Baltic Fire Support

Posted By: James H. Shoop Professional Content,

Baltic Fire Support

CPT James Shoop

         Multi-national Force Integration (MFI) is, “the ability of the forces of two or more nations to train, exercise, and operate effectively together in the execution of assigned missions and tasks…and the ability to act together coherently, effectively, and efficiently to achieve Allied tactical, operational, and strategic objectives” (AR 34-1). To execute MFI, there must be more than one nation involved in the planning, coordination, or execution of an event or exercise, and the collective must be able to successfully achieve an objective. This definition highlights essentially two needs: the necessity for procedural and personal training to ensure measurable effects at the tactical and operational level, and the need for technical systems and applications to improve joint and multi-national accessibility in a mission partner environment (MPE). Simply put, these needs emphasize the key traits of interoperability at the Company, Battalion, and Brigade level, and its necessary application in our current situation to create synergistic effects on the battlefield. One of the most critical functions where interoperability is paramount is Fire Support and the application of the Joint and Multi-national (MN) Fires Enterprise against an enemy that outranges our present systems three to one. Coherently fusing together multiple international fires sensors and shooters through multiple exercises has been a life lesson in and of itself, and over the last seven months, the Fire Support Element (FSE) had plenty of practice. The 1st Battalion 9th Cavalry Regiment (1-9 CAV) FSE participated in multiple Baltic fire support exercises through the application of personal, procedural, and technical interoperability to achieve MFI. The goal was to create a shared understanding of Fires integration at the Company, Battalion, and Brigade level while deployed in Pabrade, Lithuania with our Allies.

            To understand what interoperability looks like required a clear definition. 1ID HQ created a vision that tiers MFI and creates a recognizable definition that describes an exercise and a countries ability to integrate. Reference Figure 1 for a break down by tier of interoperable capabilities.

            Interoperability is not just automatically connecting to other nations Armies, but identifying the shortcomings, and being able to adapt the training to integrate partners accordingly. While in Lithuania, 1-9 CAV FIST participated in two Brigade live fire exercises (LFXs), multiple Company combined arms live fire exercises (CALFEXs), and multiple multi-national Joint Fires exercises that included live, procedural, and table-top training. These LFXs and FTXs ranged from a one-tier to a three-tier event, truly based on who planned and executed it. The three-tiered exercises had more resources and support while tier one and two exercises required considerably more coordination to create interoperability. These events gave the FSE a unique, long term opportunity to incorporate multi-national training with our Lithuanian host nation, and an amalgamation of other NATO Allies from the enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group (eFPBG) Lithuania. Our partners brought an abundance of Fire Support sensors and delivery systems that the FSE had the ability to integrate with. These training exercises delivered successful results of fire support in the Baltics over the last year because of the readily available partners, and the problems and processes every Ally had to work through to achieve MFI. 

Our culminating event as a BN FSE were the 1-9 Company CALFEXs as a tier two exercise at the Pabrade Training Area. This event created multiple friction points in coordinating Croatian 82mm Mortars and dismounted Forward Observers, Lithuanian Observers and JTACs, a Norwegian mounted JFST, a Dutch PzH2000 platoon, and organic US 120mm Mortars. Different technical architectures, different procedures, and different personalities were all mixed into the weeklong event. Having to brief different teams and different countries, creating a product and architecture that most everyone could understand and integrate into became vital to quickly disseminating information and executing fires that still maintained flexibility as companies maneuvered, reference Figure 2. The best products that all assets could understand were a modified fire support execution matrix and target list worksheet that broke down target blocks by asset as well as by observer, task, and effects. These two sheets, along with daily fires rehearsals, enabled all assets to maintain synchronization throughout the operation as companies maneuvered and changed phases. One key personal aspect was explaining to our partners what each worksheet was, how to read them, and how to use the information provided in each to execute with minimal oversight to maintain flexibility. These documents were then able to be updated daily throughout the week to maintain the changes to different Company Fire Support plans and changes to the overall BN Fires plan. To establish a common communications architecture, the easiest solution to enable MN Fire Support was the use of NATO encryption keys. NATO encrypted radio frequencies enabled the FSE to create a MN Fires net and cut down on how many nets the FSE would have to monitor in the exercise. The FSE was able to tie in the Norwegian and Lithuanian observer teams with NATO encrypted radios but had to use Tactical Voice Bridges (TVB) to tie in the Dutch PzH2000 platoon. The Dutch were limited on frequencies they could monitor as a platoon sized element that could still maintain internal radio encryption. Using the TVB, the FSE was able to tether the Dutch platoon into the main NATO encrypted Fires net. Having all assets on the same net cluttered the net quickly. To mitigate confusion, the FSE kept all Mortar assets on a separate net to ensure the correct fire missions were going to the correct assets without confusing each other. By separating the sensors and shooters, the FSE lost time in the kill chain, but was value added because the FSE could better validate fire missions, control who the priority for fires was, and send on call targets to assets that were not in use by the main effort. The Croatians had a radio system that was not built for a TVB and could not accept NATO encryption. For that barrier, there really were few solutions other than handing over a radio, and in our instance, we were given a friendly radio with which to relay from the observer to Croatian and US mortars. Croatian handheld radios could not range the 82mm mortars approximately four kilometers away. To fix this, the US 120mm Mortars co-located with the Croatian platoon to tether them into the NATO net, and the handheld radio was used to receive missions from the dismounted observation post. This became a procedural advantage for the Croatian mortar platoon as they received instruction on firing mortars at night from the US platoon. The Croatian Observer team also gained a lot of procedural knowledge because they had not previously observed under illumination. Throughout the entire week, all seven FISTs sent over 50 fire missions during two specific night LFXs and 150 fire missions during day iterations, massing fires with all three assets through the FSE during multiple missions, making it a successful MFI event for Fires. 

