MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – In the hills of Camp Pendleton, mortars zip across the sky and slam into their targets, shaking the ground around them. Atop a hill about seven miles from the action in a completely concealed position is a 10-man team of Marine forward observers.
As the Marines of Echo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, conduct their pre-deployment training, the battalion’s forward observers exercise their skills in accurately guiding indirect fire onto enemy targets.
“A forward observer is a school-trained artilleryman who has the abilities to call for and direct artillery fire on enemy targets,” said 1st Lt. Nicholas Wagner, a liaison officer serving with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.
The forward observers may not be the Marines firing the weapon systems, but their job is just as crucial to the success of their unit. They serve as the eyes of the artillery, accurately plotting coordinates so their fellow Marines can quickly engage enemy targets.
“We are the eyes of artillery,” said Sgt. Nicholas Bowling, the forward observers section chief serving with 2nd Bn., 11th Marines. “We call in the firing missions enabling the gun line to accurately hit their targets.”
In order for the forward observers to locate the enemy’s position, they must conceal themselves from the enemy.
“In conventional warfare, concealing yourself from the enemy is a very important part of being a forward observer,” said Wagner, a 31-year-old native of Adams, Wis. “You want to make it as hard as possible for the enemy to see you.”
Wagner said forward observers were embedded with the infantry during their recent deployment to Afghanistan.
“In the type of war we are fighting in Afghanistan we were on the ground with foot patrols calling for artillery support near our own position,” said Wagner.
From the backs of mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, the forward observers would plot coordinates, call in fire missions, and engage hostile targets, Wagner added.
“You have to be smart, decisive and have the ability to improvise,” said Bowling, a native of Temple, Texas. “Since it’s such as small group of Marines in a forward observer team, you have to be able to perform everyone’s basic duties.”
As the explosive sounds of artillery fire began to die down, the Marines completed the last of their pre-deployment. The artillerymen of Echo Battery will soon join the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and make final preparations for deployment in the coming weeks.
Editor’s note: The 31st MEU provides a forward-deployed, flexible sea-based Marine Air Ground Task Force capable of conducting amphibious operations, crisis response in the Asia-Pacific area.