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Watchers Over the Battlefield
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Night Watcher (Rank 1)
19 Delta Scout
Night Watcher (Rank 1)
19 Delta Scout
Probably my most favorite part of being in a US Army mechanized division is that occasionally we get to take our M163 Vulcans out to the field and participate in massive war game exercises alongside other units equipped with M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) and our iconic and powerful M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks (MBTs). If you have never experienced the thrill and excitement of being in a full on armored charge, then picture this. You are a gunner aboard one of our armored fighting vehicles thundering over the battlefield at full speed. To your left and right for as far as your eyes can see are tanks and other armored fighting vehicles throwing up clouds of dirt and earth behind them as they roar across the ground towards the enemy defensive positions. Overhead AH64 attack helicopters beat the air with the THUN-THUN-THUN-THUN-THUN of rotor blades as they fly low towards the enemy while higher up, US Air Force A10 Thunderbolt II attack fighters hit the enemy with their massive, tank-killing, 30 millimeter GAU Avenger cannon fire. It is an absolute, high speed, adrenalin rush culminating in an explosive clash of steel on steel, the smell of smoke and cordite, noise, explosions, warnings and commands over the radio, and frenzied, coordinated chaos as drivers maneuver violently while gunners and commanders search for targets, trying to identify friend from foe as friendly and enemy units blow up around them.
During these war games, everything from soldiers to wheeled vehicles to armored vehicles are festooned with sensors and lasers of all types that are attached to every weapon system from assault rifles, machine guns, 20 millimeter cannons all the way up to the 120 millimeter guns on our tanks. Every weapon gets a laser which is synchronized to the actual hitting power of the weapon. For instance, a laser mounted on an M240B machine gun can register a “kill” on an infantryman or a light wheeled vehicle, but would be completely ineffective against an M2 Bradley IFV or an M1 Abrams tank. And, of course, the laser mounted on the M1 Abrams 120 millimeter gun can kill anybody on the battlefield. Additionally, every vehicle has a bright orange strobe light mounted on it. If your vehicle gets hit by a weapon system that is powerful enough to “kill” your vehicle, the strobe light will blink brightly indicating that you and your vehicle are out of the fight. The driver must immediately stop, the gunner must immediately stop engaging targets, and the vehicle commander must cease all communication with other friendly vehicles. At the end of one of our massive battles, you can see dozens of orange strobe lights blinking all across the battlefield.
The ultimate US Army war games of this nature occur at a place called the National Training Center, or NTC, located at Fort Irwin, California. Here in the dry burning sands of Death Valley, brigades of US Army armored units do battle against one of the most elite armored units in the US Army. Known only as the Opposing Force, or OPFOR, these armored cavalrymen are equipped with American fighting vehicles that are modified to look like enemy vehicles and they hold all of the home field advantages against visiting Army units. More often than not, the OPFOR comes out victorious in most battles, but they provide invaluable experience for maneuver commanders. The training at the NTC is so intense and realistic that the next level up from the NTC is actual combat where people get killed. In fact, after the intense combat of Desert Storm in Iraq, our division’s maneuver commanders said that the training at NTC was actually far tougher than the combat against the Iraqi Republican Guard.
It was a cold January and a combat brigade of our mechanized division was scheduled to deploy to the NTC in the summer when temperatures at Fort Irwin could reach 120 degrees. To prepare the brigade for the coming deployment, our division commander sent the brigade out to the field for a month to train and rehearse and refine their battle tactics. To make the training more realistic, the division’s attached armored cavalry squadron would act as the evil, enemy forces, during the month long training exercise.
My Vulcan unit was attached to the 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry, the famous Dark Horse Squadron. We were to play the bad guys serving the evil Socialist Democrat government of the fictional country of Cordonia. It was actually fun playing the bad guys since all of the pressure was on the capitalist, pig-dog, American maneuver commanders to succeed. All we had to do was kill as many of those capitalist running-dogs as we could before their superior air assets turned us into heroes of the Socialist state. As a Vulcan unit, our primary mission was to kill enemy aircraft, but our 20 millimeter cannons were woefully short on range and hitting power. At best, the maximum effective range of our M61 20 millimeter Vulcan was a little over one mile, while most attack aircraft could engage us at beyond five miles. Additionally, most tanks could engage and destroy us from two miles out. Still, there was no weapon system that could fire 3,000 high explosive rounds per minute like our Vulcan and we were deadly against anything on the battlefield except the M1 Abrams tank. During our maneuver combat engagements, our maneuver commander usually utilized our Vulcans as fire support tracks, bolstering the existing firepower of our M2 Bradley units. These were great times to be in an armored unit.
