After seeing a decade of heavy combat in two major wars, the lightweight M777 howitzer continues to be an integral piece of the the US military’s artillery strategy.
With the capacity to fire up to five 155mm rounds a minute, the M777 provides artillery units with pinpoint accuracy in long-range fire for up to 18.6 miles, as well as the capability to quickly transport equipment between locations.
The Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center is the Marine’s largest live-fire base. The 600,000-acre base is located in the Southern California desert, and provides troops with training that prepares them for scenarios in which long-distance precision fire is needed to support manoeuvrable forces.
The Marines at Twentynine Palms were the first to receive the M777 when it became operational in 2005. Soon after it was put to use by the US Army and Marines — in Afghanistan in 2007, and Iraq in 2008.
“We provide fire support to the manoeuvrable forces,” said Lt. Col. Charlie Von Bergen, commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion 11th Marines at Twentynine Palms. Essentially, this means training battalions to locate enemy targets and to aid forces so that they can manoeuvre safely between checkpoints. Often, it means pinning down the enemy so that US troops can move.
“We do things to produce a certain effect out on the battlefield, whether it is to delay, destroy, divert, suppress, or neutralise somebody,” said Capt. Andrew Reaves, who oversees the battalion’s howitzer sections.
The 3rd battalion is also practicing with high explosive white phosphorus, smoke, and alum flares. “It’s like flipping on a light switch,” Capt. Richard Whalen said of the alum flares.
During the exercises, Whalen’s unit maps known enemy targets and the locations of impacted rounds, as well as ammunition levels of each type of firepower.
To continue to be effective in evolving warfare, the newest M777 system weighs in at less than 8,000 pounds: the first howitzer to weigh less than 10,000 pounds, and almost half the weight of its previous iteration.
Col. Don Paquin said he remembers primarily using the M777 for its forcible entry fire support capability, and in order to attain footholds and wait for follow-on force to expand ground in the Middle East. He said the weapon is “pretty dog-gone good.”
“It’s iterative and it’s constant,” said Paquin, a light artilleryman studying National Security Strategy at the National War College. He believes that the current M777 A2 model accomplishes exactly what it was designed to do.
“With toad systems, you always want a faster way of emplacing and displacing the system,” he said. When he first joined the military he used the previous M198 howitzer, which required a crew nearly twice the size of the current M777’s five-man crew.
The M777’s recent A2 upgrade also means increased digital capabilities. “The howitzer always knows where it is,” said Paquin.
He does not believe that there is cause for concern in relying solely on digital GPS for aiming the weapon. “We trust the technology,” he said, explaining that there are also backups to the digital technologies, which allow troops to rely on the equipment they have.
While strategic warfare’s complexity grows with the use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, the M777 howitzer artillery system will have many years left in modern warfare.
Story and editing by Adam Banicki
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