Grandmasters of combat: Deconstructing the 173rd's role in Exercise Eagle Strike

By Sgt. David VermilyeaOctober 28, 2017

Company Live Fire
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- A U.S. Army Paratrooper assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade scans his sector during a company live fire part of exercise Eagle Strike on October 23rd, 2017. The 173rd Airborne Brigade is the U.S. Army's Contingency Response... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Company Live Fire
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- A U.S. Army Paratrooper assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade fires his weapon during a company live fire part of exercise Eagle Strike on October 23rd, 2017. The 173rd Airborne Brigade is the U.S. Army's Contingency Response... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Company Live Fire
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- A U.S. Army Paratrooper assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade maneuvers during a company live fire part of exercise Eagle Strike on October 23rd, 2017. The 173rd Airborne Brigade is the U.S. Army's Contingency Response Force ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

GRAFENWOEHR, Germany - October skies filled with grey clouds hover over skyscraping trees abandoning their red, orange, yellow and purple leaves as the untouched ground below is lightly trod upon by unidentifiable specters carrying heavily camouflaged cold steel. They continue along silently, steadily, motivated. They are armed. They are alert. The specters are ready. They are the Sky Soldiers.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade is constantly training all over the continent of Europe, with the intent of becoming the best it can possibly be. Every year, Sky Soldiers kiss their families goodbye and link up with their brothers and sisters in arms on new adventures to forge bonds with foreign armies and sharpen their unique skills in exciting places.

This week, the Italian-based Sky Soldiers made their way up to Grafenwoehr Training Area, conjoining the German-based Sky Soldiers, to conduct training in Exercise Eagle Strike. It is a time away from the diplomatic hat the Brigade often wears, and a perfect opportunity to build chemistry within the unit.

"We are focusing on platoon and company level collective training, utilizing our internal assets such as the 4th Battalion, 319th Field Artillery, shadows, ravens and we have external 12th Combat Aviation Brigade support for AH-64 Apache helicopters," said 173rd Airborne Brigade Battle Captain, Cpt. Fernando Chavez. "We're concentrating on doing collective training, so we can build internal combat power."

"The purpose of this exercise is to execute live-fire iterations, synchronizing direct and indirect fires across our artillery battalion, all the way up to a Table 18, which is essentially firing all of their guns in the entire artillery battalion," said 173rd Airborne Brigade Commander Col. James B. Bartholomees. "Additionally, we're enhancing the ability for our rifle companies to fire and move around terrain, clear buildings, breach wire-obstacles and clear trenches, in conjunction with our mounted elements shooting .50 caliber machine-guns and Mk 19 explosive rounds."

The live-fire exercise is most easily explained by breaking down the combat elements within the Brigade. The simplest way to achieve this is to liken the exercise to a game of chess, with each element representing chess pieces.

First, at the top of the hierarchy, is the king. The objective to chess is to place the king in a position where it must surrender. The king must be protected at all costs; therefore, all the piece movement revolves around the king, which is similar to the command team in a live-fire exercise.

Everything begins with command because everyone under, looks to it for guidance.

"The commander has three levels of duties in the exercise," said Bartholomees. "First, it's planning. The commander has to think through the challenges presented in the operation order, work with his leaders to plan direct and indirect fires to mass at his decisive point in the operation. The second part is rehearsals. He must figure out how he is going to put together the pieces to ensure it's going to work. The only way to do that is through practice. The third piece is synchronizing that rehearsal in action."

In this chess metaphor, command is the king, but it also represents the chess master. If command is vanquished, all units under it lose their coordinated effectiveness.

Next, in the order of precedence on a chess board is the queen. The queen is the most deadly and agile piece on the board with an ability to go wherever it desires, and however far it desires, quickly. The closest resemblance to those characteristics is the forward observer (FO), because the FO has the most powerful weapon on the battlefield - the radio.

The FO is positioned on the front line, embedded with the infantry, which enables him to pinpoint exactly where rounds drop down and accurately give reports to the assets he directs.

