Challenges in Fire Support Exercises with NATO Partners

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Challenges in Fire Support Exercises with NATO Partners

By: CPT Xavier Guirao

The way Fire support is executed in the United States is synonymous with adjacent branches on a common understanding of how to call for fire, the capabilities of surface to surface and air to surface munitions, technical and tactical aspects of fire support, and the voice and digital communications architecture.  On the other hand, there were several occasions of friction and dysfunction when conducting joint exercises with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, partners. Limiting these issues with the assistance of implementing a deliberate preparation phase to every joint exercise will facilitate a more fluid execution from all parties and the operation as a whole.  Sometimes the impression of planning with multinational partners are disconnected due to either The U.S. Military having the assumption that all NATO partners are competent on all dimensions of fire support or sometimes neglecting to include all key players in the exercise. The comparisons are drawn from the experience 4-9 FIST had with Polish and Dutch fire supporters from the Regionally Aligned Forces rotation in support Operation Atlantic Resolve.  Some of the events that will be highlighted in this article are; Joint Live Fire exercises, International Best Fire Support Team (FIST) Competition, and Operation Combined Resolve XIII.

 The first experience was in Torun, Poland back in November with Charlie Battery, 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery’s Table XII for Platoon Certification. Observers for the live fire were 4-9 FIST and the Polish Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC), or “Polish Commandos.”  This was a challenging, yet unique experience as we had no prior experience or rapport built between the two sides.  The training event would not have been successful without the experience from our Non-Commissioned Officers, specifically SSG Andrew Malott, SGT Justin Necessary, and the Polish JTAC NCOIC.  The Polish JTAC NCOIC was the only one who had previous experience working with U.S. observers so he was able to minimize the language barrier and learning curve for operating on our equipment.  Implementing a concept to aid in the preparation phase is the table top exercise.  Nearly every operation at multiple echelons exercise this rehearsal method.  A table top exercise is a perfect example to incorporate participants in an operation and also addresses issues prior to execution.  During the table top exercise, all key personnel will be able to build relationships and become educated on what capabilities each entity can provide. An additional rehearsal method that could have been used to the cover the technical aspects of the exercise is Digital Sustainment Training (DST), which would also bridge the gap in communications between NATO partners.

4-9 FIST and Polish JTACs observe live fire from C/3-16 FA in Torun, Poland. 22 NOV 2020.

4-9 FIST and Polish JTACs observe live fire from C/3-16 FA in Torun, Poland. 22 NOV 2020.

Following the live fire was the FIST Competition, also held in Torun, Poland.  4-9 FIST was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in the competition and the most capable team was Delta Company, “Mad Dog”, FIST. The team consisted of 1LT Jayla Malone, SSG Anthony Bouma, SPC Isiah Ramirez, and PFC Samuel Kowach, where they successfully placed eighth out of 21 international teams.  The majority of the competition went well, however, there could have been a more deliberate preparation phase that would have brought out the best performance from each team.  Drawing from a concept of a deliberate preparation the Army applies to almost every event or operation is the 8-Step Training Model from the FM 7-0.  Implementing it towards the Best FIST Competition would be beneficial for all teams, more specifically steps two, train the trainers and five, rehearse.  For example, a potential timeline prior to execution could be; a meet and greet of teams, interpreters, and graders on the first day followed by an inspection of equipment ensuring its suited for the competition, then a practice run of each event.  The practice can fulfill the certification of graders and the rehearsal of each event to prepare both teams and judges.  The team had the opportunity to rehearse, however there were no graders present to assess for accuracy of how they executed each event.  Overall, Mad Dog FIST still performed well with a limited training plan, but having the ability to rehearse the competition would have raised the competition intensity to a next level.

“Mad Dog,” FIST with participants from the Best FIST Competition in Torun, Poland. 24 NOV 2019

The final event that 4-9 FIST can draw experience with interoperability was from Operation Combined Resolve (CbR) XIII from January to February 2020 in Hohenfels, Germany.  A Dutch Reconnaissance Company was task organized to 4-9 CAV for this operation.  This was the first time both sides operated together and only a few have had minimal interaction with each counterpart prior to CbR.  The RSOI portion of CbR had all the intentions of integrating the U.S. Military and its multinational partners.  However, the RSOI piece, as well as the execution phase, felt somewhat underachieved.  Although there were face-to-face conversations and displays of capabilities, it was not as deliberate as we felt it should’ve been.  Fire Support planning involves all players in the fires enterprise of the Squadron in order to be effective on the battlefield.  Planning with the Dutch was marginal due to the fact that there wasn’t an event during RSOI covering tactics, techniques, and procedures of both U.S. and Dutch.  Another event that would also be beneficial for the operation was a full day dedicated to DST, to including our multinational partners.  The Brigade Fire Support Element (FSE) conducted DST pure with U.S. sensors and shooters and a small portion included establishing voice communications with the Dutch.  We were unable to conduct a deliberate DST with the Dutch as time was a factor in a condensed schedule.  Some of the DST validations were driven by the Observer, Coach, Trainer (O/C/T) that did not involve our Dutch partners.  Prior to the completion of the exercise, we expressed our concern for incorporating all players in multiple DST sessions.  At most times, the majority of the fire missions were requested from the Dutch and response times from sensor to shooter were longer than usual due to the absence of deliberate preparation.  This sort of lackluster effort to include the Dutch fire supporters in covering fire support planning, execution, and DST eventually lead to a few struggles during planning and execution.  This struggle was noticed as a large failure on our part that affected the overall operation.  Throughout the planning phase in cantonment, there was only a brief segment where both U.S. and Dutch fire supporters communicated to each other on how each side operated.  Another instance is during majority of the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP), Dutch participation was little to none.  Integrating the Dutch in planning and understanding their tactics would’ve benefited the Brigade as a whole as the Dutch Troop played a crucial role in the reconnaissance fight for the Brigade, an instance where we identified as another letdown.  Throughout the battle period, the absence of a full integration stage showed as although the Dutch were executing fire missions, assessing effects were one of a few aspects that weren’t rehearsed during RSOI.  As the battle period progressed, our integration of the Dutch improved as they were plugged in to our Tactical Operations Center (TOC) streamlining the process of utilizing our NATO partners in the planning and execution of fire support.  The U.S. Military executes Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) immediately after effects are delivered.  However, the Dutch employ a different tactic, where BDA is executed when danger from the enemy is unlikely to preserve the friendly reconnaissance force.  In a restricted timeline, incorporation of our Dutch partners should have been a top priority during the preparation phase.

4-9 CAV conducts their Information Collection and Fires Rehearsal at Camp Albertshof, Hohenfels Training Area, Germany. 23 JAN 2020.

During our deployment in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, we have had several opportunities for interoperability training that were all a success.  However, our biggest failure was to integrate both ourselves and our NATO partners in the planning phases as our failures showed how crucial having all key players involved were to the success of the overall operation. The main letdowns on our part was neglecting our partners and overlooking the minute, yet essential tasks in fire support.  By utilizing our partners’ experience and insight from a different perspective, will become the foundation to a solid execution and put fires interoperability on full display.  The experiences between 4-9 FIST, Polish, and Dutch partners were only scratching the surface to what can become an effective joint fires enterprise.