Story and Photos By John Crosby, Atterbury-Muscatatuck Public Affairs
EDINBURGH, Ind. — A steady stream of radio chatter fills the muggy, early afternoon air as a hand full of Airmen, Marines and Soldiers sit atop an old concrete bunker overlooking Camp Atterbury’s impact zone.
The men are fitted with vests laden with ammunition, binoculars, maps, protractors, compasses, radios and antennas. They wear headsets beneath their helmets. They watch their target, a bunker on a far slope, slightly concealed by trees roughly 2300 meters to the southwest.
A plume of smoke and dirt rises from the earth, violently at first, and then dissipates into the trees approximately 400 meters from their target. The sound of the explosion claps and echoes throughout the rolling terrain seconds after the smoke rises.
"Left 30, drop 400," said Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Keith Bohannon, East Anolle, Ga., walking the 100 lb., 155mm high explosive howitzer rounds in onto his target. Bohannon is a forward observer with the 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, Headquartered at Camp LeJeune, N.C. Meanwhile, roughly 12 kilometers across post, an Army field artillery platoon loads another 155mm high explosive round into the breach of an M777 howitzer.
This joint team of Airmen, Marines and Soldiers worked together at Camp Atterbury, Aug. 13 through 15, to become comfortable and familiar in coordinating artillery and air strikes in cooperation with different branches of the military during a Joint Tactical Air Control exercise, part of Operation Northern Strike 13.
Northern Strike is a two-week long, large-scale, combat-training exercise involving more than two dozen units from a dozen states held annually at Camp Grayling, Mich. Atterbury provides the forward observers a variable in their training as they are flown here for a grueling three-day scenario. This change in arena presents a challenge to the forward observers as they must quickly adapt to navigate the new terrain, evade the enemy and accurately call for fire.
"Essentially, we’re simulating transitioning from a set area of operations to a whole different area; different terrain, different weather, different [rules of engagement], the whole nine-yard," said Capt. Dan Evans, Jacksonville, N.C., Supporting Arms Liaison Team leader, 2nd ANGLICO. "Basically this simulates a change in theater, whether it’s from Iraq to Afghanistan or different areas of operations in Afghanistan."
Evans said this scenario provided vital training for his unit as they are scheduled for a deployment to Afghanistan later this year. "It’s been great getting to integrate in and work with Army indirect fire assets. Army and Marines both provide artillery support but we speak different languages on it. So it’s been a very good learning tool for my guys to better understand and speak Army lingo to better get rounds on target."
Evan’s team was the first of three iterations to run the course. Army observer-controller trainers provided spot corrections, advice and feedback to the forward observers while Air Force officers headed the course.
"Too often when we train unit specifics, we don’t train together as a combined-arms team," said Maj. Scott Grotbo, Bloomington, Ill., officer in charge of the JTAC exercise. "We bring the different branches together here and study each other. We share a lot of knowledge and experience. It’s ultimately a huge win for everyone involved."
Throughout the three-day course, the teams faced a variety of physical challenges including continuous harassment from enemy ground forces with hand-to-hand combat scenarios, evading enemy forces for several kilometers at a time, and simulated casualty evacuation.
"They still need to be able to continue their mission even after dealing with close quarters attacks," said Grotbo. "There’s a lot of movement. We don’t let them get too comfortable in any one situation. When their position becomes compromised, they need to evade and find a new observation point."
The course provided plenty of mental challenges as well, including negotiating the constant flow of real-world aircraft traffic within the battle space which required constant communication for airspace deconfliction.
"That whole theory of ‘big sky, little bullet’ doesn’t apply anymore," said Grotbo referring to the dangers of live-fire exercises in a shared airspace. "We really need to make sure that we use all of the measures that we’re taught, because it’s real.
"Training like this really gets us honed in on our tactics, techniques and procedures for doing close air support, call for fire and rotary-wing close combat attacks. It really heightens that sense of urgency when you’re using live fire."
Indiana National Guard Soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 150th Field Artillery Regiment, headquartered in Bloomington, Ind., provided the live fire for the exercise.
"I would say the biggest barrier we have is in the lingo," said Lt. Dan Fleming, Milan, Ind., field artillery officer in 2-150. "The Marines, the Air Force and the Army all have a different way of saying and doing things. We’ll be working with other branches in theatre. Therefore we need to understand and learn their lingo now, so that when we do get to combat, and they need artillery fire, we can support them."