Monday, June 22, 2009

Artillery Marines Bring Steel Rain to Helmand

Marines from 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, India Battery fire an M777A2 lightweight howitzer during a field fire at the training ranges near Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, June 4. 3rd Bn., 11th Marines is an element of Regimental Combat Team 3 whose mission is to conduct counterinsurgency operations in southern Afghanistan with a focus on training and mentoring the Afghan national police. (Courtesy Photo, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Afghanistan.)

Dispatches from the Front:

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, June 22, 2009 -- Marines with 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, and elements of 5th Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, arrived in Afghanistan in late April and early May 2009 ready to send a booming message to the enemy.

3rd Bn., 11th Marines out of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., is the first artillery battalion to be deployed in their primary mission set since Operation Iraqi Freedom I in March 2003. Task organized for the Afghanistan mission, this battalion brings something extra to the fight. They are the first Marine Corps artillery battalion to deploy with a High-Mobility Air Rocket System, M777A2 howitzers, Q-46A counter-battery radars and a light counter-mortar radar system consolidated under a single composite headquarters.

In years past, artillery battalions deployed with only 155mm howitzers and had to rely on other units to provide the breadth of capabilities available to 3rd Bn., 11th Marines today. "The systems are newer, more accurate and effective than we used to use," said Lt. Col. James C. Lewis, 3rd Bn., 11th Marines battalion commander. "We move quicker, and have a much more tailorable capability for the COIN [Counter Insurgency] fight."

Advances in technology such as the HIMARS, a multiple-launch guided rocket system, and laser range finders that make use of global positioning satellites help the artillery men make precision strikes on enemy targets.

"This isn't your granddaddy's artillery," Lewis said.

"What 3rd Bn., 11th Marines brings is indirect fire support for the close and deep fight," said Maj. Waco Lane, operations officer. "Somebody needs help? We'll shoot."

If an infantry unit calls for indirect fire support, there are a few things to be considered before rounds are sent downrange. Is the target near a sensitive or protected landmark, friendly forces or an innocent civilian population? What type of ammunition will accomplish the mission most effectively? How will weather or climatic conditions effect the flight of the round? And how do all these things figure into the mathematical computations that can put a howitzer round within meters of the desired target from up to 18 miles away.

After these calculations are determined, Marines like Lance Cpl. Fredy A. Villalta, 21, and Lance Cpl. Ernest L. Mastel, 22, field cannoneers with Battery N, 5th Bn., 14th Marines, will be ready to bring the steel rain.

"I look forward to getting on those cannons," said Villalta, a Los Angeles native and Van Nuys High School graduate. That's what I signed on and trained for, he explained.

"I can't wait to do what we trained to do," said Mastel, a Los Angeles Woodrow Wilson High School graduate and professional video gamer for G4-TV. Normally, we fill roles outside our occupational specialties such as military police, base security and convoy operations.

Even with technology and motivated Marines, there are still challenges to overcome. Most of those challenges stem from one primary obstacle – distance.

The farther one is away from a location, the more difficult it is to maintain clear communication and provide logistical support. Even facing challenges like these, the leathernecks of 3rd Bn., 11th Marines exhibit confidence in their unit's ability to be successful.

"We have enough assets to accomplish the mission right now," said Lane, a Southeast Missouri State University graduate and Yucca Valley, Calif., native.

We're here to provide close supporting fires and responsive counter fires in support of Regimental Combat Team 3 within the full spectrum of counter insurgency operations, said Lewis, a University of Nebraska graduate and Lincoln, Neb. native.

To ensure the battalion's mission is successful, the Marines at the guns have to be accurate and quick, he explained. A gun team is normally made up of 10 Marines, working in rotation to support 24-hour operations. Each team is responsible for their gun's maintenance, its accuracy and its own perimeter security.

"Accuracy is number one; getting a good gunnery solution. Number two is quickness; procedurally correct," said Lewis. "If we don't do it, we fail."

The non-commissioned officers on the ground ensure the unit achieves success. Whether it is an active duty Marine or a reservist, the Marines say they know what they have to do to have a successful fire mission.

Reserve artillery Marines don't usually have many opportunity to practice their military occupational skill set, due to their infrequent full-scale training evolutions while stateside in addition to being forward deployed to Iraq in recent years as a provisional rifle company, according to Sgt. Alfredo M. Solis, 25, a 5th Bn., 14th Marines, section leader and Santa Barbara, Calif. native. "It's time for us to shine, and the Marine Corps will see that."

(Report by Sgt. Scott Whittington, Regimental Combat Team 3.)

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