Last line of defense: artillery chart operations outdated, but vital

By Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord, 5th Mobile Public Affairs DetachmentMay 26, 2011

A stone age but vital method
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Plot this grid
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Painstaking precision
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Painstaking precision
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YAKIMA TRAINING CENTER, Wash. - In today's Army, the range and direction of artillery rounds are calculated almost solely by computer systems.

But the long-outdated method they replaced isn't going anywhere.

In the event those high-tech computer systems fail, range and direction fall into human hands - into the hands of a chart operator.

In a fire direction control section, it's a chart operator's job to ensure the accuracy of a round's impact when a unit is forced to default back to the "old school" way of doing things.

"It's kind of stone age stuff," says Pfc. Bronson Koeber, a chart operator with 2nd Platoon, Battery A, 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment, and a Keokuk, Iowa, native. "But if a computer system should happen to fail, or a generator fails, it goes back to the old way of doing the chart part."

"I'm the fallback guy," he adds.

Koeber is currently sharpening his skills at Yakima Training Center in Central Washington State. He, his battalion and all other assets of their parent brigade, 3rd Stryker Brigade Comat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, will be engaged until June 7 in three weeks of full-spectrum operations, a new approach to training that encompasses all forms of warfare and borrows from experience gained by the Army in both times of peace and deployments over the past several decades.

Koeber's section, which communicates to cannon crews the exact aim the crews must take to eliminate a target based off information given to it by an on-ground observer, is packed into a small shelter on the plains of Yakima that’s attached to the back of a specifically-designed Humvee.

The section receives a series of coordinates that indicate the location of a sighted enemy.

Like a flash and meaning serious business, Koeber takes up a long, steel L-shaped ruler and huddles down with it over a table. Atop the table sits a large and laminated piece of white paper with grid lines " like a map with no countries.

Immediately Koeber begins plotting the coordinates on the paper, shifting between adjacent sides of the table and turning the ruler in one direction and the next.

He's plotting with pinpoint accuracy, literally.

"You have to be within 30 meters," he warns.

"And just the shaft of the pin used to plot takes up 30 meters," he adds, with the end of the small pin squeezed between his finger and thumb. "So, you have to be very precise."

Within less than a minute, Koeber can tell his section where the gun, an M777 Lightweight

Howitzer Cannon System, should fire.

Even considering Koeber's speed, the computer system, called the Army Field Artillery Tactical Data System, is faster.

Koeber's section chief, Staff Sgt. John Vlieger, said once the information from a forward observer is entered, AFATDS can calculate feedback within seconds.

It's for this reason that Koeber will do his job as a chart operator, almost always, during training exercises only, though the chart is always on hand.

Although the method hasn't been used primarily in more than a decade, a chart operator's knowledge and skill still maintain their value in an FDC section.

"In the age of all this digital stuff, that digital stuff can go down," said Capt. Rick Helton, the commander of Battery A, 1-37th FA, and a West Palm Beach, Fla. native. "It provides that time-tested, surefire way of getting rounds downrange."

"With the chart, there is no power to lose; there are no things that break," said Vlieger, a Yakima, Wash., native.

Koeber doesn't think chart operation should be underestimated.

"The chart can be just as accurate as the computers," he said.

Helton said skills like Koeber's, and the other sets of skills required in an FDC section, have begun to fleet as a result of ten years' engagement in unconventional overseas conflicts, but added that a full spectrum of operations is allowing field artillerymen to put the primary focus back on their fundamentals while still including non-standard infantry-like tactics in the mix.

"It's a real perishable skill," he said. "What's wholly perishable is the FDC part."

Helton sees a day when the worth of those skills will once again shine through.

"Sooner or later there will be a force-on-force fight again, and we'll be needed," he said.

"They don't call us the king of battle for nothing," he added.