DRAWSKO POMORSKIE, Poland — Soldiers can hear the rumble of the M1A2 Abrams tanks cresting the hill of Bucierz Range, Drawsko Pomorskie, Poland. These tanks are loud, heavy machines that make their presence known when operated in combat.
Brandishing these impressive vehicles onto the battlefield are tank crews consisting of four Soldiers: a commander, a driver, a gunner and a loader. It takes training and experience to become proficient on the battlefield; it also requires guidance and determination to mold these Soldiers into experienced tanker crews.
The master gunner is the noncommissioned officer who holds the key to success for these tanker crews. They are the technical and tactical experts for their specific weapons and responsible for advising the commander on everything related to that particular vehicle. They also lead in developing training materials and conducting gunnery and live-fire exercises.
“The 'Mike Golf' is one of the most important NCOs in the battalion,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kenneth Selby, commander of 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. “That person is your subject matter expert. They are the ones who put everything together based on the commander’s intent.” "Mike Golf" is a nickname commonly used to refer to master gunners — transcribing the initials of master gunner to the NATO phonetic alphabet.
Crews develop their skills with the experience of the master gunner, both on and off the range. “The master gunner plans and executes gunnery training, advises the commander on gunnery training courses of action and passes on knowledge to improve the lethality and capability of the unit as a whole,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Alexander Axford, master gunner, assigned to 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment.
The crews qualify at gunnery through training tables that progress from gunnery tables I to VI and end with a live-fire exercise to fully qualify. These tables begin with learning primary weapons systems, training on the Abrams tank or Bradley Fighting Vehicle and performing simulations to ultimately qualify with live rounds while engaging moving and stationary targets on the range.
“I have the master gunners on speed dial; I talk to them all the time,” Selby said. “They are my technical experts. They are the maintenance experts on the guns and the machine guns, and for all the gunnery ranges that we do here.”
To earn the title of master gunner, a Soldier must be a noncommissioned officer and be specially selected by the commander to attend the master gunner course. The course is held at Fort Benning, Georgia. The master gunners assigned to 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, are trained for the M1/M1A2 Tank and the M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle.
“The master gunner is a subject matter expert on training, land and ammo management,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Albanese, of 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, “These are highly intelligent individuals sent to the Master Gunner Course,” he said. “This course teaches machine guns, surface danger zones and training management.”
During the Master Gunner Course, they also learn how to plan and execute range operations. They train to be experts on qualifying individual crews through brigade-size elements during live-fire exercises.
Once the Soldier is a qualified master gunner, they become that dedicated specialist a company commander relies upon.
“The master gunner is a subject matter expert who executes the commander’s intent during gunnery training and ensures that all standards are being met,” Axford explained.
Master gunners stay engaged throughout the gunnery. Observing from the tower or the vehicle, they have many responsibilities to keep their eyes on. Their guidance extends from the movement of the vehicles, ammunition distribution and the weapons fire to make sure to run an after-action review for the benefit of the crews. The Soldiers are the ones who benefit from a committed master gunner who provides support, motivation and mentorship to shape them into experienced crews.
U.S. Army master gunners brought that same expertise and professionalism to train Polish soldiers in the role of the master gunner at Bruchierz Range, Drawsko Pomorskie, Poland, April 26-28.
In the 45 days leading up to the training event, master gunners assigned to 1st Infantry Division helped create and develop the training for what became known as the Abrams Operation Summit. The Abrams Operation Summit was a three-day training program designed to introduce the Polish army to U.S. Army systems and procedures that support successful Abrams operations at the company levels. The training consisted of leader panel discussions and roundtables, subject matter expert presentations, hands-on practical exercises and field demonstrations.
“The Dreadnaughts set the stage for the Polish Army to get familiarized with the M1 Abrams, how it fights, how we maintain the tank, how we sustain it. We have also given them some familiarization training on warfighting, fighting function synchronization and fighting in a combined arms construct,” Selby said. “So we gave them a three-day crash course on how to do this right.”
The Abrams Operation Summit aims to support the Polish Tank Program by familiarizing key leaders with the systems and processes that produce lethal armored fighting formations.
“This training is important because it increases interoperability between the U.S. and NATO allies,” Axford concluded, “It improves the understanding of different capabilities and limitations, which is critically important now that Poland is preparing to field their first Abrams tanks.”