Our first battle against those American scums was a headlong charge against their positions in the early morning and dozens of Abrams, Bradleys and Vulcans of the Dark Horse Squadron charged over the rolling field towards the American lines. The Americans hit us with their artillery, which consisted of soldiers racing around the battlefield in HMMWVs and throwing pyrotechnic grenades at us. The ground rumbled as our armor stampeded towards the Americans and our M1 tanks were already firing. One, then two, then three orange lights began blinking at the American lines, signifying that we had scored hits on those evil Capitalist pigs. All of a sudden, a HMMWV zoomed ahead of us from behind and stopped directly in front of our Vulcan. My driver pulled back on the steering laterals and brought our Vulcan to a screeching halt in the middle of this raging battle. A sergeant emerged from the HMMWV and cockily tossed a pyrotechnic grenade at the front of our track. After it exploded, the arrogant sergeant said, “You stopped, so the artillery got you.”
“We stopped so that we wouldn’t flatten your ass!” I yelled from my open topped gunner’s turret.
“Never the less,” the sergeant smirked as he got into his HMMWV. “You guys are dead.”
I began the next battle immensely frustrated. The first battle was stacked against us and we were supposed to lose miserably and allow the American maneuver commander to gain some confidence. The second battle was a meeting engagement in which the Dark Horse Squadron and the Americans would meet head-on in an armored clash. This time, there would be no artillery support as combat maneuvering would be left to individual company and platoon commanders. This was going to be fun.
In the early afternoon, both armored forces raced towards each other across the muddy, rolling landscape of our battlefield. A twenty five foot wide fire break bisected the field running roughly north to south and it was here where the thunder of guns roared. Our M1 Abrams and M2 Bradleys leapt across the fire break as if it wasn’t there, smashing rounds into the Americans charging on the other side. The Vulcan, with our heavy two ton turret mounted on a very light armored chassis, wasn’t nearly as agile. We had to turn south to find an easier way to cross the firebreak. My driver found a dip in the land which made it easier for the Vulcan to enter the firebreak and we rumbled across the firebreak and emerged on the other side.
“Gunner!” yelled my track commander from the open hatch behind me. “Two Bradleys! Three o’clock! Engage!”
I slewed my little turret to my left and sure enough, two Capitalist American pig-dog Bradleys were two hundred meters away, facing away from us. They were concentrating their fire on the main Dark Horse attack and didn’t see us. Setting my weapon selector switch, I fired a thirty round burst at the nearest Bradley and cheered as their orange strobe light began blinking. I slewed my turret slightly to the right and sent another thirty rounds into the second Bradley and immediately set off their orange strobe light.
“Yeah,” I yelled. “Take that you Capitalist pigs!”
Almost immediately, our strobe light went off, indicating that we had just been blown away. Unknown to us, an American M1 tank had spotted us and put a violent end to our shenanigans. The end of the battle turned out to be a tactical draw as almost every vehicle on the battlefield, Cordonian and American, had been hit. Still, our Vulcan crew was feeling good. We bagged two Bradleys.
The third engagement of the day came in the late afternoon after we had a lunch of MRE’s and hot coffee. This time we, the heroic Socialist Democrat Cordonian army, were dig into defensive positions on a low ridgeline overlooking a wide open field and waiting to be attacked by the Americans. The American tanks and armored fighting vehicles rumbled inexorably towards our lines and we returned fire. Coming directly towards us was an M1 Abrams.
“Hey, TC,” I said into my CVC helmet. “Should I engage?”
Two Vulcans were stationed on the far right of the Cordonian defensive line. My track commander, or TC, scanned the battlefield. Three American M1s were headed towards us, attempting to outflank our lines. The Vulcan on my right was hit and the strobe light began blinking.
“Light ‘em up, Gunner! Tank! Direct front!”
“On the way!” I set my selector switch to fire a 100 round burst of 20 mm high explosive at the tank 800 meters in front of us and squeezed the firing trigger. The orange strobe light on the enemy M1 tank rippled on and blinked rapidly, indicating minor hits across the front hull, but then shut it off again as the tank rumbled towards us.
“Welp,” I said. “That didn’t work.”
As expected, the tanks blew our little Vulcan away in what would have been a pretty massive explosion if they were firing real high explosives at us instead of lasers. One the American tanks was hit by a simulated anti-tank missile and was “killed” right next to our Vulcan track while the other two American M1s turned the flank and began attacking the rear defenses of our lines.
The gunners hatch on the American tank that had been “killed” next to us popped open and the tank’s gunner, a skinny kid who needed a shave yelled over to us.
“Hey, Duck hunters! Do you guys have any Pop-Tarts?”
“Yeah!” I yelled back. “We got plenty!”
“What will you take in trade?” yelled the tank gunner.
“Ooooh!” said my driver into his CVC helmet. “Ask him if they have any peanut butter! Not the MRE kind, but the chunky Skippy kind.”
“Do you have any chunky peanut butter?” I yelled at the tank gunner.