"FOs should be one of the most feared elements in your arsenal," said Forward Observer, Sgt. Cory A. Demster of Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC), 2nd Battalion 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. "If given the chance, we will make it rain like Sodom and Gomorrah. Fire and brimstone will scorch everything the enemy holds so dear."

The radios FOs possess can request and direct air support, artillery and mortar fire. With all three capabilities in its arsenal, the FO is one of the most potent assets for the Brigade.

The next piece on the board is the bishop. The bishop operates under-the-radar, to attack the opponent from the flank, while a more prominent piece can be used as a decoy. The bishop is shifty, sly, stealthy and lethal; similar to scouts in a brigade. For this exercise, the scouts are part of the infantry battalions participating. Infantry scouts are composed of a reconnaissance element and a sniper section.

"The infantry companies have scouts attached in a forward observation post observing fires for the battalion's deep fight - for the long-range artillery asset," said 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade Fires Support Officer Cpt. Marvin Perez-Cruz.

Their job is to sneak up to the front-lines unseen to provide intelligence to the units who stage the attack, and if necessary, kill the enemy covertly.

"We shoot targets of opportunity, assist in call for fire missions by calling and correcting fires, provide advance reconnaissance before the line companies are emplaced and help the heavy-weapons assets identify targets," said Sgt. Adam L. Spencer, a scout sniper team leader from HHC, 2nd Battalion 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Next to the bishop, is the knight; an unorthodox piece of versatility that is allowed to jump over other pieces, be it their own or the opponent's pieces, acting as a breaching unit and enabling force, providing openings for other pieces to engage.

There are two combat factions that fit the knight's characteristics - the indirect fire infantrymen (mortars) and the engineers.

Mortarmen are versatile. They can fight in close-quarters next to their light-infantry brethren and then, at the drop of a hat, can push explosive rounds farther downrange to give the front-line room to maneuver.

"Lethal mortar rounds can be: high-explosive, point-detonating high-explosive and proximity, which allows the air-burst, raining shrapnel onto enemy positions," said Perez-Cruz.

The key to their success is their ability to perform the task at lightning speed.

"Mortars provide that quick-responsive initial fire support on ground, massing fires as fast as possible in order to establish and set the conditions for a support by fire to cease and retain the initiative from the enemy," said Perez-Cruz.

"Expert time for complete setup is one minute," said Mortar Team Leader Pfc. James S. Gillihan of HHC, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. "You got to get the gun up, because the quicker you get it up, the quicker the rounds go down."

Engineers are versatile as well. They do everything from moving earth to create pathways for vehicles with their heavy-machinery, to sweeping roads, airstrips and fields for mines, to detonating volatile charges on obstructions to the objective.

"Our main role in the live-fire is providing the Sappers to conduct the combined-arms breach," said 54th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade Commander Lt. Col. Andrew John Baker. "Bastion and Castle companies are integrated in; they have been training with both infantry battalions."

In this exercise, a concertina-wire blockade occludes all entrances the infantrymen can use to reach the bunker and trench they must clear after performing an urban assault, so the engineers have prepared the perfect charge to assist them.

"We are using the Brazier charge for this breach, which is a picket with C-4 explosive attached to it," said Baker. "We appreciate any opportunity to work with live demolition and to work next to our infantry brothers. This is a great opportunity for our Sappers to train with them."

The last piece on the backrow of a chessboard is the rook. The rook has the capability to attack lengthy distances with a linear approach; either vertical or horizontal. In that respect, the rook is very similar to two assets on the battlefield; artillery and heavy-weapons infantry. First, the artillery's Howitzers provide the greatest maximum effective range of all the ground asset weapons with a colossal amount of firepower.

"Our long-range artillery, the 155mm and 105mm guns, allow the artillery commander to shape his deep fight and set the conditions for when he gets to that stage of the operation," said Perez-Cruz.

Within the live-fire, the artillery works jointly with the FOs.

"The forward observers plan targets on the objectives," said 4th Battalion, 319th Field Artillery, 173rd Airborne Brigade Commander Lt. Col. Jim Peay. "When they call in the fire missions, the Howitzer batteries fire on those."

