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JBLM Howitzers are booming this week, but even more action is unfolding on screens

Post by Adam Ashton / The News Tribune on March 20, 2013 at 1:04 pm with No Comments »
March 20, 2013 1:04 pm
Staff Sgt. Joseph Baker (pointing) instructs Pvt. Ross Warren (left) and Sgt. Derek Janidlo in the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) for the "Live Virtual and Constructive Training Exercise" being conducted by the 17th Fires Brigade in tents among the buildings at Joint Base Lewis McChord. Photo by Peter Haley / Staff photographer
Staff Sgt. Joseph Baker (pointing) instructs Pvt. Ross Warren (left) and Sgt. Derek Janidlo in the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) for the “Live Virtual and Constructive Training Exercise” being conducted by the 17th Fires Brigade in tents among the buildings at Joint Base Lewis McChord. Photo by Peter Haley / Staff photographer

Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s artillery brigade is firing its big canons this week, but on a tighter budget than in years past.

The canons likely sound the same as ever to Pierce County residents on both the east and west sides of Lewis-McChord who heard the rumble of Howitzers last night between 8 and 9 p.m. I noticed lots of chatter on Facebook about the firing last night, and it looks like our friends at Patch picked up on the same calls.

On the base, though, this week’s artillery exercise signals the Army’s deepening reliance on simulated shooting to replace many of the real – and expensive – rounds soldiers must fire to stay familiar with their equipment.

“At a minimum cost, we’re getting maximum training,” said Capt. Chris Smith, the 17th Fires Brigade’s fire support coordinator

The brigade had planned to truck 1,600 soldiers over the Cascades to the Yakima Training Center this month for an elaborate exercise that would have given artillerymen on the ground opportunities to fire live rounds and higher-ranking soldiers experience executing complex missions.

It’s the sort of drill artillerymen love, and it’s one the Army considers essential for large units just before they head out on combat deployments.

But, those troops are not bound for Afghanistan and money is getting awfully tight these days.

Instead of driving to Central Washington and setting up camp, the 17th Fires Brigade saved cash by bringing Yakima to Lewis-McChord. It replaced the live exercise it wanted with a combined live and virtual one that only put the soldiers in the field who needed to be there to meet their training standards.

The brigade’s command and control elements – the soldiers who pick targets and assign them to artillery batteries – participate from a tent compound inside Lewis-McChord. They’re plugged into the Howitzer batteries firing at Lewis-McChord this week as well as HiMARS rocket batteries at the Yakima Training Center.

Without the simulators, the Army would have cancelled the exercise for the command elements it could not afford to send to Yakima.

Soldiers at the ground level working with the batteries still get time and money to train with their weapons because the Army considers their skills to be necessary building blocks for its overall readiness.

This scenario likely will be repeated throughout Lewis-McChord this year. The base is filling up with soldiers coming home from Afghanistan. Physical training space is limited; so is money to shoot live rounds and practice in the field.

The Army wants to get small units – eight-soldier squads to 40-soldier platoons – out in the field. Larger exercises from 160-soldier companies to 4,000-soldier brigades could be on hold for awhile because of forced federal budget cuts. We’re going to flesh this out a little more for a news story this weekend with more voices from Lewis-McChord’s 7th Infantry Division.

Maj. Gabriel Suarez, the 17th Fires Brigade simulation officer, said the virtual drills offer more than just a cost savings.

This week’s exercise, for instance, simulates a war based on the premise of a foreign army invading Washington State. The artillery brigade participates in repelling the invading force, and the simulator layers in movements for other units who normally would be in the field in combat, such as Stryker brigades and helicopter crews.

Those units are not actually participating in the artillery brigade’s exercise, but their simulated presence resembles what artillerymen experience in combat. Their canons protect forward bases, support infantrymen and attack targets selected by drones.

“Even if we had unlimited money, this still enhances training,” Suarez said.

It also gives soldiers more repetition in executing combat-like movements. The brigade gets about 100 HiMARS practice rounds to fire every year. The virtual programs give soldiers opportunities to go through every part of shooting that rocket, such as picking targets and calculating a round’s trajectory, thousands of times.

“It gives us so much more repetitions than if we only had the rounds,” Suarez said.

He was among the soldiers in the command tent this week. It was packed with maps, target-selection equipment and radar-like gear tracking simulated and real fire at Lewis-McChord and at Yakima.

The troops in the command center worked two shifts around the clock. Most of the firing tended to be done by 10 p.m. They were glad to practice working with their artillery equipment, but they noted that virtual exercise did not provide the focus they would have had if they traveled to Yakima.

“We’re getting the training we need,” said the brigade’s chief noncommissioned operations officer, Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Murphy.

“But I have two jobs here,” he said, meaning he had to run the artillery exercise while simultaneously keeping an eye on his normal work for the brigade.

On the plus side, the soldiers got to sleep in their own beds and bring home-made meals to work.

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