Scenes from a Gunnery

Ah, the culmination of a couple of weeks downrange. Pics and commentary courtesy LTC Esli Pitts,  AR, USA, 3/8 CAV

Formerly a lost art, with the end of the war in Iraq and drawdown of heavy forces in Afghanistan, heavy brigades are getting back to tank and Bradley gunnery. It was a rough start, given that many of the tankers had never fired gunnery, or certainly not in their current positions. Having shot our second gunnery within the year, we saw some pretty good results.

Even with the Texas heat, there are few things more satisfying than taking an M1A2 through its paces on a live-fire range. Sure, it is blindingly hot, but face it; there is something cool about things that go boom. The idea that I can put the reticle on a moving plywood target 2200 meters (yeah that is 1.4 miles) away and kill it about a second later is mind-boggling. And fun.

A unit goes to the field for about 2-3 weeks, and at the end, they are lethal tankers. It’s hard work and long hours, but in the end, it is fun. I like to say that we get paid year-round, but the only time we actually earn the check is on the range.

Before you can fire, there are prerequisites. They include a certain level of proficiency in the Advanced Gunnery Training System (AGTS) (way better than the old UCOFT). Additionally, you have to pass Gun Table I and the Gunner’s Skill Test, which include hands-on testing in loading and firing machine guns, loading the main gun (seven seconds to pass, but the real standard is under four seconds), conducting mis-fire procedures, rollover drills, boresighting the tank, etc. There are also a lot of maintenance checks required to get the tanks ready.

Once you meet the pre-reqs, you go to the field and fire the following day and night tables:
-Screening: a lot like zeroing the tank, this is a test to make sure that the tank hits where the computer says it is supposed to hit.
-Gun Table II: Crew Proficiency: This is a dry (or sub-caliber training device) run to make sure the crew can perform their crew duties properly
-Gun Table III / IV: Basic Machine Gun and main gun tables combined.
-GT V: Practice crew qualification. Usually with smaller targets and longer ranges, this is a hard table.
-GT VI: Crew Qualification. (For all of you old guys, yes, this used to be Tank Table VIII, but the HBCT gunnery manual published in 2009 revised all of them.)
Generally every other gunnery, you will progress to tactical tables including:
-GT IX: Section Qualification (two tanks)
-GT XII: Platoon Qualification (four tanks under the control of a Platoon Leader. I generally make GT XII a 72-hour event with tactical tasks as well as gunnery. These are fun, but high-stress for the PL.)

During GT II through GT VI, the crew fires ten engagements, each of which requires the crew to perform different tasks (called Minimum Proficiency Levels) from an offensive or defensive tank during either day or night. Some examples:
-Tank Commander’s engagement with main gun
-“Simo” including TC’s .50 cal, the loader’s M240 and the gunner’s coaxial M240.
-Change of ammunition: Tank target with sabot, then light armor with HEAT
-Change of weapons-system: tank target with main gun then troops with coax machine gun
-Use the Gunner’s Auxiliary Sight
-NBC conditions.

Target ranges vary, with machine gun targets up to 800 meters, and main gun targets out to about 2200 meters (training ammunition is not ballistically matched to service ammunition, so is not accurate much farther than this). The hardest target on my last gunnery was the commander’s engagement of a flank moving tank (about 10 mph) at 2200 meters.

A target is presented for 50 seconds. The crew is scored on how quickly it can kill that target. In the defense, the time to kill does not start until the tank pulls up to fire (i.e. could be hit by the enemy). For example, a target could be exposed for 40 seconds before the tank comes up in the battle position and kills it. If your tank was only up for 5 seconds or so, it would be 100 points. On the other hand, if the target came up and the tank crew immediately came up to fire, but did not fire for 10-15 seconds, the crew loses points with every second they are exposed to the enemy’s fire. In the offense, when you are already exposed, time starts immediately and you must be quick. In 50 seconds, you may have two targets. A third may be presented on a 15 or 20 second delay. This might seem like a long time, but sometimes it takes a lot of time just to find the targets. It takes 70 points to qualify each engagement.

If a crew qualifies seven of ten engagements and scores 700 points or greater, than he is “qualified” as Q1. If he qualifies eight of ten engagements with a score of 800 points or more, than he qualified with a “Superior” rating. And for those that qualify nine (or ten) engagements and score 900 points or more, they have qualified with a “Distinguished” rating. A crew that fails to qualify “Q1” will re-fire engagements until he has qualified 7 of them with 70 points, and is qualified as a “Q2.” This is not good. But it happens.