“You want the good peanut butter, or the MRE kind?” he yelled back.
“What do you think?” I answered.
The tank gunner laughed and disappeared into his hatch. A few seconds later he came back up producing a jar of chunky peanut butter. “One unopened jar for two boxes of Pop-Tarts?” he asked.
“Deal!” I smiled.
“Great, man!” said the tank gunner. “I’ll bring it over!”
And a good time was had by all. The end of the battle turned out to be a win for the Americans again as they over run our position, but they took heavy casualties from our anti-tank missiles. At the end of the day, the Dark Horse was told to NDP and have some well deserved hot dinner chow. An NDP, or Night Defensive Position, is where an armored unit would circle the wagon with our guns pointed out. Inside this wagon wheel, we could prepare chow while our leaders held planning meetings. It was also a time where armored vehicle crews could visit and see other weapon systems and mingle with other soldiers from other units, sort of like showing off your hot rod down at the local ice cream parlor on a Friday night. The tankers and Bradley crews were always fascinated with the Vulcan weapon, even though it was an obsolete system. I marveled at the comparative spaciousness and luxury of the inside of the M1 turret. The NDP was always a great time for soldiers to share camaraderie and the esprit de corps of our fighting unit and remains one of the best memories of my time in the army.
A little after dark, our platoon leader returned from a leader’s meeting saying that there was a night mission for my and one other Vulcan crew. Our heroic Cordonian combat engineers had emplaced an extensive anti-tank mine field across the line of advance of the Americans, who were scheduled to hit us in the morning. Our two Vulcan tracks were to take up an over watch position of the mine field in case American scouts or American sappers try to clear a path through the mine field in the dark. Our two Vulcan tracks followed the lieutenant’s M113 armored personnel carrier as we left the NDP. The lieutenant led us down Tank Trail Black for about a mile then turned off to the left on a minor tank trail. The ground was muddy from all the armored vehicles crossing over it, but it had turned into a hard, almost solid mud in the cold January evening. Soon, to our right, we came to a low hill where the engineers had dug out fighting positions for armored vehicles. Our lieutenant positioned us in two of the positions, about thirty meters apart and overlooking another rolling field below us. About 500 meters away were three rows of concertina wire fences which stretched for hundreds of meters.
“That’s our anti-tank mine field,” said our lieutenant. “We need to make sure that no one breaches it tonight so both teams will have to maintain 100% over watch. Report if you see any activity. We have indirect fire laid in if they try to breach tonight. Also, if they try to overrun this position pull back to the NDP.” The lieutenant looked at my Vulcan crew. “No heroic last stands, got it?”
“Sorry, sir,” I said.
“It was my fault,” said our TC.
The lieutenant chuckled, “That was a pretty bad ass last stand, but none of that tonight. You are only here to observe. Roger?”
“Got it, sir,” we responded.
Now, being the gunner on a Vulcan is, without a doubt, the best position to have. You are in a small round tub with the awesome firepower of a six-barreled Gatling cannon at your fingertips. The main drawback, however, is that you had no overhead cover in the turret so that you could have an unrestricted view of the sky. Your main job, remember, is to kill enemy aircraft. However, you were also constantly exposed to the elements and were a victim of anything the sky gods decided to dump on you such as rain, sleet, hail, and snow. Tonight was going to be an extremely cold night, and I was not looking forward to sitting up in that gunner’s tub all exposed to the near freezing temperatures. The gunner on the other Vulcan was my good buddy Lewis, a skinny black kid from Minneapolis. The sun had gone down and the moon was out as we made our way back to our tracks. When I began to climb up the back ramp of my track it began to snow. Great… I looked over to Lewis and in the moonlight I could see him looking at me, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. Yeah. He wasn’t looking forwards to this either.
So, we each took our positions in our tracks. My driver was all nice and comfortable all snuggled up in the forward drivers compartment. My TC had closed the rear TC hatch and was all stretched out and comfortable in the back compartment, and I was bundled up in three layers of winter clothing and zipped in my sleeping bag freezing my jewels off in the exposed gunner turret. We were on generator power, and my driver had the personnel heaters going. Below me, the track was nice and warm, and the residual heat from the heaters kept my feet and lower legs nice and toasty. But from my waist up, it was popsicle city as the temperature dropped to -10 degrees.
The light snow on the ground reflected the illumination of the moon, making it appear quite bright all around us, so much so that I didn’t need my gunner scope to clearly observe the mine field. At around 8 pm, with the moon shining brightly over the frozen wasteland of a battlefield, I spotted the dim lights of a vehicle rapidly approaching from the enemy lines.
“Heads up, TC,” I said, probably waking him. “We got contact eleven o’clock!” I slewed my turret towards the lights. “Lewis, you up?”
“Yeah,” he responded over my CVC helmet as he slewed his turret. “Who can sleep in this cold?”
