Transforming the FIST for the 21st century

Transforming the FIST for the 21st century – fire support team vehicle

David S. Flynn

After Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, much has been written pertaining to fire support in the contemporary operational environment (COE). Major General Franklin L. Hagenbeck (the interview “Afghanistan: Fire Support for Operation Anaconda”) and Lieutenant Colonel Christopher F. Bentley (in his article “Afghanistan: Joint and Coalition Fire Support in Operation Anaconda”) articulated in the September-October 2002 edition the need for forward observers (FOs) to transform into Universal Observers. Lieutenant Colonel Vance Nannini outlined this need in the article “Universal Observers: Punching Our FIST into the 21st Century,” May-June 1997. Major General Michael D. Maples, Chief of Field Artillery, indicated in his “2002 State of the Field Artillery” article in the November-December 2002 edition that the Field Artillery will pursue the Universal Observer concept.

The time to act is now as we move toward the Objective Force in 2008.

This article focuses on specific needs of the dismounted FO. The FA community must demand that we adjust modified tables of organization and equipment (MTOEs) across each of the light divisions to ensure our FOs have the latest technology that can be acquired off-the-shelf today. To move the FO toward becoming the Universal Observer, he needs better radios, night-vision goggles (NVGs), an infrared (IR) laser pointer and a radar transponder beacon.

We as Field Artillerymen take our communications seriously. Take a look at the communications suite we provide an Ml 19 howitzer section; it includes a mounted single-channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS), gun display unit (GDU),PRC- 126/1 27 or variant and a GRA-39 for wire communications. That’s four communications platforms that can process both voice and digital messages.

Radios. The cornerstone of an FO’s ensemble is the radio. Essentially, it is more important than his individual weapon.

We need to place similar emphasis on communications for our dismounted FOs in terms of expanded capability and redundancy. A mechanized fire support officer (FSO) fights from a fire support team vehicle (FIST-V) or Bradley FIST vehicle (BFIST-V) equipped with four radios for maximum flexibility. Traditionally, a dismounted FSOIFO carries only one FM radio due to weight and carrying-capacity restrictions.

However, technology has evolved and produced radios light enough for one man to carry multiple communications platforms. A dismounted FSO now can approach the communications capabilities of a mechanized FSO. FISTs need expanded communications to enhance their situational awareness and interface with Army and joint sea and air fires assets.

Two radios that Lieutenant Colonel Bentley said the FISTs must have are the multi-band inter/intra team radio (MBITR) and the PRC-117F.

This radio weighs 2.2 pounds, including the battery and antenna, and can communicate ground-to-ground or ground-to-air via FM, UHF or VHF frequencies and is satellite communications- (SATCOM)-capable. For the FIST, its primary function would be for intra-team communications and enhanced situational awareness throughout the company fire support system. It also could serve as back-up communications with a firing asset, whether or not the asset is an indirect fire system or an aerial fire support platform.

The MBITR has been fielded to Special Operations Forces (S OF) as well as to selected conventional infantry units. The problem is that the MBITR has not been uniformly fielded to FISTs.

The MBITR is programmed to be a component of the Land Warrior ensemble for infantry soldiers beginning in FY05 and beyond. The FO assigned to a unit equipped with Land Warrior also will receive an MBITR. Full fielding of Land Warrior for the entire Army will not be complete until 2012.

Each FIST would require five MBITRs–one per FO, fire support NCO (FSNCO) and FSO. The MBITR would serve as one of two radios carried by each fire supporter.

We cannot wait that long to field a radio that is available today and has been battle-tested during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. We must act now.

The primary radio for each fire supporter should be the PRC-117Falso currently fielded in SOF. The PRC-l 17F is UHF-, VHF-, FM- and SATCOM-capable. The expanded capabilities of this radio are beyond the scope of this article, but the point is it would enable the FO to talk to aircraft or fire direction centers (FDCs) at great distances across multiple frequency bands.

Given the joint environment in which we are fighting and will continue to fight, a single-band FM radio, such as the current SINCGARS with advanced system improvement program (ASIP), limits our abilities to execute fires on the battlefield. The PRC-l 17F would be the FO’s primary radio to direct fires and provide terminal control.

With two radios, each fire supporter would be able to coordinate and call-for-fire simultaneously, thus streamlining the sensor-to-shooter link. Today’s FIST cannot do that effectively with current radio densities.

With two radios, a company FSO would be able to employ the pre-designated or decentralized method of control without losing situational awareness. An FO could communicate with his FSNCO via an MBITR and talk to a mortar or artillery FDC via the PRC-117F.

Too often today’s platoon FOs must relay calls-for-fire when they should be able to speak directly to the asset. The figure depicts coordination conducted via the MBITR while the FO executes calls-for-fire with the PRC-117F.

NVGs, IR Laser Pointer and Beacon. In addition to acquiring radios, the FO needs much of the equipment common to infantry soldiers, such as a pair of PVS-14 night vision goggles (NVG) and the PEQ-2A or B model JR laser pointer. Some units are beginning to field this equipment but not as a standard.

Every FO who walks beside an infantryman should have the ability to employ an IR pointer to direct an aerial platform onto a target or his commander to a target for approval to engage under night conditions. It seems these items have not drawn significant attention in the FA community because they have been viewed as infantry-specific but, nonetheless, are critical to an observer’s success at night.

If we expect our observers to be terminal air controllers, and we should, they’ll also need a beacon, such as the SMP100 microponder. This small hand-held device enables aircraft with I-band radar systems, such as the AC-130 orF-15E, to track friendly units precisely under all weather conditions. This device helps the controller provide an aircraft the precise location of the target under adverse weather conditions as well as self-location to prevent fratricide.

The challenge to acquiring this equipment for our observers is getting the funding. It’s time we start looking a tour FO teams as systems rather than simply as personnel. It seems much money is devoted to acquiring new systems to make the Army more effective, and the FO team should fall into this realm.

Whether or not one agrees with the need for the specific equipment mentioned in this article is not important. What is essential is that we transform our observers into the unique entities their potential for Army effectiveness warrants–take action to ensure they remain relevant–as we proceed toward the Objective Force. We can start this process through a robust force modernization program that equips our FISTs with the latest technology reasonably available.

Finally we must upgrade our tactics to leverage current and emerging technology. We owe it to our FOs and the infantry they support to transform our FOs into Universal Observers.

Major David S. Flynn, until recently, was a Fire Support Instructor for the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course at the FA School, Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Currently, he is a student at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In his previous assignment, he was a Battalion FireSupport Officer (FSO) for the 3d Ranger Battalion, Fort Benning, Georgia. In the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he was the Commander of B Battery, 2d Battalion, and Executive Officer of A Battery, 3d Battalion, both with the 31 9th Field Artillery Regiment; Assistant S3 of the 82d Division Artillery; and Rifle Company FSO for A Company, 2d Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. In addition, he was a Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS) Platoon Leader in A Battery, 6th Battalion, 37th Field Artillery, part of the 2d Infantry Division in Korea.

COPYRIGHT 2003 U.S. Field Artillery Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group