their primary mission of the employment of all IDF.

Institutional training. Many of the senior leaders in Afghanistan are concerned junior officers and senior fire support NCOs do not graduate from the U.S. Army Field Artillery School at Fort Sill with a thorough understanding of Excalibur TTPs. They are also concerned that these Soldiers and officers have no experience on digital systems required for precision fires. As a result, units deliver pre-deployment Excalibur training to fires battalion key leadership and generally fail to include maneuver leaders and fire supporters. The result is a failure to adequately educate commanders on the training requirements for enabling and sustaining the capability to exploit Excalibur's precision.

We recognize recent updates to the 13F (forward observer) Senior Leader Course (SLC), Artillery Basic Officer Leadership Course (BOLC), and Field Artillery Captain's Career Course (FACCC), which are significant and appropriate; but graduates of these new programs of instruction (POI) have yet to reach the deploying force. To improve understanding of precision munitions, FA officers need access to material previously taught in the Excalibur new equipment fielding team. Additionally, junior FA officers need exposure to material, such as airspace coordination, collateral damage estimates, and technical PSS-SOF instruction, currently taught in 13F SLC and Targeting Warrant Officer School. Some required updates can be incorporated into the existing POI. For example, in-depth BIP management can be added to the gunnery portion of training of BOLC and FACCC.

We consider the introduction of the precision guidance kit (PGK) as an opportunity to hone the precision skills of artillery leaders. Acquiring 10-digit grid and training target mensuration should be included in the PGK training plan. Training should be carefully developed, to focus on precision fires planning and coordination, and considerations for tactical employment not just delivery system requirements. FSOs need to know how to doctrinally incorporate Accelerated Precision Mortar Initiative (APMI), Excalibur, and eventually PGK into echeloning precision and near-precision fires coverage.

CAS employment. As fire supporters, it is important to realize the influence the unmatched levels of air support and aerial ISR in this conflict have had on the combined arms fight. Due to the lack of an air interdiction mission or counter air mission, air support is available to maneuver units in Afghanistan at greater levels than during any other conflict in recent history. These large numbers of CAS missions and air weapons teams (AWTs) have been a great asset on the battlefield: however, it has now created an over reliance and demand for CAS and AWT that will most likely not be fulfilled in future conflicts. Air assets are favored for perceived ease and speed. Guidance and restrictions (such as rules of engagements and tactical directives) in theater favor the use of CAS and AWT as "direct fire systems" over indirect assets. Because a pilot can easily establish visual contact with a target, and the joint fires observer (JFO) can easily guide the pilot to a target from an eight-digit grid, JFOs perceive air support as more responsive and don't use precision indirect fire systems.

As fire supporters, we must ensure our maneuver counterparts understand the impact of relying on CAS and AWT. The capability to deliver surface-to-surface fires is their only 24-hour-a-day, all-weather indirect fire source. Fire supporters must be advocates for all indirect fires and familiarize maneuver commanders with the capabilities and limitations of these systems. They must be advocates for surface-to-surface fires, in much the same way as the air liaison officer is for CAS.

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Firing unit capabilities. Currently, M777A2 firing locations do not cover all maneuver areas of operations (AOs) in Afghanistan, thus limiting Excalibur employment. Due to the wide dispersion of firing locations, autonomous platoon operations and force cap limitations, fires battalions, theater-wide, do not have overlapping, mutually supporting fires and cannot mass fires nor provide precision fires throughout the entire area of operations. Presently, RC-East artillery employs M777A2s, M198s, and M119s while RC-South employs only M777A2s. RC-East has more of an IDF capability available, but both AOs have considerable FA coverage gaps. All the fires battalions responsible for M777A2 and Excalibur coverage have multiple missions, some supporting more than one brigade AO, adding complexity to employing indirect fires. Several deployed FA units' MTOE howitzers are the M119A2; however, in some cases they operate M777A2 during deployment with very limited pre-deployment training. The limited 155mm coverage, difficulties with cross-brigade indirect fires, and lack of institutional understanding of a digitized howitzer exacerbates limitations of Excalibur employment.