My TC radioed back to the NDP, alerting our platoon leader. By this time, the unidentified vehicle was approaching the mine field when I heard my TC say in the radio, “Roger that, sir. Good copy. Out.”
“What do we got, TC?” I said over the CVC radio “The guy is in the mine field.”
“It’s one of our scouts, “ said my TC. “They just got back and radioed that the American forces have all NDP’d for the night due to the weather. Looks like we aren’t going to see much action tonight.”
“Great, “ I said. “Are we going to NDP and get out of this cold?”
“No,” replied my TC. “The lieutenant wants us to stay here and keep over watch, just in case. Plus, we need to be the eyes for the commander in the morning. If you get too cold, let me know and I’ll sit in the tub for a while.”
Fat chance I was going to let that happen. Yeah, it was cold, but this was my position and my duty and it was matter of pride amongst us gunners that we could take any weather condition. “I got this, TC,” I said with as much cheer in my voice as I could muster.
All of a sudden, the TC hatch opened up and my TC popped up with a large hot, steaming thermos in his hands. “Here you go gunner. I brewed you a nice large thermos of steaming hot coffee, extra sugar, light cream, and two scoops of cocoa powder.”
“Yeah, man!” I said. “Thanks, TC!”
“Any time,” he replied as he disappeared back down his hatch. “I used to be a gunner once myself!”
With some nice hot coffee inside me, I settled down in my gunner’s tub and enjoyed the silent, frozen, beauty around me. It was almost magical. I began to wish that someone would invent a device that could keep people entertained or occupied for a while. Like perhaps a phone that was smart and could play videos or movies or play songs. It was the early 1990’s and at that time we had this obsolete technology called ‘books’ which we read to keep us mentally engaged and we practiced arcane rituals such as going outside, playing sports, and engaging in physical activity, whenever we got bored.
It was around eleven o’clock and the reflected light of the moon off the snow made it appear even brighter than earlier. I was able to catch a few minutes of a cat nap here and there, but nothing you could actually define as sleep. The snow had stopped falling and the night was bright, peaceful and calm.
All of a sudden, the entire landscape went pitch black, as if the moon was snuffed out. I jerked my head up and looked to my right and was horrified to see that not only was the moon, but all the stars seemed to have blinked out of existence. It took me several seconds to realize what was happening. Something was passing slowly and silently overhead, something incredibly huge. Now, as a US Army air defender, we are rigorously trained to be able to identify any and all aircraft which we are likely to encounter on a modern battlefield, and as far as identifying aircraft went, I was probably the very best that the Army had to offer. But, to tell you the truth, I had absolutely no idea what this thing was that was slowly floating over me.
The thing was solid, that was for certain, for as it traversed across the sky it blocked out the light from the moon and stars as it passed in front of them. It was shaped like a boomerang, with no curves and only straight lines. The craft measured 30 meters wide at its center and had tapering wings which were 150 meters from wingtip to wingtip. I could tell that it was shaped like a boomerang because along the outer edge of the craft were dots of white light which outlined the craft. The aircraft slowly sailed overhead at only 300 feet as it silently moved away from our position at a speed of only 60 knots. Incredibly, for such a large object flying so low to the ground, not only was it absolutely quiet, there was also absolutely no wind gust coming from a propulsion system. The air was perfectly still. I know that my estimations are pretty close to accurate because we had also been taught to judge distances, measurements, and speeds of aircraft.
By now, the strange craft was in front of me, still maintaining a height of 300 feet and a speed of 60 knots. I instinctively elevated my Vulcan cannon to target it. To my surprise, I heard a soft mechanical hum from Lewis’s Vulcan as he also elevated his cannon towards the craft. Great. Looks like the cold had frozen both of our brains. I was thinking about how cool it would be to have shot down an Imperial Star Destroyer. Too bad I don’t have any live 20 millimeter rounds. Just as I thought that threatening thought about the craft, my Vulcan cannon suddenly went super elevated and pointed directly straight up. At that exact same moment, Lewis’s cannon also jerked went super elevated. At this point, we couldn’t accurately lock on the unidentified craft even if we had live rounds.
Our weapons remained in this elevated position for several seconds as the craft continued slowly on and finally disappeared from view as the light from the moon and the stars returned. Gun control was returned and Lewis and I depressed the guns back to their original positions. Several seconds passed before I heard Lewis’s voice in my CVC helmet.
“Did you see that, man?” he said in a shaky voice.
I thought long and hard about how to respond to him, weighing the implications of what had just happened. “Maybe we are just tired,” I finally responded.
I leaned down into my gunners tub and looked down into the rear compartment. My TC was fast asleep. “Hey, TC,” I yelled, waking him up. “Can you spell me for a while up here? It’s freezing and I think I got literal brain freeze.”
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