Artillery rounds blasted from howitzers aboard Army landing craft during a recent training mission, the first time in decades that boats from the service’s little-known fleet of watercraft have conducted a fire mission.
Known as Operation Gator, the late April drill at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was believed to mark the first riverine artillery mission since the Vietnam War, and comes as the Army has been mulling plans to shutter its National Guard and Reserve component watercraft units.
The troops were training for the possibility that America’s next fight may be against what the military calls a “near-peer” adversary. In such a conflict, the U.S. may not be free to move its forces around as easily as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re having to relearn some of the tactics for fighting a formidable enemy. It’s very different from the asymmetric warfare we’ve been fighting,” said Lt. Col. Shawn Talmadge, commander of the Virginia National Guard’s Norfolk-based 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery Regiment, in a phone interview Tuesday.
Being able to fire directly from a landing craft, rather than unloading the weapon and setting it up on dry land, can save time and possibly lives in battle with a closely matched enemy.
Talmadge’s National Guardsmen loaded a 105-mm M119A3 howitzer on a landing craft piloted by active duty soldiers from the 11th Transportation Battalion, 7th Transportation Brigade, based out of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va., said a Virginia National Guard statement this week.
After a 90-minute boat ride up the Atlantic-Intracoastal Waterway, which runs through the North Carolina Marine base, the landing craft “stabbed” its bow into the riverbank to provide a stable firing position. The waterway was blocked to boat traffic to reduce turbulence that could affect the mission, which began April 25 after a day of rehearsals.
“Today is a proof of concept to say, ‘Hey, we can still do this,’” Talmadge said in the statement.
For the artillery regiment, which is part of the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, it was the first waterborne fire mission since World War II’s D-Day landing, nearly 75 years ago.
The Army used watercraft extensively during WWII and often fired artillery from boats during the Vietnam War.
But the exercise comes nearly a year after Army Secretary Mark Esper decided last June that the Reserve would “divest all watercraft systems,” a decision highlighted in a January briefing prepared by the New Orleans, La.-based 377th Theater Sustainment Company, which oversees most of the Reserve’s boats. The Army confirmed in late January that it was conducting a formal analysis of its fleet inventory.
In March, the commander of the Baltimore-based 949th Watercraft Transportation Company announced the unit was slated to be inactivated in a ceremony in August.
The service’s aging flotilla includes eight types of watercraft, from small “Mike boats”— like the landing craft used for Operation Gator — to football field-length vessels able to carry up to 15 M1A2 Abrams tanks at a time.
Mike boats have been used to land small forces on hostile beaches dating back to the Vietnam War, but are now considered too slow to come ashore under fire, an Army Command and General Staff College research paper found in 2015. They get more expensive to maintain each year, and Lt. Col. Philip S. Raumberger, the paper’s author, said the Army needs to decide whether to keep them.
At Camp Lejeune last week, the 10th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division and the Fort Sill, Okla.-based Fires Center of Excellence observed the two-day waterborne artillery exercise, the military statement said. Further details will be shared with the Fort Sill center and the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey to determine whether new doctrine is needed for using modern weapons on such fire missions, Talmadge said in the statement.
Talmadge, 44, has deployed twice during the Global War on Terrorism, but he told Stars and Stripes he remembers the days before 9/11 when the Army prepared for peer-to-peer conflict. The service is again looking to past wars to guide its future tactics, he said.
“We are studying our history, finding techniques that may be relevant today,” Talmadge said.
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