08 December 2010

Shooting the Pass, Part 3 of 3

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 30--At approximately 1115 hours on Day Three of Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise ("CALFEX") for Alpha Company, 1/133rd Inf., a high-winds advisory comes across the real-world radio net: Potential winds in excess of 40 knots. The helicopter crews—who minutes before were smoking and joking and waiting around with the ground troops—start spinning their blades almost immediately, in an effort to return to their hangars before the winds hit.

Company Fire Support Officer (F.S.O.) 2nd Lt. Bill Stratford would later liken the experience to prom night, when you’re hoping to get lucky, and your date up and leaves with the limo driver.

Alpha Company has just lost its rotary-wing air support, minutes before the big dance. Rather than ride into battle in a helicopter, Alpha’s 1st Platoon will now travel to the objective riding in the back of a 5-ton truck.

“That’s all a Blackhawk really is, I guess,” says Capt. Jason Merchant, commander of Alpha Company. “An [Army truck] with wings.”


While the company mortars section of 60 mm tubes, augmented by the battalion-level 120 mm guns, positions to support the attack, Alpha Company sits in a staging are with engines idling. On command, soldiers test their vehicle-mounted weapons, including .50-cal. machine guns, by firing into the side of a mountain.

Third platoon, led by 2nd Lt. Rob Labios of Sacramento, Calif., assaults the first objective—a target that the Apaches would have softened up first. Labios quickly loses radio communications with his commander, Capt. Merchant, who is waiting to order shifting the directions of his mortars and to launch the 1st and 2nd Platoons’ assaults.

Despite two days of preparations and planning, of dry-fire followed by blank-fire run-throughs, of repeated rehearsals and refinements, Alpha Company is now living the maxim that no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Asked for the position of the 3rd Platoon soldiers, a fire-support soldier calls first the coordinates of his own position, then the position of FOB Reno itself. Merchant catches the error easily. Given the confusion and lack of communications, Merchant calmly but repeatedly calls to his mortars, reminding them that they are not to fire without his OK. He realizes too late that his previously tested communications workaround—-asking the helicopters to relay messages over the hills—blew away with his rotary-wing air-support.

Merchant directs 2nd Platoon to start moving toward their objective, and his driver follows. At the designated fork in the road, Bone breaks away to speed up a 30-degree slope to the crest of a hill overlooking the 2nd Platoon objective. The Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTAC, pronounced "jay-tacks") follow in their own vehicle, a two-and-a-half seat Humvee laden with radio gear.

Below, in the valley, the platoon comes on line, and engages targets as they pop up. Just behind them, 1st Platoon arrives in its notional aircraft, dismounts and assaults into the compound.

Now dismounted and on higher ground, FSO Stratford talks to the battalion mortars via radio. The JTACs establish communications with a U.S. Marine AV-A8 “Hawker” aircraft. The bad news comes first: Rather than about an hour of on-station time, the pilot says he has only 15 minutes. The good news comes next: Rather than the 500-pound bombs for which the JTACs had hoped, “Dwarf-46”—a U.S. Marine is packing two 1,000-pounders.

Dwarf-46 suddenly has everyone’s full attention.

There’s a catch, however. Rather than more-than-60-minutes of on-station aircraft time for which they’d planned, they have Dwarf-46 for only 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes to mark the target with mortar fire, and get bombs dropped. On a good day, each of the mortars should be able to drop one or two rounds per minute. Today, due to bad communications and delays caused by exercise controllers on the mortars' hilltop location, it’s taking more like 10 minutes.

Stratford, the artillery officer, talks to the battalion mortars. The first call-for-fire lands way off target. Along with Fire Support NCO Clint Shannon of Waterloo, Iowa, Stratford calls in a second fire-mission. One nearby Air Force exercise observer-controller says the pilot should be able to adjust off the dust cloud, but a second says that's not good enough, that the marking round has to hit within 200 meters of the intended target.

Three days of Alpha Company’s CALFEX preparation and rehearsal comes down to 5 minutes of remaining aircraft time, and two 1,000-pound bombs. Each mortar strike and aircraft pass is an adrenalin-fueled roller coaster of anticipation. Finally, Dwarf-46 drops a bomb, which wobbles out of the clouds to take out the intended target.

He has loitered on station well beyond his 15-minute mark, but sticks around to drop his second bomb. "F---ing pilots," says one of the JTACs, as the plane positions for a second pass. "They never tell you the truth about how much fuel they have."

The second 1,000-pound bomb thuds into the desert floor, and fails to detonate. It’s a dud.

“I guess someone just closed the Granite Mountain Pass,” says a nearby exercise observer-controller. “There’s no way that EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] is coming out tonight.”

Low on fuel and long on tired, Alpha Company will have to take the long way home to FOB Seattle.

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