Innovation and Adaptation
Improving the sensor-shooter link for an Army in MotionBy Braden Holmes November 29, 2019
Indirect fire that is on time, on target and safe is instrumental to the successful outcome of land operations. The control of indirect fire is a skill that needs to be learnt and constantly trained on to be effective. This article continues the discussion from Jason Kirkham’s (2019) recent submission to The Cove titled "Fighting with Fires". His informative article identified three modernisation areas that the Army should prioritise: mobility; sensor capable orchestrators; and weapons-effects education. My article will concentrate on the second of these and provide a solution for modernising the Army’s current sensor-shooter link. I will detail the Army’s current observation of fire training continuums and explore options to improve the training of personnel who are not members of the Royal Australian Artillery (RAA). Ultimately, we should be looking to increase access to observer training to expand the prevalence of skilled people able to orchestrate fire in a combat brigade.
The Army’s current observation of fire training continuum
ECN 255 – Artillery Observer
RAA - ECN 255 Artillery Observers operate as part of a six-man Joint Fires Team (JFT). Their trade-training continuum is similar to most trades, with an initial employment training course to begin their trade-specific training followed. by subject four courses at BDR, SGT and WO2 rank levels. Selected RAA senior LTs and junior CAPTs also conduct a JFT commander’s course that is additional to their main roles within an artillery regiment.
The JFT Basic Course includes two prerequisite training modules: the specialist combat communication course, and the RAA Advanced Field Craft Course. As the training continuum advances, members of ECN 255 excel in the coordination of surface to surface fires, close air support and other joint effects. This training continuum is taught through the Strike Team at the School of Artillery (SOArty).
Mobile Fire Controllers
The organic observation of fire within infantry battalions is provided by Mobile Fire Controllers (MFC) and their MFC assistants (MFC Ack). Training for MFCs is comprises a four-week course under Mortar Team at the SOArty. This course teaches basic and technical skills, danger close missions, and fire planning. The MFC course is open to any infantry soldier from LCPL to SGT, with or without any previous mortar experience.
The Officer and NCO (Offr/NCO) course qualifies members as an MFC Ack. This course is run concurrently with the MFC course for concurrent training and so a fire unit can be constituted to conduct the live fire summative assessments for both courses. The Offr/NCO Course provides mortar commanders with a greater understanding of indirect fire and the ability to conduct basic and technical fire missions. Both these courses also provide the necessary range safety qualifications for the conduct of a Category E range, notable the qualification of observer post safety staff (OPSS) and danger close OPSS.
As part of project Land 136, MFC will be equipped with a version of the Digital Terminal Controller System (DTCS) developed as part of Land 17 the wider Artillery modernisation project. DTCS is a single platform that will be able to conduct terminal control of indirect fires, OAS and naval surface fire. The introduction of this new equipment will allow MFCs, and other trained observers, to orchestrate joint fires other than mortars or guns through communication within the current digital fires infrastructure.
The MFC and MFC Ack work as a pair, with three such pairs resident within a battalion’s unit establishment. The pairs are part of the mortar platoon staff; however, they are almost always attached to manoeuvre sub-units when deployed on exercise or operation. These members also provide the organic SME advice for indirect fires to rifles companies, as well as running all-arms call for fire training for all ranks within the battalion. An MFC pair doctrinally augments a JFT to better support a combat team (CT) manoeuvre commander and link RAInf to RAA through a common language. Despite receiving quality training, neither MFC or MFC acks are currently authorised observers when deployed on operations; for example, when 2RAR was deployed to Afghanistan on MTF3 in 2011, trained MFCs were unable to call in fire from 2RAR mortars despite being qualified members of 2RAR's mortar platoon. Only qualified Artillery JFOs were able to call in mortar fire.
Observation of Fire (Non-RAA) Course
This is a two-week course that is conducted by the Strike Team; it trains non-RAA personnel for limited employment as basic all-Corps authorised observers. The course was originally designed for Australian Army Aviation Pilots, SOCOMD personnel and RAAF Pilots; however, attendance is mostly personnel from SOCOMD, combat units and, occasionally, Navy clearance divers. This course does not provide a qualification to these members and trainees conduct either a simulated basic or a technical mission as their only summative assessment (SA).
