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NEWS | Feb. 2, 2022

Wisconsin Guard conducts ‘Winter Strike’ forward observation

By Capt. Joe Legros, Michigan National Guard

GRAYLING, Mich. – Round after round hits the impact zone at Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center. Some rounds — air bursts with white phosphorous — detonate seconds before impacting the frigid terrain.

Forward observers with 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery Regiment, Wisconsin National Guard, used binoculars to survey the area, watching retired tanks and other military vehicles used as targets for field artillery guns positioned upwards of 6 kilometers away.

The unit could conduct this training any time of year, but a winter exercise offers a challenging opportunity to hone skills under extreme conditions.

“Winter Strike” is held annually in northern Michigan during the coldest part of the year, when snow, high winds, and single-digit temperatures are common at Camp Grayling’s National All-Domain Warfighting Center. Visiting units can train in subarctic conditions to better meet the Department of Defense’s Arctic strategy.

Wisconsin Army National Guard 1st Lt. Darryl Carlson, fire support officer, Delta Battery, 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery Regiment (1-120th FA), said Guard members experienced several nights of subzero temperatures.

“We’re here to conduct combined arms operations with the Air Force,“ Carlson said. “Since arriving, we’ve partnered with Latvian joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs), U.S. Air Force National Guard JTACs, and some of the U.S. Navy JTACs. We’re working hard to integrate the air assets together with our artillery.”

JTACs direct military aircraft engaged in close air support (CAS) and other air operations. They work with ground operations, such as field artillery units, to coordinate rounds on enemy targets. With artillery rounds and aircraft in the air, often at the same time, coordination is critical.

Carlson’s platoon also trained at Winter Strike at Camp Grayling last year. He said his unit’s joint fire observers (JFOs) gained valuable experience working with Michigan and NATO-ally JTACs.

JFOs serve as an intermediary between JTACs and forward observers, who identify enemy targets on the battlefield. They take the information from forward observers and provide it to JTACs to help them get rounds on target.

“We are already accustomed to working together with the JTACs,” said Carlson. “But this year’s Winter Strike has given us a lot more hands-on experience to include controlling UH-60 Black Hawks.”

Military exercises generally begin with a crawl phase where units verify that all their pieces are in place. For field artillery units, gun batteries prepare by using engineers for route clearance and fortification of battle positions. Forward observers scout for the best vantage point to observe the simulated enemy activity. Communication systems are tested and preventive maintenance checks and services are performed.

“Afterwards, we go through a walk phase where we basically do everything except actually firing on a target,” said Carlson. “Finally, there’s a run phase where we conduct the fire mission and our guns put rounds downrange.”

The M777 howitzers fire a 155 mm artillery round. There are several types of rounds used at Winter Strike, including illumination rounds for low-light or night operations, simulated white phosphorus (not harmful to humans) rounds dubbed “Willie Petes,” derived from the World War II-era military phonetic alphabet, and high explosive point detonation rounds to destroy enemy vehicles, bunkers, fortifications and personnel.

At Camp Grayling, the rounds travel 4 to 6 six kilometers (depending on the firing point) to reach the impact zone, where forward observers visually confirm the strike.

“I used to be out on the hill as a forward observer,“ said Wisconsin Army National Guard Pfc. Jermaine Toliver-Marx, fire support specialist on Carlson’s team with Delta Battery, 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery Regiment. “Now, my role is to make sure those guys stay safe.”

A fire support specialist is the first line of safety for forward observers watching enemy activity. After receiving coordinates from those observers, Toliver-Marx ensures artillery rounds don’t come in contact with friendly forces or compromise their positions.

“I have four radios going at any given time,” said Toliver-Marx. “We not only talk with the forward observers but also with higher headquarters and the batteries who are ready to fire the howitzers. We keep communications open with everyone. It gets fast-paced sometimes. But safety is always first.”

The style of communication Toliver-Marx described is considered a centralized method of fires coordination. This means the forward observers communicate what they see with their battalion support element. Carlson’s team processes the information and sends the mission to higher headquarters and the battalion fire direction center. The fire direction center relays the mission to the individual batteries that operate the guns.

Contrast this technique with decentralized field artillery coordination, which works well for quick-strike, less complex missions where forward observers call for fire and batteries respond directly, immediately putting rounds on targets.

However, with air assets at their disposal, the need for a more multifaceted approach is crucial.

“At this point, we’re happy where we’re at,” said Carlson. “Along with our normal communication, we were able to integrate our artillery with Army attack aviation and CAS (close air support). It’s a big step for us, especially with these frigid temperatures.”

Wisconsin National Guard leadership conducted a battlefield circulation of Camp Grayling firing points, observation posts, and other multidomain facilities throughout the exercise.

“I’m so proud of our Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers and the proficiency they demonstrated during Michigan’s Winter Strike,” said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Joane Mathews, deputy adjutant general of the Wisconsin National Guard. “Training our engineers, field artillery and exercising our logistics support functions in an extreme cold-weather environment will only enhance our readiness to operate in any environment.”

Carlson said coming to Winter Strike and working with the Michigan National Guard was great.

“The facilities are fantastic,“ he said. “Grayling Army Airfield is set up perfectly for this type of exercise. And the Michigan team has been extremely helpful, which allows us to focus on training. That’s the whole reason we’re here.”