When implemented, the pending composite M777A2/M 119 FDU will have a positive impact on the capability to deliver precision indirect fires in theater. However, this will take time to realize, and there are solutions that can be implemented immediately. Deployed units should employ all operational M777A2s in Afghanistan and replace all existing M198s with M777A2s, expanding available Excalibur delivery. Lethality and accuracy can be improved by utilizing M777A2s for all forward operating base (FOB)-oriented indirect fires operations, while maintaining M119A2s for missions requiring mobility. To ensure a common understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the M777A2 and Excalibur munition, fires battalion commanders, supported brigade fires cell, and CJTF FSCOORDs should track precision-guided munition (PGM) capabilities, along with the five requirements for accurate predictive fire. Additionally, PGM capability needs to be reported and visible to the maneuver commander to ensure he understands both the capabilities and limitations of his organic precision weapons systems.

Airspace management. Airspace management is often cited as the major reason for the limited use of Excalibur and other IDFs. Many maneuver commanders and fire supporters believe the employment of IDF restricts the use of other systems sharing a given airspace. In some cases, the use of "hot-walls" or restricted operations zones (ROZ) limit the airspace for AWT, ISR, and CAS. An additional concern is the overall timeliness of effects on target. As Excalibur is always fired high angle, more time is required to clear airspace than a low angle mission. Time of flight also affects the timeliness and associated risks, where time of flight for direct fire systems is significantly shorter. Typical time of flight for an Excalibur missions fired in theater is between 90 and 120 seconds, based on range. The greater time of flight equates to more opportunity for target movement or for civilians to enter the battlefield target area.

As surface-to-surface fires experts, fire supporters need to recognize these legitimate concerns and manage airspace in order to best integrate surface-to-surface IDFs into the airspace management framework. Successful units in Afghanistan use named hot walls with multiple pre-cleared BIPs maximized to facilitate greatest coverage with the fewest restrictions. The phrase "hot walls" refers to a non-doctrinal, field expedient restrictive airspace coordination measure, built along the gun-target-line with a predetermined width and altitude encompassing ballistic trajectory for the round and the BIP. BIP planning should be synchronized with the battlespace owner and integrated with airspace coordination measures to support the area of operations: Units preparing to deploy to Afghanistan need to train on hot-wall development and airspace management supporting precision fires employment. Training should integrate the brigade air element (BAE), task force fire support element, and fires battalion. Only by working within the current airspace management process and addressing the characteristics of current precision munitions will we, as fire supporters, be able to increase the use of these munitions.

The vast majority of the recommendations, made in this article to increase Excalibur and surface-to-surface IDFs, came directly from units currently fighting with fires in Afghanistan. There are many reasons for the limited IDF and Excalibur usage in Afghanistan; however, the seven focus areas (CJTF/RC FSE capability; combined arms Excalibur live-fire training; FIST collective training; employment, institutional and FA schools training; CAS employment; firing unit capabilities; and airspace management) were the most prominent areas observed by the assessment team.

Overall, we found incredible work being done by fires battalions to develop TTPs and increase the use of Excalibur and IDFs. However, as with many issues concerning the delivery of indirect fires, it was the fire support side of the equation where the vast majority of the challenges currently exist, in regards to the employment of Excalibur and surface-to-surface indirect fires. Since the integration of fires with maneuver has historically been, and continues to be, the most difficult task in the delivery of fires, this is not surprising. Realizing this, as fire supporters, we must increase our precision munitions expertise; but, more importantly, we need to once again be advocates for surface-to-surface indirect fires, including Excalibur. This will ensure we have the fire support expertise and experience required to support the maneuver commander, for the remainder of this conflict and for the next, with all his IDF requirements.

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the March-April 2012 issue of Fires.

COL GENE MEREDITH, MAJ DAVID MOSER, CPT ANDREW ZIKOWITZ, AND DANIEL HALLAGIN

COL Gene Meredith is currently assigned to Fort Sill. Okla. His last deployment was as an M777A2 battalion commander in Afghanistan 20092010.

MAJ David Moser was a previous member of the M777A2 and the Excalibur fielding teams.

CPT Andrew Zikowitz's last deployment was as an M777A2 battery commander in Afghanistan 2010-2011.

Daniel Hallagin is a retired 13D, Field Artillery Automated Tactical Data Systems Specialist. He is a Department of Defense civilian and a member of the Excalibur fielding team.
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Title Annotation:PROFESSIONAL FORUM
Author:Meredith, Gene; Moser, David; Zikowitz, Andrew; Hallagin, Daniel
Publication:Infantry Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 2012
Words:2926
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