A change with the M1A2, which is hard for older tankers to get used to, is the extremely abbreviated nature of fire commands now which literally saves seconds with each engagement.

There are lots of traditions associated with tank gunnery. Some good. Some not so good.
-Not changing whatever worked. One former PSG shot every gunnery wearing the same red long underwear regardless of temperatures, and always included his stuffed teddy bear, even after his angry wife once ripped its arm off. I’ve shot every gunnery but my most recent with the same pair of gloves.
-Blessing the tanks. Some units used to to put the tanks on line and have the chaplain bless them.
-No peaches are allowed on the tanks. No one knows why, but that is good enough reason.
-Firing a HEAT round with a roll of toilet paper soaked in flammable fluids placed over the spike. Frowned upon but spectacular.
-Loading a lieutenant’s hat in the breech and firing it. Dumb. Having witnessed this result in a sabot round stuck in the chamber and hours spent freeing it, this is not worth it by any means.
-The earning of the right to wear tanker boots after qualifying.
-Steak and eggs on the range after qualifying.
-Kill rings on the main gun of the tank. One ring for a Q1, two rings for Superior, and 3 rings for Distinguished. Tan tanks get black rings; green tanks get white rings. The top tank gets gold rings.

On the way!

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This is the office on my home-away-from home…


That’s brand new track on the tank. Considering my tank rolls more and farther than any other in the BN, we deserve it! Yes, the fender is damaged from taking the tank into a wooded environment for crew training. Hey, that’s why they are cheap.

New paint job on the CIPs panels: 8th CAV crests. WARHORSE!!!

My crew after I had the distinct honor and privilege of pinning Army Achievement Medals on them for shooting Distinguished. Then, into the tents behind for steak and eggs, and watch some of “The Beast.” Great night.

Just hanging out after the final night run AAR. The paint is barely dry on the crests.

Showing off the kill rings the next morning. Three means we qualified Distinguished. Gold rings would be for the top tank. We weren’t even close to D34 with a 1000 point run.

I am looking at a job in art one day; all of the new artwork was mine… Kill rings and 8th CAV crests.

Gunnery was always a lot of hard work and late nights (and early mornings, as always) but it was also a lot of fun. And shooting stuff was the whole point of being in the combat arms.

The Cold War Brigade

OK, we’ve gone through the WWII division organization. We talked about the disaster that was the Pentomic Division with its “Battlegroups” that sounded the death knell of the regiments in the US Army. We’re going to take a look at the brigade organization in the Cold War era.

Now, understand that we are talking about brigades that are a part of a division. There were also a lot of brigades that were separate units that belonged to echelons at corps or higher levels. Some were combat brigades and some were specialized support units such as MP or Military Intelligence Brigades. For now, let’s stick to the brigade as a fighting unit of a division.

During the Cold War, each division would typically have a structure of three ground maneuver brigades, a brigades worth of artillery, and up to a brigades worth of helicopters. Divisions were classified as either “heavy” or “light.” This told us if the units were mounted on tracked vehicles or not. Let’s start with a brigade in a light division.

Each light division would have 3 brigades and nine infantry battalions. The normal allocation would be for each brigade to have three infantry battalions. While battalions could be shifted from brigade to brigade as needed, units tried to keep the same battalions with the same brigade as much as possible. To boost the combat power of the brigade, there was usually an artillery battalion in “Direct Support.” This meant that while the brigade commander didn’t command the artillery battalion, he did have first call upon its fires. Again we see the combined arms of the infantry/artillery team in action. The division commander would allocate other assets to the brigade as needed to accomplish its mission, such as engineers from the divisions engineer battalion, ground surveillance radar teams from the MI battalion, and helicopters to move or supply the brigade. As you can see, it is a fairly simple structure.

When we look at a heavy division, things get a little more complicated. There were two types of heavy divisions, Armored and Infantry (Mech) divisions. Each division had 3 maneuver brigade headquarters, a brigades worth of artillery, an aviation brigade and 10 ground maneuver battalions. In a Mech Infantry division, there were 5 infantry battalions, mounted in either M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers or latter Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The division had 5 armor battalions with M-60 tanks or later, M-1 tanks. An Armored Division had the exact same structure but there were 6 tank battalions and only 4 infantry battalions.

The normal bridage structure had two brigades with three battalions and one with four. Often, this 10th battalion would be held in reserve by division to either exploit success or reinforce a breach in the lines. Each brigade would have a battalion of artillery in direct support, with the same relationship as in a light division.

