What To Do With All Those Unemployed Gunners
August 16, 2006: Many, if not most, American artillery troops in Iraq, are not there to operate their howitzers or MLRS rocket launchers. There is not enough need for artillery support to keep the four artillery battalions (containing 54 155mm howitzers and 18 MLRS rocket launchers) each division has, busy. Smart bombs and other guided munitions have largely replaced the use of unguided shells and rockets.
As a result, each brigade has several hundred unemployed artillery troops. Most are put to work taking care of security jobs. Artillery troops are already trained to use their infantry weapons for defending their big guns from ground attack in a combat zone. The artillery troops practice that sort of thing all the time. Those defensive drills include knowing how to set up a defensive perimeter. So the artillery troops are not strangers to security work.
In Iraq, the security work can range from defending bases, to manning observation points and check points. The latter two jobs can be pretty dangerous, although some of the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) are small, in hostile territory, and subject to constant attack. In a pinch, some artillerymen have been put to work as infantry, helping out with patrols.
Maybe a third of the guns and rocket launchers are actually put to work. Most of the 155mm howitzers are self-propelled (the M-109, which looks like a tank), as are all the MLRS launchers. The MLRS has been particularly popular for the last six months, since the new GPS guided rocket became available. This fall, a GPS guided 155mm shell (the Excalibur) will enter service, giving the M-109s more to do. In most operations, unguided 155mm shells are too inaccurate to use because the fighting is in urban areas. The Excalibur is a different story. The MLRS launchers have used so many GPS guided rockets that these new items are in very short supply, and are rationed.
On the down side, the GPS guided shells and rockets mean that much fewer shells and rockets are needed. It's pretty much, "one target, one shell." With these "smart shells," the number of rounds needed will decline by over 90 percent. That will result in fewer M-109 howitzers and MLRS launchers needed. So for the duration of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the artillery troops won't be working much with artillery.
The U.S. Army has taken note of all this, and has disbanded dozens of reserve artillery battalions, and transferred the troops to other jobs.