FORT PICKETT, Va. — Helicopters and howitzers came together as Virginia Guard Soldiers from the Hampton-based 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team teamed up with aviators from the Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, 91st Troop Command to conduct slingload operations June 14, 2013, at Fort Pickett.
“We’ve built upon what we worked on at our IDTs throughout the year and this is one of our culminating events,” said Lt. Col John Winkler, commander of the 1-111th.
The 1-111th is at Fort Pickett conducting annual training from June 8-22 with the rest of the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
Two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters picked up the M119A2 howitzers, flew them around Fort Pickett, and deposited them on the battlefield, where Soldiers from the Sandston-based Battery A and Norfolk-based Battery B raced to the guns. They conducted a ‘hip shoot’ in the vicinity of the azimuth before firing off three volleys each of suppression fire toward the enemy.
For safety sake the guns were placed in predesignated spots.“They will put the guns in roughly the azimuth of fire at their new firing point,” explained Winkler as they prepared for the operation. “At that point the guns will do a ‘hip shoot,’ which is an immediate suppression mission. And then they’ll shoot three volleys to suppress the enemy.”Jumping forward on the battlefield is an offensive operation where speed is imperative.
As a result, Soldiers used a Centaur, a handheld fire direction system, something that’s easy to take with them and do fire direction digitally and quickly. They then checked that data manually, using a chart and sticks.
“We already have pregenerated data for the fire direction center,” said Maj. John Kowalski, operations officer for the 1-111th. “If this was a true hip shoot the guns would just be dropped into place and the Fire Direction Officer would be working with his crew, take the board, determine the center of battery of location, put a pin in the board designating that, and take the data they have to determine a general azimuth of fire.”
Once that gun was dropped into place, the chief of that howitzer section walked about 30 meters in front to lay the gun in off the compass.
“He’ll then be verified by the platoon leader or batter commander,” Kowalski explained. “And finally because it’s a hip shoot, it has to be verified by a field grade officer. And then they’ll pull the lanyard.”
The slingload training was something the battalion hadn’t done in at least 10 years, Winkler said. The previous day, the battalion performed a ‘hip shoot’ for the first time in about a decade as well.
“We’re trying to build our skill set so that we’re able to do some graduate-level artillery operations to provide the 116th IBCT commander some more responsiveness from the artillery and be able to support his intent whether it’s on the offensive or the defensive,” Winkler said.
All 300 Soldiers of the 1-111th deployed for AT from home station as if it was their assembly area.“We initiated our field operations on day one,” Winkler said.The units did their pre-combat checks and movement briefs and then conducted a tactical movement straight to the Fort Pickett firing points to conduct operations. They were given routes to Fort Pickett that took them directly to the field, bypassing the cantonment area completely.
This meant they had to be self-sustaining while in the field. On their way to their firing points, the 1-111th troops had to go through a re-arm and resupply operation so they’d be full up on ammunition, food and fuel, according to Winkler. He praised the performance of his Soldiers and the unit’s ability to sustain themselves in the field while often having pack up and move to a new location.
“We’ve had different types of movements for our firing batteries,” he said. “For example our[headquarters battery] has conducted jump [tactical operations center] operations and our TOC has moved twice. Our command post has moved twice. When we fielded this command post a few years ago, it would take half a day to set it up. This crew now has it down to two and a half hours.”
The Combat Trains Command Post, which runs all of the unit’s sustainment operations, and includes combat kitchen that feeds the battalion, had moved once.
“They have sustained the battalion 100 percent out of the field,” Winkler said. “Our Forward Support Company has resupplied us via their distribution platoon, who coordinates with the [Brigade Support Battalion] for food and fuel.”
Over the next two years, the battalion will be evaluated externally. In 2014 they will be evaluated on section and platoon operations. In 2015 they’ll be evaluated at battery level and battalion level operations. This year’s annual training was an opportunity to see where the unit is now and where they stand with their capabilities. There’s no external evaluation this year but Winkler said they are assessing themselves at the section level.
Over the last few years, the 1-111th saw its equipment, configuration and personnel change.
“We went from a battery configuration with six guns, to a platoon configuration, with two platoons with four guns each,” Winkler explained. “It took a couple years to build that with the new Howitzer and the configuration.”
This is the first year the 1-111th has conducted pure split platoon operations where one platoon was controlled by its own fire direction center.
“They’ve been able to operate independently at different firing points,” he said. “That gives us a lot more flexibility and responsiveness.”