Here’s where things get complicated- mech infantry needs armor support and armor needs infantry support. Battalions were kept “pure” through most of their training and garrison life, but when in the field, units would be “task organized” to form a “task force.” Let’s take a look at how this might work. For simplicitie’s sake, let us presume a heavy brigade with 2 tank battalions and one mech infantry battalion. When we’ve task organized, we’ll have two task forces and one “pure” tank battalion.

The tank battalion has 4 tank companies. The mech battalion has 4 infantry companies. The first thing we do is swap two companies from each battalion. That gives each battalion 2 tank and two mech companies.

We carry this out at the next echelon as well. A tank company will swap a platoon with an infantry company. After this swap, these composite companies with both tanks and infantry are called “Company Teams” or just “Teams.”  Now we have a balanced force that is truly combined arms.

Sorry that there’s no powerpoint slide. I’m away from my computer. This loaner doesn’t have any office software and I’m not trying to draw an org chart in MS Paint. If you have any questions, just pop into the comments. I’ll be happy to address them.

Miles to go before I rest…

Soon after the Vietnam War, the Army returned its focus to Western Europe and the problem of how to deter the massive Soviet armies facing them in Germany. The Army worked on several fronts to address the problem. They revised the doctrine under which they would fight, they set upon a sensible procurement program that gave us the “Big Five” weapon systems and they worked hard to lobby congress to keep the Army large enough to do the job.

The most important step the Army took, however, was to totally revise the way it trained soldiers and leaders to fight. Note, I’m not talking so much about how they fight, but rather, how they train. One of the first things they did was examine every task a soldier would likely be asked to perform. Now, this sounds pretty simple, but it wasn’t. The looked at all the tasks every soldier had to be able to do, then they had to look at all 200 or so of the different MOS’s in the Army and come up with the tasks that soldiers in those jobs would have to do.  The Army also had to break these lists down by rank. After all, we expect a Sergeant to know more than a Private.

Using these individual tasks as building blocks, the Army then looked at what each unit, from squad to field army, would have to do. And they had to do this every type of unit, from infantry to quartermaster units that provide shower and laundry services. All of these tasks were written down in a standardized format so a soldier could quickly read and learn what he and his unit were expected to do and train accordingly.

Now, for the manuever units, infantry and armor, there was one little problem. Even if you could look at the book and say a unit was well trained, there is no substitute for going out and fighting war games. But since it is considered bad form to fire live ammunition at your own people, there was little feedback to tell you if you were doing it right. Something more was needed. And so MILES was invented.

MILES is the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System. It is a giant game of Laser-Tag. In fact, Laser-Tag is a ripoff of MILES technology. The basic MILES setup is a harness and a “halo” of laser receivers on each soldier. And his rifle has a small laser mounted on the barrel. Each time you fire a blank, the laser fires a short pulse. If that pulse hits a harness, a beeper on the harness emits a loud, very annoying sound. That sound is to let you know that you are “dead.”

MILES harness and halos on soldiers, laser on rifles
MILES harness and halos on soldiers, laser on rifles

Each laser had a small key that had to be inserted for the laser to fire. But if your harness was beeping, the only way to shut it off was to remove the key from the laser and put it in the harness. That way you wouldn’t keep fighting after you were “dead.”

With this simple gear, an infantry squad could get instantaneous feedback on how well it was doing on a training exercise. But what about units equipped with M-113s, or Bradleys, or tanks?

Well, they thought of that as well. Each vehicle had its own harness. It was fastened to the track with velcro. and each weapon on the vehicle had its own laser. But the important component was the control box. We all know that an M-16 won’t destroy a tank. So each laser fired a specially coded pulse. Let’s say a Bradley was hit with laser pulses from an M-16. The control box would read the pulses, realize they were from an M-16, and ignore them. But if an anti-tank missile hit the Bradley, the control box would read the signal and electronically “roll the dice” to determine if the vehicle had been killed. If the vehicle was killed, there was a yellow flashing light that would blink. If the control box decided that the hit wasn’t a kill, the light would only flash a couple times.

With MILES gear on board, crews of armored vehicles could learn the effect of their gunnery and manuever in a training exercise. The proficiency went up immensely. No other nation in the world had trained their troops as well in armored combat. The payoff was seen in Operation Desert Storm.

Look closely for the laser on the commanders machine gun
Look closely for the laser on the commanders machine gun