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BAGRAM, AFGHANISTAN -- Firing their first round from Northeast Afghanistan, Alpha Battery artillerymen of 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment "Top Guns", 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), became the first operators of the M119A3 Howitzer in theater.

The M119A3 is a digital upgrade to the M119A2; the US Army's 105mm Lightweight Towed Howitzer. Improvements include software and hardware component upgrades, Global Positioning System for navigation, a digital gunner's display, and digital communication between each gun and the Fire Direction Center.

"It still takes good old-fashioned hard work to load and actually pull the trigger," states Staff Sgt. Patrick J. Connell, section chief with 1st Platoon, Alpha Battery. "But the digital portion speeds up the process of receiving our firing data and sending those rounds down range."

Alpha Battery received their howitzer upgrade in July 2013, and deployed two firing platoons to Northeast Afghanistan in early February 2014. Both platoons provide fire support and force protection for 2nd BCT, Task Force Strike, Train Advise and Assist Command-Northeast. Each platoon is armed with an upgraded M119A3 and the M777A2; the US Army's digital 155mm towed howitzer.

Howitzer crews at both locations continuously drill on the system to gain and maintain proficiency with a variety of missions. Fire missions in country include counter fire in response to hostile indirect fire, observed fire training missions against historical enemy locations, smoke, and illumination in support of friendly operations and to disrupt enemy activity.

After three months downrange, Alpha Battery artillerymen gained valuable time to reflect on their initial experiences with the system.

"I am accustomed to the M777A2; however, after I certified on the M119A3, I started to open up to the idea that this howitzer was something special," states Staff Sgt. Connell. "Now, since being in country for a couple months and having both howitzers, I would pick the M119A3 all day. It is faster, lighter, and easier to change azimuth of fire."

Platoons report quicker firing capability after occupation, less opportunity for human error, and faster communication from the Fire Direction Center to the section chief. The GPS self-location capability reinforces grid location and direction of fire for each gun, giving the sections an added layer of safety. Sections also report the digital system is easy to learn after switching from the M119A2 model.

As the M119A3 includes all of the manual capabilities of the A2 model, Alpha Battery artillerymen have been expected to maintain their manual proficiency.

Two months into their deployment, 3rd Platoon experienced a loss of digital capabilities. Without critical delay, the howitzer section was able to smoothly transition back into analogue mode and continue mission.

"When the [M119A3 digital system] works, it's great," states 3rd platoon leader and fire direction officer, 1st Lt. Michael J. Gorman. "We figured it was only a matter of time when its digital system dropped. We weren't surprised. We were ready."

As both platoons learned, greater capability also requires additional care. Alpha Battery artillerymen report static and wind can disturb electrical attachments. Sections have also adapted to the increased weight of the howitzer's sled during movement and occupation. More digital components and cables also mean more items for soldiers and non-commissioned officers to keep track of and maintain accountability.

"In my opinion, it has lived up to expectations and then some," concludes Staff Sgt. Connell. "The more seasoned Soldiers might not be sold on the digital howitzers yet, but I think the newer Soldiers will have no problems once they become chiefs."

A year prior, Alpha Battery operated solely the M119A2 system. Since then, the battery added the M777A2 Howitzer to their arsenal, upgraded to the M119A3 digitized system, and trained an additional section to operate and certify the Afghan National Army D-30 howitzer system. The Battery tested themselves on all three new systems--to include the M119A3--last year through live fire field exercises, certifications, and a Joint Readiness Training Center rotation, before finally deploying in their current multi-platform state.

"These guys have gone through a lot of training. It's impressive to see them now," states Alpha Battery's commander, Capt. Matthew Boudro. "It's a testament to the hard work of the soldiers, where they are now and what [they] are able to handle. The capabilities of the battery as a whole--it's humbling to think about."

Alpha Battery artillerymen and the "Top Guns," are training, advising, and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces, while protecting the force, at Bagram Airfield and Forward Operating Bases Gamberi, Mehtar Lam and Wright. The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, Task Force Strike, deployed to Northeast Afghanistan, early 2014.