Capt. Chris Smith spent much of last week in a tent at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, practicing artillery drills to test his team’s ability to pick targets and destroy them with howitzers and mobile rocket launchers.
His command center had the look and feel of an artillery headquarters in Afghanistan: radars tracking friendly and enemy units, systems calculating probable trajectories of artillery rounds, and rows of soldiers analyzing threats.
One big thing was missing: real artillery cannons.
An Army budget deficit of about $18 billion is forcing units including Lewis-McChord’s 17th Fires Brigade to scale down or cancel elaborate live exercises this year. It’s replacing them in part with combined live and virtual exercises to help the Army get the most from every practice round it fires.
For members of the local fires brigade, this was Plan B. Instead of driving to Central Washington with 1,600 soldiers and all of their gear, the unit saved more than $400,000 in travel and support costs by bringing the Army’s Yakima training to Lewis-McChord for simulated exercises.
The only soldiers firing cannons were the ones who had to do so to stay current with Army standards.
It got the job done, but many of the artillerymen did not get to hear the usual boom that they jokingly call the “sound of freedom.”
“At a minimum cost, we’re getting maximum training,” said Smith, the brigade’s fire support coordinator.
He later laughed and admitted, “It’s not as cool as being there.”
This scenario likely will be repeated throughout Lewis-McChord this year. The base is filling with soldiers coming home from Afghanistan. Physical training space is limited. So is money to shoot live rounds and practice in the field.
The Army still wants to get small units, from eight-soldier squads to 40-soldier platoons, out on live drills. But exercises for larger units, from 160-soldier companies to 4,000-soldier brigades, could be on hold for a while because of forced federal budget cuts.
Lewis-McChord’s artillery brigade had planned to involve all its soldiers in this month’s exercise. The scaled-down model instead sent the brigade’s HIMARS rocket batteries to Yakima and its howitzer batteries to a shooting range at Lewis-McChord. Another of its units participated with simulated weapons from a classroom near its headquarters.
The brigade’s command and control elements — the soldiers who pick targets and assign them to artillery batteries – participated from a tent compound inside Lewis-McChord. They plugged into the live and virtual batteries on both sides of the Cascades.
Without the simulators, the Army would have cancelled the exercise for the command elements it could not afford to send to Yakima.
The budget cuts had some repercussions for Lewis-McChord’s neighbors. Those howitzer batteries that were supposed to get their rounds in at the Yakima Training Center, instead shot them in the South Sound.
Their booms triggered some complaints from civilian communities earlier this month, base officials acknowledged this week.
The pressure to reduce spending gives officers a new incentive to build on virtual programs the Army has used at Lewis-McChord for several years.
In 2009, Stryker brigades preparing for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan used virtual programs to practice shooting, driving and working through complex engagements that wove together soldiers fighting in the air and on the ground.
Back then, the goal was to enhance training, not save money.
One simulator, for instance, put soldiers in mock vehicles where computer screens flashed challenges before them, such as wildly driven civilian pickup trucks and roadside explosions.
“Even if we had unlimited money, this still enhances training,” said Maj. Gabriel Suarez, the 17th Fires Brigade’s simulation officer, while at last week’s exercise.
Some exercises would be too risky to practice in real life, such as coordinating ground artillery fire with attack helicopters flying nearby, or asking a helicopter pilot to practice working through an engine failure.
No one would ask a pilot to get in the air and turn off an engine just for practice, said Major. D.J. Durall, the chief of exercises for the Lewis-McChord’s 7th Infantry Division.
“If the risk is too high, you would never do it,” he said.
Durall and Suarez said the simulators let the Army give soldiers increasingly complex challenges closer to what they’d see in combat.
Last week’s exercise, for instance, simulated a war based on the premise of a foreign army invading Washington state. The artillery brigade participated in repelling the invading force, and the simulator layered in movements for other units who normally would be in the field, such as Stryker brigades and helicopter crews.
Those units are not actually participating in the artillery brigade’s exercise, but their simulated presence resembles what artillerymen face in combat when they defend forward bases and support infantry attacks on enemy positions.
It also gives soldiers more repetition in executing combat-like movements. The brigade gets about 100 HIMARS practice rounds to fire every year. The virtual programs give soldiers thousands of opportunities to go through every part of shooting that rocket, such as picking targets and calculating a round’s trajectory.
“It all comes down to ruthless repetition. It breeds proficiency,” said Stryker Brigade Col. Michael Getchell in a video that showed some of the virtual programs his 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division used before it deployed to Afghanistan in November.
The troops in the virtual command center last week worked two shifts around the clock. Most of the firing tended to be done by 10 p.m. They were glad to practice working with their artillery equipment, but they noted that virtual exercise did not provide the focus they would have had if they had traveled to Yakima.
“We’re getting the training we need,” said the brigade’s chief noncommissioned operations officer, Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Murphy.
“But I have two jobs here,” he said, meaning he had to run the artillery exercise while simultaneously keeping an eye on his normal work for the brigade.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646