Fire crews from the 1-76th Field Artillery Battalion, 4th Infantry Brigade (Vanguard) jockeyed for bragging rights, red flags and the coveted red muzzle for their howitzers during the battalion’s Top Gun competition this week.
The 1-76th Field Artillery Battalion “Patriots” had the competition during its Table 8 field artillery training on the range at Fort Stewart. Soldiers were evaluated in order to become qualified in highly technical artillery skills. Live fire was used during the training.
“It’s very technical. You have to be very precise,” said Capt. Michael Englund of Alpha Battery. “Artillery is always about check and re-check.”
Englund described three major components to the Table 8 training: observers on a hill act as the eyes for the light field artillery soldiers, the Fire Direction Center is the brains for the artillery operation and the gun line — where the guns fire — is the brawn, he said.
The Fire Direction Center crew members must understand every job of every soldier and ensure their safety, said Lt. Josh Fink, an FDC leader. They must know the position of each gun and factor in the weather, the wind, the weight of the gun rounds and even the temperature of a gun’s propellant, when they calculate aiming data, he said.
“How fast a round leaves a (gun) tube also has an effect,” Fink added.
The FDC calculates targeting data by hand and by computer, according to Fink.
“When the soldiers are well trained, manual calculations take the same amount of time as computer calculations,” he said. “There’s more manpower going into manual calculations.”
Fink said the FDC must be ready for any situation, and if generators go down and computers cannot be used, soldiers must be able to rely on manual methods.
In addition to the Fire Direction Center gathering aiming data, gunnery sergeants were busy surveying the landscape to make sure the data was correct before the howitzers fired.
“This is the most critical point,” said Staff Sgt. Juan Lozano. “We make sure we have a proper survey.”
Lozano said hands-on skills are used in surveying in order to orient the guns.
“It’s all muscle memory,” he said of surveying skills. “The survey will tell us where we are at on the earth and we orientate from that.”
The gunnery sergeant said the best part of Top Gun was the cohesiveness among soldiers, despite the friendly competition.
“Everyone has a sense of purpose,” Lozano said.
Sgt. 1st Class Donald Durgin, who evaluated the fire crews during the training exercise, explained how the howitzers were moved and placed. The guns were towed under camouflage and then positioned.
“We try to get the guns as flat as possible,” Durgin said.
The shift, or cant, of a howitzer determines the distortion experienced when aiming the gun. The sergeant explained that a 0 millimeter cant is flat, and the maximum cant for firing would be 90 millimeters.
“We want to deliver timely and accurate fires as safely as possible,” he said.
The battalion, along with the rest of Vanguard brigade, transformed from a heavy infantry brigade into a light infantry brigade earlier this year. Heavy equipment and paladin guns gave way to “light” weaponry such as the versatile howitzers, which can be towed behind a humvee or sling-loaded beneath a Chinook helicopter.
“You can move these (guns) anywhere,” Englund said.
The captain said field artillery battalions have consistently been given non-standard missions, and so must be prepared for whatever tasks they are assigned. The Vanguard is scheduled to deploy to Iraq next summer.
Battalion commander Lt. Col. Ryan LaPorte said he was proud of his soldiers, particularly because they learned many new and complex skills in a short amount of time after conversion to a light infantry battalion.
“It (conversion) was a huge challenge and the brigade took it on in February,” LaPorte said.
The commander said the brigade had to “turn in” a lot of heavy equipment and reintegrate brigade soldiers who didn’t leave for new duty stations and integrate new soldiers coming in.
LaPorte credits mobile training teams from Fort Sill for helping coach the new light infantry battalion. The commander said the battalion’s senior leadership also went to train with a sister battalion, the 3-319th, 82nd Airborne, 1st Brigade at Fort Bragg.
“They helped jump-start our training at Fort Stewart,” he said.
Laporte said his personnel enthusiastically accepted the help offered by their fellow soldiers and used it to successfully transform to a light field artillery battalion in less than a year.
“They have surpassed my expectations,” he said.
The battalion will hold a Top Gun award ceremony on Dec. 18.