The job of a forward observer can be dangerous. Tasked to call for, observe and adjust fires in support of maneuver forces, they have historically found themselves in harm’s way. Sometimes, getting observers to a location to accurately call for fire support can take a considerable amount of time — a precious resource on a battlefield that is constantly changing.
Seeking a solution to these challenges, the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team recently developed ways to improve fire support efforts using a versatile tool of the modern warfighter — the unmanned aerial vehicle.
UAV’s technology available to Army BCTs has accelerated throughout the War on Terror. The UAVs can do much more than gather intelligence on enemy activity. It can retransmit long range radio communications and some can deliver munitions on targets. Capabilities that have been developed in recent years include using the UAV to provide observation on indirect fire from artillery and the ability to guide precision ammunition through the use of lasers for close air support. However, coordinated training to build cohesion between observers and UAV operators has never been fully standardized.
The Falcon Brigade is one of the first brigades in the Army to develop and conduct coordinated, simulated training between forward observers, UAV operators, helicopter pilots and Air Force joint terminal attack controllers to develop standardized battle drills for UAV-assisted fire support.
Capitalizing on the extensive simulations capabilities and cost-saving benefits of the Virtual Battlespace 2 systems at Fort Bragg’s Mission Training Complex, Falcon paratroopers spent three days developing tactics, techniques and procedures to use the brigade’s Shadow UAVs to bring lethal fires on a target.
While taking troops, UAVs and artillery to the field costs money, using the MTC saves dollars.
“Rehearsing and developing this capability will be a huge advantage, not just to the Falcon Brigade but also for all Army brigade combat teams that can use the Shadow,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jesse R. Crifasi, the targeting officer for 2nd BCT. “Using the MTC allows us a zero cost and diverse virtual environment for the unit that otherwise couldn’t be done at our home station.”
Although the Falcons have successfully employed UAV fire support before, very little in the way of published guidance standardizes the procedures.
“Other units and branches have done certain parts of this piecemeal, but this is an example of where technology has outpaced the Army’s ability to develop doctrine,” said Crifasi.
To better prepare all personnel involved, the virtual trainer allowed the brigade to save time and money and still produce synced fire support and UAV operator teams.
“We’re not doing anything we don’t already do in the field, but we don’t get in the field enough to be proficient,” he said.
A standardized simulation training program, such as the one the Falcons seek to develop, will help increase proficiencies.
The two most important components of the training tested the brigade’s ability to use the Shadow as both a remote observer and as a primary observer for fire missions. With the UAV acting as a remote observer, the battalion fire support teams practiced communicating with the UAV pilots to collect coordinates for fire missions and conduct battle damage assessments through the UAV’s video feed.
Used as a primary observer, the Shadow pilots sharpened their abilities to call for fire missions based on targets acquired through the video feed with the forward observers monitoring to ensure accuracy of rounds and safety of friendly forces.
“Prior to coming out to the MTC, I was the only one who had experience doing this and only with the artillery,” said Staff Sgt. Quentin Sheley, the standardization instructor operator for the brigade’s UAV operators. “Our platoon is now able to grasp the full concept of how to do what a forward observer does on the ground.”
Sheley said that UAV operators are expected to meet these capabilities as part of their career training requirements, however, many operators are behind on meeting these requirements due to the unavailability of gunnery programs.
“As of right now, it’s up to us to establish our own gunnery program and that is what we’re doing here,” he said.
As part of the simulation, MTC personnel flew a variety of aircraft to further incorporate real-world battlefield assets available to the fires and UAV teams. In addition to directing artillery fire onto targets, the UAV can provide target information for helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft crews. If inclement weather and low visibility or enemy defenses prohibit close air support from flying near a target, the Shadow can direct precision munitions through the use of a laser designator to “paint the target.” However, an opportunity exists to improve standardization between the joint fires community and UAV operators.
“The end state is to put this in joint doctrine, which is something that doesn’t exist with Army UAVs and Air Force assets,” said Air Force 1st Lt. Chris Brown, the air liaison officer for 2nd BCT. “That’s what we’re trying to start from the ground up.
“Eventually we can make this wide-set and any service can use this manual,” said Brown.
Crifasi stressed the importance of establishing the battle drills for rapid employment of these capabilities.
“We’re taking bits and pieces of all of this doctrine that’s already out there and streamlining it down to only use what we need,” he said.
The resulting battle drills can be rapidly enacted anywhere, at the Falcons’ headquarters or on the drop zone, saving precious time.
“Time is not a luxury we have,” said Crifasi. “The purpose of a battle drill, especially a new one, is to save yourself time which usually means saving Soldiers’ lives on the battlefield.”