All-Arms Call for Fire
There is no formal qualification for AACFF, which is a skill taught within promotional courses for both officers and soldiers. Mortar platoon personnel mostly facilitate this training within an infantry battalion, with artillery regiments able to conduct training for the wider combat brigades. The AACFF procedure enables personnel who have not completed a JFT/MFC course to engage prospective targets using indirect fire assets (Australian Army 2010).
Areas of improvement
RAA observers cannot be everywhere at once. Due to personnel vacancies, it is difficult for every CT within a combat brigade to have a JFT attached. So, who is coordinating fire for these CTs? How is indirect fire coordinated for a platoon/troop that is operating in a dispersed TOAR away from their CT HQ? How is indirect fire coordinated in a networked and enabled future Army and with the proliferation of new sensors on future vehicles? Can we (indeed, should we) do better than basic AACFF?
Moreover, is the MFC a sustainable capability in an infantry battalion? With a FORCOMD directed training requirement (DTR) of 10 qualified personnel every training year, and seven battalions (if we still include 2RAR) requiring MFC teams, Mortar Team are able to train 1.4 MFC per battalion (1.6 if we remove 2RAR from the count) each training year. With the inevitable turnover of staff due to postings, transition and promotion, this number does not provide a sustainable capability to fill three positions in each battalion.
Corporate knowledge and expertise will always exist in the RAA, with Artillery Observers who must always be the proprietors of the skill sets. However, non-RAA observation of fire training needs to expand. With the introduction of the Boxer (and subsequently the soon to be announced IFV), we are presented with an opportunity to coordinate lethal and non-lethal offensive support effects within a more networked and enabled Army. However, prosecuting fires will take more than simply clicking a grid on BMS and waiting for the fires to follow. Understanding the theory of indirect fire, including the procedures for observing and adjusting fire, will be essential to providing a manoeuvre commander with the effect that is on time, on target and safe.
As discussed by Kirkham, ‘every soldier can be an effects orchestrator who is enabled through sensors’. I agree with Kirkham that training should broaden; it should not be outside the realm of possibility that each combat platoon/troop will have the ability to coordinate basic missions from offensive support fire units. This could also be extended so that combat teams would have an NCO that can coordinate more complex technical missions, conduct fire planning and even employ emergency close air support (ECAS). This may or may not be in addition to an attached JFT (where available).
It is also important to note that training is only one part of solution to create observers on the battlefield. These observers need the ability to communicate with joint fires assets, whether through digital or voice. Therefore, they need to have the right communication equipment and access to the right frequencies. They also need the C2 relationships with fire units to authorise coordination of fires from an observer. This can be directed from a Joint Fires Effect Coordination Centre (JFECC) at battlegroup command or higher.
A solution does not require a complete reinvention of the wheel: the foundations are already in place within the training previously mentioned. Instead, I propose that the MFC and Observation of Fire course are combined into a modularised combat-corps observation of fire course. If adopted, this course of action would see observation of fire training progression become similar to current medical training in the Army. With Army medical training, every soldier starts with Army first aid through to care of the battle casualty, then selected soldiers progress to CFA and then we have the medical trade within the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps. This model is also reflected with Army fitness training with CFLs and PTIs.
Module one would be similar to the current observation of fire course. The main change would see a summative assessment for both a basic mission and a technical one. The list of SA is in Table 1. A technical mission, whether smoke or illumination, can be used to achieve this assessment to increase the training value for the trainees.
This module would be two weeks long and should be available to all combat ECNs from LCPL to SGT, with priority for panelling going to infantry, and armour NCOs. It would be unnecessary for junior officers to conduct this training: they should be more concerned with manoeuvring their platoons/troops rather than doing a fire mission. It would be necessary for module one to be exportable to the combat brigades to decrease the training liability on SOArty. This exportable course can be run by SMEs within the Artillery Regiments, who can use the newly constructed Dome simulation facilities to conduct training and simulated assessments. Units could also conduct live fire assessments instead of simulation if ammunition is allocated to the course through either an artillery or mortar fire unit. Through this module, an NCO will be able to coordinate both artillery and mortar fire to support manoeuvre for their respective platoons.
