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History Made With Operation Gunsmoke

CAMP GUERNSEY, Wyo. — Whether by train, plane or automobile, more than 1,300 service members of the 65th Field Artillery Brigade converged on remote Camp Guernsey, Wyoming, for a historic annual-training event to be remembered—Operation Gunsmoke.

“Operation Gunsmoke is a concept that we started a few years ago with the brigade commander desiring to bring all of the units together to create a large-scale, field artillery training event, which has never been done before,” said Maj. Jeremy Williams, operations officer, 65th FAB. “This was a very unique opportunity of this scale, one that I have not seen, nor will I likely see again in my career, where we were able to exercise our ability to command-and-control firing battalions.”

The 5th Battalion, 113th Field Artillery shipped its 12 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) via railcar from North Carolina and flew in its troops with commercial airliners. The 340th Brigade Support Battalion arrived via military airlift and fell in on equipment from Wyoming’s BSB. Utah’s 1st Battalion, 145th Field Artillery and 2nd Battalion, 222nd Field Artillery commercial-hauled its howitzers, while other Utah-based units convoyed their service members and equipment across the 464-mile journey to Guernsey.

In these years of challenged budgets, it was an astounding accomplishment for the brigade to coordinate for all of its units, from California to North Carolina, to participate in the multi-echelon, scenario-based exercise. The operation involved 10 units in either a participation or support role, including support from Utah National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters and Camp Guernsey itself.

“We’ve really never done anything of this size or magnitude, so it was essential to have a solid plan as we came out here and went live with all of these different units,” said Maj. Brett Anderson, headquarters commander, 65th FAB. “I am thrilled to have been a part of such a historic operation where we trained with 1,300 troops from six states in one location training together, learning together and doing something that none of us have ever done.”

Considering the multitude of moving pieces and increased communications complexity, Col. Todd Thursby, commander of the 65th FAB, determined his two priorities for the event to be communications and logistics. This set a high bar for the brigade’s recently activated 190th Network Support Company, who only received its Joint Network Node ( JNN) and corresponding Satellite Transportable Terminal (STT) systems months prior, and additionally had just completed a software upgrade for the critical communications equipment. The JNN and STT serve as the backbone of the brigade’s digital communications network, so going without was not an option.

The next hurdle in accomplishing the brigade commander’s communications priority was to fulfill shortfalls of the battalion-level Command Post Node (CPN) equipment. Only two of the required four CPNs needed had been fielded to the respective battalion headquarters, and all of the CPNs required software updates. While this may not seem like a big challenge to those outside of the military, this shortfall was a significant problem as these highly technical pieces of gear are very difficult to acquire. Planners, leaving no stone unturned, worked tirelessly to coordinate for two CPNs to augment Gunsmoke from Colorado and Wyoming.

Now, with the critical communications enablers finally in hand, Capt. Jeff George, commander of the 190th, just had to get them all to talk! No other National Guard brigade had achieved this feat in a field-training environment, but America’s Thunder doesn’t let failures of others limit its achievements. After much trouble-shooting, technical expertise, and late nights, the brigade headquarters and its four subordinate battalions established that which had never been done before by a National Guard unit during a stateside training event—all brigade elements squawking digital.

All modes of communications, digital, high-frequency, SINCGARS, and the logistician’s Very Small Aperture Satellite Terminal (VSAT) were online in a milestone achievement.

“Preparation was the key, getting here with all of the right equipment and having a plan are all essential,” said Anderson.

Col. Thursby’s next priority was logistics, and the 340th BSB from California came through in spades. The 340th had the challenge of integrating the forward-support companies of each battalion into a Forward Logistics Element which was to be located, as the name would suggest, forward of the main headquarters to facilitate logistics operations. The FSCs are typically controlled by their respective battalion, so this change in paradigm was resisted in the early stages. While unfamiliar, this command relationship of the FSCs to the BSB is doctrinally correct. Pressing through initial resistance, the 340th successfully coordinated and executed support for the event, driving more than 4,900 miles, delivering 38,000 gallons of water, 45,000 gallons of fuel, and preparing an astounding 39,000 delicious meals throughout Gunsmoke.

The 65th FAB took Gunsmoke one step further, stretching to acquire target acquisition radars and unmanned aerial systems to enhance the battle-focused training. While radar units have always been in the structure of the brigade, radar equipment demands for war efforts had kept the brigade without these critical sensors since the brigade’s inception in 2008. Again, planners hit the grindstone to source a Q37 Firefinder Radar and two Q-50 Lightweight Counterfire Radar Systems from Colorado and Idaho. These sensors provided invaluable hands-on training and visibility of live acquisitions during the annual training. Additionally, the 19th Special Forces (Airborne) Tactical Unmanned Aerial System Platoon flew Shadow UAS systems to enhance the training having conducted aerial reconnaissance, call for fire, and even fire-mission adjustments, utilizing the advanced camera systems onboard the UAS.

Another great addition to the massive-training event was the 144th Area Support Medical Company from Utah, which provided medical support and training, integrating into the 340th BSB as its operation’s medical element.

“For us, Operation Gunsmoke was great, “said Maj. Trish Brown, 144th ASMC commander. “We frequently conduct a lot of training on our own, but we don’t get to interact at a brigade level which is how our unit would actually function if we were to deploy. We were working with the brigade surgeon and battalion physician assistants and medics to integrate our medical operation to ensure that execution is seamless from the gun line, or point of injury, to the medical support area in the rear.”

External evaluations are an important element of any training; Col. Thursby would not let a collective-training event such as this go without feedback. Coordination was made so the brigade headquarters, the firing battalions, and even the BSB were provided evaluation teams. This detailed feedback provided unbiased, objective feedback to brigade leaders to build upon successes and appropriately address any shortcomings.

The ground shook in the small town of Guernsey from May 9-23, as 57-tracked and 432-wheeled vehicles of the 65th FAB executed Operation Gunsmoke, where 2,400 155mm howitzer rounds were fired, 42 HIMARS rockets were launched, more than 140,000 rounds of .50 caliber, 7.62mm, and 5.56mm were shot in total.

“In this exercise we had nearly 1,300 Soldiers executing their individual jobs as artillery-crew members, fire-directioncontrol personnel, administrative personnel, medics, logisticians, supply personnel, signal and communications and many more, and each one functioning at their individual level for the success of the mission,” said Williams. “This opportunity tests their training, their understanding and everything they learned at their military schools.”

More important than the impressive statistics accomplished during Gunsmoke was the safe, battle-focused, collective training that was conducted which improved unit readiness, forged life-long relationships with leaders and members alike, and provided a training milestone that all will reference for many years to come. America’s Thunder!

Story by 1st Lt. Rory Mele and Lt. Col. Steve Fairbourn

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