By Staff Sgt. Christian ClappJanuary 16, 2020
The role of the advisor is to "train, advise, and assist" (TAA) their Foreign Security Force (FSF) counterparts and enable them to complete their mission and become more effective in doing so. One major issue in the Afghan National Army (ANA) lies with their ability to sustain and employ their equipment, especially within the realm of small arms and artillery. The Security Force Assistance Brigade's (SFAB) mission has a strong focus on advising.
The 2nd SFAB of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, took on advising missions throughout the country of Afghanistan as of March 2019, with a high concentration of advisors in Train Advise Assist Command--East (TAAC-E). As part of Operation Resolute Support, 2nd SFAB was instrumental in training ANA soldiers on equipment and systems within their respective Corps. One major training objective for both the SFAB and the ANA, was in training and certifying gun-crews within the ANA's 201st Corps to benefit the ANA as a whole. The specific focus of one extremely successful block of instruction, was maintenance on the ANA's towed artillery platform.
The ANA utilize the D-30, 122mm Howitzer, for their primary artillery platform. The D-30 has been used by the Soviet Union and its allies as well as nonaligned and post-Soviet states. This platform is towed, as opposed to self-propelled, and must be moved by vehicle or sling-load. The howitzer is robust and is designed with the most essential features of a towed field gun necessary for all conditions. It is unclear where the ANA initially received these howitzers from initially as there is no specific documentation, but they were most likely a by-product of the Soviet-Afghan war. Many of the guns' initial manufacture date is in the early to mid-1960s and weapons may have been relatively new when left to the ANA. With a maximum range of 15.3 km, its robust nature, and its simple design, it is quite the suitable platform for the ANA, due to their limited capabilities and harsh battlefield, on which they fight.
The ANA's artillery equipment, at this point in time, remains in a rather dilapidated state. The equipment has suffered many of the effects of weather, frequent firing, a lack of preventive maintenance, improper use, and a non-existent maintenance program. The advisor's primary objective is to guide the ANA to improve their maintenance program, and improve upon the ANA's practices, while also gaining buy-in from ANA commanders and NCO instructors. These improvements are being incorporated within the 201st Regional Military Training Center's (RMTC) program.
The 201st RMTC's inventory of tools and benchstock items, much like other ANA units, remains minimal or non-existent. This could be caused by either a lack of effective distribution from centralized depot locations, a lack of existence of parts in the first place, or an inability to manufacture parts and tools as needed. In many cases, the ANA will manage to use other tools to complete tasks, or in the case of both tools and parts, purchase similarly constructed items from the local bazaars. Items supplied through local markets often have issues with not being manufactured to the same standard of quality as the original manufactured part, often not designed to the same tolerances, and exhibit a much shorter lifespan, which can lead to many issues during both the artillery's storage and employment.
The ANA display an extremely strong knowledge of the equipment with which they work, as many of the members of the gun crew, Fire Direction Center (FDC), and technicians have been previously completed an on-the-job-training process. Prior to receiving the training at the RMTC, many of the technicians, have gone through other formalized training programs in the nation's capital of Kabul. Their knowledge of the various functions of the equipment may not stem from formalized training. Often their specific knowledge of some of the more technical aspects of this equipment may be minimal, but their understanding of the function and employment of the weapon, as well as the portentous effects of failing to maintain it, is high.
Two concerns within the ANA have been getting technicians to travel to a centralized training location to become certified to conduct maintenance on the D-30 and for commanders to properly distribute these technicians where needed most. Often, many locations will not have any trained technicians on hand and may have them operating in positions far outside the scope of a technician. One solution proposed by SFAB advisors was to maintain a Mobile Technician Team at the RMTC and send technicians out to the gun's location as needed to diagnose and potentially fix issues. This solution would reduce the need to remove the howitzer from combat operations and of transporting it to a centralized location.
Another ANA issue identified by the SFAB advisors, is a failure to maintain the most basic maintenance documentation. Two main problems have arisen from this: a lack of accountability of work conducted by the technicians, and an unknown status of the parts replacement history. With the former of these two issues, the ANA commander has no means except word of mouth to verify any measure of effectiveness of his technicians and the man-hours worked. The latter of these issues presents the biggest problem; the technicians have no way to determine when the last time parts or fluids were replaced. Lack of documentation prevents projection of life-spans for items that must be changed on a time or firing-based schedule.