Furthermore, with the prevalence of UAS and its used at the tactical level, the module could see the use of small UAS as sensor to call in fire. Both Paul Niggl (2017) and Thomas Grawich (2018) have detailed the merits of the use of UAS as a sensor in the call for fire in their respective articles on The Cove. We also have Australian doctrine currently being written by STA Wing at the SOArty to facilitate training in applying UAS as a sensor.
Module one must be a prerequisite for module two, the latter of which would be an additional two weeks and be conducted by either Mortar or Strike Team with summative assessments as below in table 2. This course structure is similar to the current MFC course. However, the previous assessments of a basic and technical mission would have been conducted in the previous module.
This course must be conducted in conjunction with the Offr/NCO mortar course so a fire unit is available to conduct the live fire assessments. It would be necessary to conduct these summative assessments through live fire only to achieve the SS requirements (note: this cannot be achieved through simulation). The course structure and proficiencies gained on the Offr/NCO mortar course would not change and students would still achieve their indirect observation and OPSS qualification.
Although not currently in any non-RAA course, training a limited CAS skill should be incorporated into the training continuum. Strike Team could conduct a third module limited to calling in emergency CAS as covered in chapter three of the JFIRE (USA Government 2018). With the skills obtained through module one and two, the training objectives for this module could be achieved in a single week.
It may only be necessary for some personnel to conduct model 3 - for example, cavalry units, formation recon or other personnel that may be expected to operate outside the normal artillery or mortar indirect umbrella. The only joint fires available to support these units would be from air assets. Delivering module 3 would also raise questions about how these trained personnel communicate with these assets and how these assets are coordinated. For communication, personnel would already have access to the Harris AN/PRAC-152 that is used for UHF communication with air assets. As such, they would only need access to frequencies. As for coordination, tactical air direction can be achieved through their respective JFECC, whether at division or brigade level, where air assets have been apportioned.
Coordinating indirect fire is a perishable skill. With the new range safety currency assessments, it would be necessary for non-RAA observers to emulate how Artillery Observers maintain currency of their skills. The supporting artillery battery for their respective unit would organise a time to conduct live fire reassessments for members qualified in their respective module level. This reassessment could also be conducted through simulation if necessary, which due to resource scarcity at times will most likely become the more dominate method of reassessment. The fire unit can be either artillery or mortars, with the assessments conducted through SMEs within the JFTs. The battery commander, on advice from Officers and SNCOs from his battery, would then sign those members off as current in their level of skill for the training year. This reassessment is then written into unit routine orders once completed.
This solution is only one of many concepts the Army could move to in an effort to proliferate observers within our combat brigades. This concept provides a tiered learning approach to the observation of fires, enabling combat units the ability to tailor the observer requirements to their respective needs. The further spread of this skill will lead to an improvement in combined arms orchestration within the combat brigade through an increased understanding of offensive support capabilities within manoeuvre units, supported by an increase in integration of JFTs and qualified non-RAA observers across the brigade. As the practical restriction of indirect fires is the ability to observe fires, the increase of trained observers will enable an increase application of offensive support in the close fight where it is needed the most. These trained personnel will be able to support a manoeuvre commander with offensive fire that is on time, on target and safe.
This article was written with the support of WO2 M McMahon, SGT A Anderson, SGT P Brooks and SGT L Dollard-Hack.
Australian Government 2010, LWP-CA (OS) 5-3-2, Target engagement, coordination and prediction – duties in action, volume one, 2010 chapter 5 annex B. Department of Defence, Canberra.
Grawich, T 2018, Adjusting fire and the UAV, The Cove, viewed on 29 August 2019, https://cove.army.gov.au/article/adjusting-fire-and-the-uav.
Kirkham, J 2019, Fighting with fires – talisman sabre 2019, The Cove, viewed on 8 October 2019, https://cove.army.gov.au/article/fighting-fires-talisman-sabre-2019.
Niggl, P 2017, Using small unmanned aircraft systems to call for fire, today, The Cove, viewed on 29 August 2019, https://cove.army.gov.au/article/using-small-unmanned-aircraft-systems-c....
USA Government 2016, JFIRE: multi-service tactics, techniques and procedures for joint application of firepower, Department of Defence, viewed in 10 September 2019, https://www.alsa.mil/mttps/jfire/.