By Aviator Jerome Lessard / Task Force Latvia (TFL HQ)
The Latvian Army got a huge boost in indirect fire capability when it received its final M109A50 (M109) self-propelled howitzer in the fall of 2018. Recently, with some help from the Canadian Army, it has been developing its ability to use this powerful tool to defend Latvia.
The close work between the Royal Canadian Artillery School and the Latvian National Armed Forces has gone further than helping develop Latvia’s indirect fire capability. This strong bilateral effort has increased the interoperability between these two NATO allies – a key factor in defending Latvia and deterring aggression.
The Latvian Army acquired 47 of the howitzers from Austria as a result of a bilateral agreement between the two nations in April 2017. The last one was received on October 18, 2018. These howitzers augment the Latvian Army’s existing indirect fire capability provided by 81 mm and 120 mm mortars.
With the arrival of this indirect fire capability came the need to develop and refine the tactics, techniques and procedures to employ the self-propelled howitzer in an all-arms defence, and to integrate their fires at the brigade level.
For the last three months of 2018, a Mobile Training Team from the Royal Canadian Artillery School at 5th Canadian Division Support Base Gagetown shared their artillery experience with Latvian artillery soldiers during two courses taught in Ādaži that aimed to help them develop their ability to use this new tool.
Major Craig Cutting, Captain Matt Stickland, Master Warrant Officer James Aucoin and Warrant Officer Jason Williams took Second Lieutenant Edgards Eglitis and his troops through two concurrent 35-day courses in the autumn of 2018. The training was based on the Canadian Armed Forces’ Gun Area Troop Sergeant Major, Battery Sergeant Major and the Fire Support Coordination Centre (FSCC) Warrant Officer courses.
As part of the FSCC course, eight students took turns during a command-post exercise in which they each played key roles. They started with theoretical lectures, and built on them through practical training with the guns, reinforcing lessons learned and further developing those skills.
Students de-conflicted indirect fires on the map with things like close air support and unmanned aerial vehicles, ensuring all fires were safe and properly coordinated. They were also tasked with developing fires plans in support of the commander’s intent and integrating them into the manoeuvre plan to ensure the success of the overall mission.
“Our objective here was to assist in the development of the Latvian indirect fire capability, by training gun line tactics, techniques and procedures, and the planning and coordination of fires within an FSCC,” explained Maj Cutting.
He continued, “The courses leveraged our experience to provide a progressive training environment. We taught them ways to support a brigade on operations through the de-confliction and integration of fires, as well as moving and sustaining the individual firing units as part of the overall fires plan.”
Maj Cutting spoke highly of the students’ soldier skills. He said he was impressed with their outstanding detachment-level drills, even prior to training them further towards operating as a bigger team.
“For the gun line course, our job was to help them bring it from a detachment to a troop and battery level, as well as give them some exposure to sustainment,” said Maj Cutting. “Our goal was to show them how to conduct rapid troop and battery deployments to ensure that manoeuvre units receive the fire support they need while mitigating the threat of counter-battery fire.”
Following a series of lectures and studies of Canada’s artillery operations and standard operating procedures, the time soon came for 2Lt Eglitis and other members of the Latvian Combat Support Battalion Fire Company to train in the field with the newly acquired howitzers.
On November 8, MWO Aucoin saw them deploy two of the howitzers to chew up the sandy grounds of Ādaži’s training areas during a day of dry-fire (without ammunition) and reconnaissance-based training.
“We were there for about three months to assist the Latvian Army and support them while they went through the development of some of their tactics and capabilities, particularly in regards to sustainment and deployment with the M109 howitzer,” said MWO Aucoin.
In the past, the Latvian Army had other howitzers, but not-self-propelled ones, and had not used them in the capacity that the Canadian Armed Forces had used them until 2005.
“Years ago when we (the Canadian Army) used to employ the M109s we had a constant supply system that was running all the time,” added MWO Aucoin. “The howitzer operators never had to worry about replenishment or ammunition because it was always being taken care of through every step of the supply chain, starting with the battery echelon. That’s the piece that they (the Latvian Army) were really looking forward to developing.”
During dry-fire training, Latvian artillery soldiers focused on the basics. From rapid deployment of the M109s and scouting suitable gun positions to live-firing procedures, 2Lt Eglitis and his team have learned the skills to operate a standard Latvian battery of eight M109 howitzers.
“Everything must be secured,” said MWO Aucoin. “They must have good and rapid routes in and out of the gun positions, and they will issue orders to get the guns to those locations. Exiting the battlefield after fire is also a part of that deployment.”
MWO Aucoin is no stranger to the M109. The long-time gunner cut his teeth on the self-propelled howitzer. He recalled being a brand-new gunner at Canadian Forces Base Shilo, Manitoba in 1988 – using the old iron sights during training as compared to the Latvians’ digitalized capacity in their M109s.
“I worked my way up to Sergeant and detachment commander on the M109,” said MWO Aucoin. “My 10-year experience on the howitzer is part of the reason why I was picked to assist the Latvians on their procurement of the M109s.”
For 2Lt Eglitis and his gunners, the Canadian Armed Forces’ tactical approach is new. Since Latvia acquired its fleet of M109s, its gunners only had basic operational and tactical knowledge, which was passed along by their Austrian counterparts.
“Technically, I am in our Mortar Platoon, but now we are learning how to deal with this beast [M109] in this wild environment,” said 2Lt Eglitis. “We are applying these techniques as if it were a real tactical situation where guns must be positioned in order to provide local defense. But now we are learning how to do this in real situations and on a tactical level, which is quite new and important for us.”
All those newly earned skills and operational tactics came to fruition for Latvian gunners when two M109 howitzers took positions and fired 20 155 mm rounds on November 15, 2018 with rapid redeployments in between engagements.
Each round was on target, and with that a milestone in the Latvian Armed Forces’ artillery capability had been reached.