'Gridsmashers' fire rockets as they prepare for Victory Strike III

GRAFENWOEHR TRAINING AREA, Germany -- The radio offers only steady waves of static to the expectant ears of the missile crews, waiting inside the hothouse cab of the Bushmaster on a dusty hillside here.

After several long, hot minutes, the monotonous stream breaks. "On my command…."

More static. More seconds more tick by, feeling like days. "Fire!"

A rush of flames, a blooming of smoke, and a rocket bursts from the launcher tube, impaling the blue sky at white-hot speed, leaving a scar of smoke behind. In as little time as it took to give the command to fire, the training rocket is out of sight behind the ridge where its target lies, its blunt nose slowing it to impact some seven kilometers away.

As the Bushmaster's crew enjoys the sweet feel of another rocket sent safely and successfully on its way, they savor the added knowledge that this particular hot and dusty exercise is hours from a wrap for the "Gridsmashers" - the Multiple Launch Rocket System batteries of V Corps' 1st Battalion, 27th Field Artillery, 41st Field Artillery Brigade.

The September 4 live-fire exercise for the Bushmaster team and their fellow crews from the four batteries of the 1/27th came at the end of three busy weeks of training here as the unit readies itself to take part in the upcoming corps exercise Victory Strike III in Poland. Over those three weeks, explained Staff Sgt. Leonardo Oen, the battalion's logistics NCO, the batteries prepared for and conducted a field exercise, fired individual and heavy weapons during a range week, and finished up with the one-day live-fire.

Live-firing comes only rarely for the crews, and only at the end of many continual rounds of steady training, said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Winston, master gunner with Headquarters, Headquarters and Services Battery, 1/27th. The batteries conduct exercises throughout the year at every level from section to battalion, Winston said. Before the crews live-fire, there's a day of rehearsal, and the crewmembers all must complete written tests. The culmination of all that training is an external evaluation of the battalion, he explained. That exeval will take place during Victory Strike, but without a live-fire exercise.

"After today," Winston said during a break in the batteries' firing windows here, "we'll know that all the launchers are functioning and the crews know the tasks to put a weapon downrange. The exeval will just prove that with observers on the ground."

Several of the battalion's soldiers agreed with 1st Lt. Paul Weber, Headquarters, Headquarters and Service Battery executive officer, that the process of firing the MLRS is actually fairly simple. The system, designed to reach out from a few to about 100 miles to suppress enemy air defenses, can fire rockets and missiles containing enough explosive "bomblets" or shape charges to clear an entire map grid square, he explained. But while it's a sophisticated, computer-laden machine, the lieutenant added, operating it is easy, because with just a little help, the MLRS is smart enough to actually guide itself into the proper firing position.

"It's easy. And it's powerful. Man, it's powerful," Weber said.

The hard part, said Sgt. Marc George, standing beside his launcher -- the Bad Karma -- is ensuring that the rockets are fired safely.

"You could train a monkey to do this," George said, "but a monkey can't read back safety T data." The safety T outlines the area in the sky above it into which the MLRS can fire safely and hit its target.

All the 1/27th soldiers here agreed that safety is paramount to the battalion, and nothing "goes downrange" until every precaution has been taken and the safety data has been checked and re-checked. A successful mission, said George's fellow Bad Karma crewmember Pfc. Joseph Miller, isn't just measured by rockets fired, but by "rockets downrange with no mishaps; without anyone getting hurt."

The other hard part of the job, the MLRS crews said, is waiting for that rare day like this one, when they actually get to fire rockets. Although the teams train constantly, they normally only live-fire twice a year, Winston said.

"It gets boring shooting ‘dry missions,'" he said. "When you get to come out here and actually shoot, it makes up for it."

The live-fires fulfill two important needs, Winston said - they provide the crews with training, and with the morale boost the artillerymen get from "actually getting to shoot something downrange and getting the noise, the smoke and the jerk as the launcher goes off."

After 13 years as an MLRS soldier, Winston said, seeing a mass of rockets live-fired is still exciting.

"It's still a rush," he said.

During their three-week exercise here, the batteries have also been polishing up some of the tactics they'll be using to fight each other during Victory Strike. That’s right – to fight each other. During the corps exercise in Poland, two of the battalion’s three batteries will take part as “good guys,” firing to suppress enemy air defenses to allow V Corps attack helicopters to safely fly deep behind the enemy’s lines. For Victory Strike, that enemy will be made up in large part by a Polish MLRS unit -- and a third battery of the 1/27th.

Will knowing “the opposing forces” so well make a big difference in the outcome of Victory Strike’s deep-strike exercises, or make it harder to honestly evaluate the effectiveness of the 1/27th’s training? Winston says no.

“I don’t think it’ll be a major factor, because the opfor always has your grid point,” he said.

But perhaps the hardest part of all about this exercise isn’t what happens here, but what happens when the soldiers of the 1/27th leave. With Victory Strike just a few weeks ahead, the battalion must ship all its launchers, vehicles and gear back to their home base in Babenhausen, Germany and quickly get everything readied and on its way to Poland for the exercise there.

“It’s gonna be crazy,” George admitted, then added with perfect confidence, “but it will go smoothly, because we’ve got a lot of things in order already.”

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