M119 howitzer  in Afghanistan
An M119 howitzer crew from the U.S. Army's 1st Platoon, Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Task Force Duke, fires a high explosive round at the enemy from Combat Outpost Wilderness, Waze Zadran district, Afghanistan, Sept. 16, 2011. Artillery support of coalition and Afghan National Security Forces provides immense and immediate firepower when needed to combat insurgent attacks or reduce enemy capabilities.

PAKTIYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan, Sept. 20, 2011 -- Firing an artillery piece may look no more complex than aiming, placing the desired shell and charge in the breech, and firing.

Talk to Staff Sgt. Stephen Dunn, however, and it's quickly apparent that necessary accuracy and safety make the process far more complicated than meets the eye.

Dunn, a fire directional control sergeant with 1st Platoon, Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Task Force Duke, is entrusted with ensuring that shells fired by his platoon's M119 howitzers from Combat Outpost Wilderness go where they need to, when they need to.

For Dunn and the other soldiers of his battery, the importance of artillery, long known as the "King of Battle" for its ability to quickly influence combat outcomes, can't be overstated. Its objective as far as he's concerned can be summed up quickly and succinctly.

"The goal of the field artillery is accurate first-round fire for effect," said Dunn.

His Soldiers have fired more than 1,200 rounds at the enemy since arriving in eastern Afghanistan nine months ago. High explosive, smoke and illumination rounds have been the three shells most commonly used.

Three large factors always enter the equation before any firing. A collateral damage estimate is made to gauge the risk, if any, to friendly troops or civilians. Second, topography is taken in consideration, as mountain ranges or drops in elevation may result in a target distance being greater or less than straight-line distance. Finally, air clearance must be obtained to prevent rounds from not only being deflected from targets, but potentially causing harm to friendly aircraft.

Tension rises when lives of fellow Soldiers come into play, according to Dunn.

"When troops are in contact, it's more stressful because of the need to be even more accurate with our fire," he added.

Sending a round downrange, however, is far more than just a one-man job. A coordinated effort between forward observers, Dunn's fire control team, battlefield commanders, and the gun pit featuring the M119s is the defined chain of command necessary to ensure success. Needed discussion within the precious minutes available before firing may occur, but it's a process understood by everyone down to the most junior member.

The process is so well understood that, according to Spc. Anthony McLeod, a fire directional control specialist with 1st Platoon, Alpha Battery, everyone from fire control personnel down to the howitzers could fill in for each other in a pinch.

Dunn agrees.

"All my personnel are cross-trained," he said.

Missions are usually broken down into two main types, those of counter-fire or troops in contact. They're distinguished such in that a counter-fire mission is a response to enemy fire originating from some distance away, while a troops in contact mission requires artillery fire to decide the issue quickly and decisively.

Whatever the nature of the mission is, however, real success comes down to much more than a pat on the back or publicity for a job well done. Helping those on the ground who need it most is the most important thing, and always will be, said McLeod.

"A successful fire gives me the satisfaction of doing my part on the mission," he said.

Page last updated Tue September 20th, 2011 at 00:00