When beginning training for ANA technicians, the first concepts covered are the most basic so as to establish a baseline of the students' knowledge on the weapon system. The advisors learned from both after action report comments and concerns expressed during their introduction that the students most value, practical exercises as a way to learn. After an introduction and overview of major components and sub-components, the students practice proper techniques of operating, assembling, and disassembling the breech on the howitzer. The breech is the most critical part needed to load and fire the weapon and it also presents the majority of maintenance issues. Because of this, the students responded very well to the hands-on breech training.
After completing additional practical exercises involving disassembly and reassembly of various components of the howitzer, the students focus on one of the other major safety concerns of the weapon--the cannon tube. This includes learning how to examine the tube using a borescope system in order to identify wear, cracks, or flaws, and employ a dial gauge to measure the wear as part of the process of Pullover Gauging. When this diagnostic equipment is not available the students are relegated to using much more atavistic techniques, but nonetheless are able to diagnose the status of the tube itself.
Once the students are confident in their ability to examine the cannon tube and determine its suitability for use, they are taught about the necessity to maintain a Gun Card, or a comparable system to keep track of the amount of rounds and types of charges used by the crew. This provides them a means of tracking and predicting wear on the tube over time. Unfortunately, this practice relies on the crew's accurate reporting and willingness to document use, which has been a challenge in the past and has been observed in many unit throughout the ANA.
Topics covered by the technicians included the need for a program to analyze the internal systems of the weapon and the fluids used; a system which would be something similar to the Army's Oil Analysis Program (AOAP). A very basic version of this was covered during the course, teaching the technicians how to take samples of the hydraulic fluid used and performing a basic analysis to evaluate if these fluids show indication of damage to the system internally or an improper mix of other chemicals. The students in these cases are very interested in learning about these internal systems and often wish to take detailed notes to review at later times. This is not dissimilar to the student's enthusiasm to practice some basic mathematics, when filling the corresponding recoil system with gas. The technicians were quickly able to learn about the Ideal Gas Law and apply that knowledge to how the platform would interact in areas of high elevation or extreme temperature fluctuations.
One fundamental challenge with the training was the natural language barrier, but in the case of the D-30 training this was greatly amplified as many of the topics covered by technicians use extremely technical terms that are not commonly available in the patois of the linguist or the students. This is further hindered by the fact that many of the manuals available and the descriptions inscribed on parts or tools, is often in Russian. The U.S. Army through the Program Manager--Towed Artillery Systems has various documents available that have been translated or transliterated from Russian into English, but this still poses a problem when trying to find ways to give uncommon items definitions in the students' local dialect. Pre-training and discussions with linguists assisting in the course is extremely necessary for accomplishment of successful training.
The advisor's maintenance course at the 201st RMTC was conducted for a total of two weeks, with a combined total of 10 training days. The Afghan students all recognized the great benefit of extending the program if possible. The program could benefit from an extra week if feasible, requiring the proper equipment, lubricants, and tools are provided for the course. Pushing for additional time and ensuring continuity with rotating units will be critical to the success of maintaining a competent technical force within the aligned FSF. Failure to maintain the inertia of the program at hand will only cause the ANA maintenance program to regress.
Training U.S. advisors to be able to pass on these skillsets and ensure the follow-through of their FSF counterparts requires external training for the advisors. The 2nd SFAB has done great work in ensuring the success of their ANA counterparts, and the 3rd SFAB will continue this important mission. The advisors have been successful in shaping a comprehensive training program for the ANA and have demonstrated that training on weapons systems in this fashion can be extremely useful to their FSF counterpart. The SFAB has shown here how proper guidance, training, and employment of the advising mission can be applied anywhere in Afghanistan and around the globe.
Staff Sgt. Christian Clapp is a small arms and artillery repairman, and serves as the armament advisor for 2nd Security Forces Assistance Brigade. He is working towards a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics. He has complete several armament courses to include an associate degree in science for firearms technology, the Special Operations Forces Peculiar Weapons Course, and training on the 122 mm Howitzer (D-30) at the Artillery School in Niinisalo, Finland.
This article was published in the January-March 2020 issue of Army Sustainment.