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NEWS | July 16, 2010

Artillerymen in Afghanistan use innovation to reduce collateral damage

By Staff Sgt. Bruce Cobbledick , CJTF-101

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Staff Sgt. Michael Kain and Pvt. William Fiel display a high-explosive round and a ‘Smurf’ round.

WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan —In combat, sometimes a small adjustment can mean preserving innocent life. Some artillerymen here have embraced that concept and developed a new way to reduce the chances of collateral damage.

Embracing the current rules of engagement, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team’s 4th Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment (Task Force King)  has begun using less-explosive training shells during the “adjustment phase” of fire support. That means the first, and possibly subsequent rounds fired while getting on target, won’t cause nearly the level of damage that high-explosive rounds would. After the artillerymen ensure they’re on target, the gloves come off, and they quickly transitioning to the high-explosive, lethal rounds.

The immediate result is fewer live rounds being fired, fewer chances for an errant round to cause unintentional injury or damage, and no decrease in effect of the support to ground units.

“The insurgents are choosing to fight among the people, employing them as human shields; this amounts to an avoidance strategy,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Woods, Task Force King’s senior enlisted man. “Our enemy knows when we use artillery in a conventional firefight, there’s a possibility of unintended collateral damage. In our efforts to avoid that, commanders have previously been far less inclined to use artillery. The enemy has been using this assumption to avoid our fire support advantage … until now.”

The less lethal training round in use is the M804A1, also known as the “Smurf” round, due to its blue coloring. In practice, it is a ballistic match for a live, high-explosive artillery round and exhibits the same effects while in flight from tube to target. The difference is in the impact effects.

“The 173D ABCT gives up nothing in terms of effectiveness; the fire-for-effect round is exactly where it would be had we fired an explosive artillery round,” Woods added. “This new approach that we’re using here is more sensitive to … issues that affect the Afghanistan citizens.”

Because the unit is aware that collateral damage can separate them from citizens they’re trying to protect, Woods says the change in procedure is both a moral and strategic choice within a counterinsurgency environment.

First Sgt. Frank C. Luedtke Jr., the senior enlisted member of the unit’s Bravo Battery, has fired thousands of rounds during previous Afghanistan deployments.

“The Smurf round would have been a useful asset in the counterfire fight,” said the High Point, N.C. native. “When using non-lethal munitions such as smoke for marking targets,  the area covered by the large masking would not allow other assets to be used because of the possibility of collateral damage. The Smurf round,  when adjusted, puts off a significantly smaller signature, thus allowing the use of other assets and minimizing the possibility of collateral damage.”