The artillery's ability to destroy far-away targets with precision, enables the front-line to advance.

"We're providing artillery fires for the company of platoons going through the live-fire lanes," said Peay. "Once they're on the objective, if they see they have to plan for enemy reinforcements coming, we can engage those targets as well."

Second, there is the heavy-weapons infantry, which is a company full of infantry soldiers who operate large machine-guns, automatic explosive guns and anti-tank missile systems. They are all mounted on HMMWV's to provide expeditious fires for their light-infantry brothers.

"Integrating mounted heavy-weapons with dismounted units adds another benefit to this live-fire," said Perez-Cruz. "They have four to five up-armored HMMWV's, M2 .50 caliber and M240B 7.62mm machine guns mounted on gun trucks. They have Tube-launched Optically-tracked Wire-guided (TOW) systems which can destroy tanks and they have ITAZ systems that can laze targets with a categoric two grid with an accuracy of 7-15 meters."

Finally, away from the protection of surrounding pieces, positioned on the front-lines of battle are the pawns. They are the under-appreciated grunts that have the greatest chance of being destroyed. They are used for protection of the other elements and specialize in close-quarter battle. The odds are stacked against them, they are limited in speed, but can move omnidirectionally.

In these regards, the pawn is like the light-infantry. The light-infantry carries everything on foot and goes through the vilest crevices of the earth to reach the objective.

"In thousands of years of warfare, the only job that has never changed is the infantry," said Grenadier Spc. Riley J. Hines from Charlie (Chosen) Co. 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. "At the end of the day you still need the guy on the ground taking and holding terrain because that is ultimately what wins wars. You can name any MOS and I promise its main purpose, above all, is to support the infantry and their mission."

Light-infantrymen bring a multitude of assets to the fight.

"In an organic light-infantry squad, you have a few riflemen with M-4 semi-automatic rifles, two M249 machine-gunners and two grenadiers wielding M320 guns that shoot 40mm explosive rounds," said Perez-Cruz. "Then you have the weapons squad that has a M240B machine gun and also the M3 Carl Gustav 84mm weapons that have high-explosive and anti-tank rounds."

Light-infantrymen constantly put their lives on the line, running to the bullets, with aim to find, fix and finish with the enemy, so that the rest of the pieces may move forward.

Just as the pawn makes the first move, the light-infantry is warfare's vanguard.

With all the pieces together, the chess board comes to life. All are compulsory to win the battle and the synchronicity of them determines the victor. Command directs the elements with intent to drive the mission in an impeccable harmony, as all the units give situation reports and ask for guidance from command. The FOs relay their premeditated target reference points and swiftly improvised calculations between the front-lines and mortars, air assets and artillery. Scouts snipe targets from afar, providing over-watch for the front-line, acquire intelligence to communicate to command and help indirect fires triangulate their targets. Mortars push their rounds forward of the front-line to assist infantrymen advancement, and have the capability of being attached to the front-line. Engineers breach the obstacles for the infantry to make passage into the objective. The artillery speaks to command and relies on the FOs and scouts for precise accounts of where their rounds are landing. Heavy-weapons infantry employs mobility and firepower to allow the front-line to advance. The light-infantrymen seize the initiative, benefitting from the aforementioned factions, which propel the force while they methodically move through denied enemy territory.

Now, with knowledge of the combat units, pan away from the live-fire exercise, zoom out to the peripheral reaches of Grafenwoehr, then Bavaria, then Germany. Continue adjusting, widen the shot, more and more. See the people working throughout the day. See the ecstatic face of the newfound fiancé, admiring her glimmering engagement ring. See the families at home before dinner time; the little girl playing fetch with her dog outside in the backyard. Take the joyful radiance in for a while. Then, finally, fix the lens so the continent of Europe's edges are in frame, and begin to understand the purpose of the elements amalgamated to form the 173rd Airborne Brigade, its Allies and partners - to deter and eradicate the nefarious entities who wish to strike terror within those borders and strip the good people of their welfare.