News: Afghan army plans, executes artillery training
Story by Sgt. Earnest J. Barnes
CAMP DWYER, Helmand province, Afghanistan – The high level of energy in the air was evident as Afghan soldiers from the artillery, engineer, and headquarters tolais with the 4th Combat Support Kandak, 1st Brigade, 215th Corps, left the gates of Camp Dwyer on their way to their second live-fire training exercise since the unit’s inauguration in May 2011.
The 4th Kandak rolled through the Helmand desert, along with their coalition counterparts, to conduct the attached artillery tolai’s operation, fully orchestrated by soldiers of the 215th Corps.
“The 4th Kandak has come to Camp Dwyer to conduct a live-fire mission,” said Lt. Col. Fazul Hazim, the commanding officer for the 4th Kandak. “We are training in order to provide artillery support for the 1st Brigade so one day we can replace the Marines in Afghanistan.”
“The purpose of the whole exercise is to get the Afghan National Army from the artillery tolai … to start working on artillery development so they can provide their own fire support when the coalition forces begin to transition out of Afghanistan,” added Maj. Jiemar A. Patacsil, an Oxnard, Calif., native and the fire support coordinator for Regimental Combat Team-5.
The coalition footprint during the exercise was minimal, hosting less than half the coalition service members who supported the kandak’s first artillery exercise, according to Capt. Jon Erskine, a Coronado, Calif., native and the officer-in-charge of the Combat Support Advisory Team from 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment.
The Afghan artillerymen retained the knowledge about the functionality of their D-30 howitzers from their previous training with the CSAT from 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, so the members of the CSAT with 2/11 decided it would be best to conduct the training with less hands-on from coalition forces.
The CSAT from 2/11 fosters the idea that limiting coalition input during training empowers their Afghan counterparts to learn more. Trusting in their predecessor’s hands-on training, the CSAT had a plan to stand back, observe and critique.
The plan was for the soldiers with the kandak to work through the preparation and training by themselves, with coalition input only intervening to double-check calculations before rounds were sent down range or to steer their Afghan counterparts into the right direction if a persistent problem prohibiting progression was identified.
The kandak arrived at an area known as “Range 4,” which is an artillery range roughly 9 miles outside the camp. The Afghan soldiers, excited to get started, immediately started laying their artillery pieces into place and cleaning in preparation for the following day’s shoot. Soldiers with 4th Kandak’s engineer tolai peeled off from the group to build targets in the impact zone.
The next morning soldiers pulled their supply trucks to the firing line, and the Afghan artillerymen quickly gathered around to unload ammunition into their ammo pits. A group of Afghan forward observers, their advisors from CSAT, and Marines from 5th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company headed down range toward the impact area to observe the impacting rounds and to relay adjustments back to the Afghan-run Fire Direction Center.
Two gun crews manned the D-30s and stood by for coordinates as the FDC calculated aiming points for them. The FDC relayed the needed adjustments, and the crews quickly put into action their training. Crewmen spun the leveling and aiming wheels, checked their aiming points, and heaved a single round with powder into the 7,000-pound howitzer. The Marine advisor for each gun double checked the crewmen’s work and stepped back as the gun-chief shouted in Pashto, “FIRE!”
The crewmembers yelled, displaying their excitement, as flames erupted from each howitzer’s barrel, kicking up dust from the desert floor. An extra cheer came from the crews as they heard the rounds impact just seconds later. The gun crews were ready to shoot another volley when the unexpected happened.
Blue skies quickly turned gray, and blistering winds brought forth a sandstorm, cutting visibility to a mere 100 meters, approximately the length of a football field. For the safety of those participating in the training, the experienced canoneers on scene put the training on hold in hopes the weather would clear.
Visibility did not extend beyond three-hundred meters during the next three days. Fog and dust consumed the air, blocking out the usually radiant Afghan sun, while temperatures dropped into the low 30’s with wind chills below freezing at night.
Hope for firing the remaining rounds was put on ice as each hour drew the exercise closer to the end of its four-day timeframe.
Though the exercise came to an abrupt halt due to weather, it was not a waste, according to Erskine. He said the Headquarters Tolai planned and coordinated the logistics for the exercise, and the Engineer Tolai dug out the impact area and built targets. He added that is a win for the Afghans because it gives these tolais belonging to the 4th Kandak invaluable experience for future operations, and they were able to do it without the assistance of their coalition forces.
Exercises like this enable Afghan forces to continue working toward their goal of operating independently as coalition forces step further into the shadows and Afghan National Security Forces take the reigns to lead their country into the future.
Editor’s note: The Combat Support Advisory Team with 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.