            After over 15 LFXs and FTXs with different partners from Lithuania and the eFPBG, it was a lot easier to identify barriers that spanned multiple events. Operators at the lowest level lack the skills to connect to each other. Artillery Systems Cooperation Activities ASCA is a built-in program that enables US Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data Systems (AFATDS) to connect with the German Automated Field Artillery/Fire Support C3 System (ADLER). ASCA bridges the US AFATDS digitally with ADLER to process and send individual fire missions. The program was built to facilitate MN Fires. It reduces multiple friction points with language barriers and encrypted radio communications. The program builds a common reference point that collects a multitude of inputs and fire mission standards that countries use (IE LAT/LONG vs GRID) and provides a single output to the asset servicing the fire mission. The FSE received an ASCA course prior to the rotation, which in hindsight, would have been ideal in a perfect vacuum where entire Batteries or Battalions co-locate with their ASCA capabilities. Unfortunately, where units divide their batteries and battalions to support multiple NATO operations simultaneously in different nations, using ASCA seems to be the extreme exception and not the standard for Baltic Fire Support. Unlike AFATDS, most ADLER systems do not have the program built into the system and most of our partners hold an ASCA enabled ADLER at a Battalion level or higher echelon.  This restriction severely limited our ability to digitally process Fires in support of multiple exercises.

Classes and instruction on Tactical Voice Bridges and other communications assets that provide interoperability to the US are vital to Battalions and Brigades who are supporting different nations in different parts of the world. SITUWARE systems had been around for quite some time but the FSE had little training on its uses until the FSE was waist deep in a BDE Fires LFX. To avoid creating a barrier in communications, a key to any specific exercise is to identify the trade-offs in digital and voice operability and more specifically the efficiency you gain or lose. The FSE found through maintaining internal digital systems and transitioning to voice or a different digital system was not nearly as efficient as trying to keep a single flow whether it was voice or digital. During our CALFEXs, disseminating fire missions’ voice saved us time when working with our Allies because they understood the NATO standard FFE. Jumping from digital to voice or vice versa created non-value-added steps to the process and cost significant amounts of time in multiple LFXs the FSE participated in. After seeing other nations CFF procedures, the US three transmission standard is not the fastest way to get rounds down range even if it might have the most information. After working with a Norwegian JFST through multiple LFXs and FTXs, their two transmission CFF was simulated at almost 30% faster than the Battalion average times during a CFF academy where 50 Officers and NCOs conducted over 100 adjust fire missions.

There are a few ways to improve technical interoperability. A simple fix to communications architectures is to create a more robust TVB that includes cables for more nations, rather than the ones who generally pull NATO encryption keys for multinational exercises anyway, reference Figure 3 for visual application. Along with these cables, issue eight TVBs per Battalion. Each maneuver company would receive one, and Headquarters would take three. This would enable all companies to be interoperable and interchangeable like the eFPBG and operate as companies within a larger multinational structure. It would also enable the Headquarters to tie into other MN elements that are not able to pull NATO encrypted frequencies within the operations cell, fires cell, and logistics cell. Ideally, a tactical data bridge could connect the ones and zeros like the TVB does for voice communications. One of the largest issues is that both nations need ASCA and it only works between two computers. If it worked like a TVB, only one asset would need it to connect and it could potentially tether in other Fires Computer Systems. The end goal needs to be a universal digital system that can talk to any other Fires Computer by ‘changing the plug’. Integrating or having SITUWARE computers is also a way to incorporate MN partners. The LTU Iron Wolf Brigade created a digital system to send fire missions and control the exercise procedurally over a chat room. US forces have the capabilities to do that with Internet Relay Chat systems (mIRC) and other applications such as Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK) that NATO forces could use to incorporate and synchronize Fires across a battlefield if there was a NATO classified version. This would enable any unit to be trained on the application, and then incorporate it into their communications architecture, essentially harmonizing FISTs and assets from any NATO country using the digital system. 

Tethering NATO Forces together into a single Fires Net and creating a system that enables a Mission Partner Environment (MPE) is critical to future operations. Mission partner environments create an operational framework that allows all partners to combine their efforts in a single battle space. Synchronizing real-time Fires operations across NATO partners would enable US Forces to synchronize German PzH2000s, while coordinating with Belgian F-16s, and call for Lithuanian Naval Guns in support of a Norwegian Company across a single area of operations. Cutting down on the radio and digital nets is key, and to do that we have to be able to pull NATO partners into our communications systems. At a tactical and small unit level, the ability to pull Nations together does not exist without trading out systems. The use of TVBs and NATO encryption help mitigate a lot of friction, but without key equipment exchanges and established encrypted off-the-shelf solutions, it is not possible to monitor every radio net in an environment saturated with Companies and Battalions from 8-10 countries. 

The biggest barrier was the absence of a clear vision on what tactical and operational interoperability looked like in most exercises. After a lot of individual hard lessons with TVBs, NATO encryption keys, non-compatible radios, procedural mismatches, and missed planning opportunities, 1-9 FSE was able to establish a semblance of what the term interoperability truly meant. Every situation came with its own issues, and each time there were ways to push through. By establishing ahead of time what the clear intent is for integrated MN fire support incorporating US and NATO allies in the Baltics, any FSE could work to achieve that MFI objective. The question remains, why was interoperability a secret? 1-9 CAV FSE has had a great many opportunities in Pabrade Lithuania to execute multi-national force integration and practice procedural, personal, and technical interoperability in the Baltics. By using tactical voice bridges, establishing relationships, and creating procedures and communications architectures that enabled multiple FISTs to observe while harmonizing all Fires on target, the FSE was able to incorporate all manner of Allies and assets in training while rotating through the Baltic States.