When a 40 soldier infantry platoon goes to the field, and always when it goes on an actual combat operation, there are two soldiers attached. One is a sergeant forward observer (FO), although often a specialist is in the job, and the other is his or her radio operator. Both are MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) 13F Joint Fire Support Specialist. They are that platoon’s Fire Support Team, called the FIST team. Often that FO is the most important asset that Platoon Leader has, because that FO knows every big gun capable of reaching his area of operation, including how fast they can fire, what kind of rounds they have and the effects those rounds have on targets. The FO has at his fingertips, not only mortars and artillery, but also, helicopter gunships, Air Force tactical aircraft, and off shore Navy gun boats. In the event a unit finds itself outnumbered or surrounded, the FO is the equalizer, who can make it rain fire and steel on the enemy. The FIST isn’t assigned to that platoon, or that company, or that battalion. They are assigned to the artillery, but they don’t train and travel with the Artillery, they move with the infantry. In the field a platoon FO’s boss is the platoon leader. In light infantry, the FIST team moves with the platoon leader. In mechanized infantry the FIST team rides in the platoon leader’s vehicle, but during an actual operation, the FIST team will probably be out of the vehicle and in a position to observe terrain and targets. Platoon FO’s have been known to report valuable intelligence information directly to brigade headquarters.
When an infantry lieutenant in Afghanistan looks out of his platoon’s night defensive position, at first light, lifts his binoculars and sees about 300 Taliban spread out across the side of the mountain and moving in his direction, he yells “CALL FOR FIRE”! This is about what he means and to whom he is talking.
Some army jobs are also well paying civilian jobs, especially in the medical and information technology fields. Most of the jobs, associated with the Army’s primary mission of winning in combat, do not translate to civilian jobs. Some soldiers will love a particular job while others will hate it, we are all different. However, in literally every survey conducted in the Army over the past 50 years, soldiers in combat related jobs are happier than those in support jobs. Overall, combat units have higher morale than support units, and the more elite the unit the higher the morale. The 82nd Airborne Division is the pinnacle of the United States military preparedness, subject to be called, on a moments’ notice, to run into their unit, draw gear, weapons and ammunition, get on a plane and jump into combat, and because of that mission to always be ready, they train and they train and they train. They work their butts off. The 82nd Airborne Division also has the highest morale of any combat division in the Army or the Marines.
The soldier the lieutenant is yelling for is his Platoon Forward Observer (FO). This is the first Army job I have researched recently where I found no negative comments. Absolutely every active and former soldier, who commented, loved the job. Big guns that rain bombs down on the enemy do not move with the infantry. They are too big, heavy and cumbersome, and their ammunition is a logistical problem, it is also big. That is called indirect fire, because it is rarely ever fired within sight of a target. An infantry company has a few 60mm (millimeter) mortars which have a max range of maybe a mile, are often fired in sight of the target and are slightly larger than a hand grenade. At battalion level there are 81mm mortars with a range of about three miles, and 120mm mortars with a range of about 6 miles and packs a big punch. The artillery has the big guns. It has 105mm Howitzers with a standard range of about 8 miles and can reach out to 10 or 12 miles. It also has 155mm Howitzers with a range of about 25 miles and a very big punch. The Army has been building and testing a new artillery piece, called the Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA). On December 19th 2020, at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, an ERCA hit a target dead on the nose, from 43 MILES away. That is far beyond the reach of any other known artillery, in the world.
Artillery sets up in a secure location well to the rear of the combat area where it can be easily resupplied. Forward observers are assigned to the Artillery but attached to and move with the Infantry and tell the big guns what to shoot and how. The FO’s can see the target, they are the eyes for the artillery, mortars, helicopter gunships, tactical Air Force fighter planes, and naval gunfire from ships off shore. In the past FO’s have carried big loads, consisting of radios, binoculars, maps, compasses and range finders. It took a lot of clandestine foot travel to get in position to see the target, which many times placed them very close to enemy activity.
All grunts learn to call for fire, in case there are no FO’s around, but what the infantryman learns is elementary compared to the knowledge and capabilities of a trained and experienced forward observer. Any infantryman with a radio can call for indirect fire support. He gives the mortars or artillery Fire Direction Center (FDC) a map grid coordinate or a known map location, the FDC plots the position and gives the gun crews settings for the guns. A spotter round is fired, if it is not on target the soldier calling for fire says “Adjust fire” right, left, up, down and how far. When a round lands on target he commands “Fire for Effect”, at that time each mortar or artillery piece will fire a salvo of a set number of rounds. If the observer wants more, he commands “Repeat” and another salvo is fired.
The current army 13F is now called a Joint Fire Support Specialist because they also communicate with the Air Force and the Navy. Forward Observers, as well as most dismounted leaders, carry a PFED (Pocket-sized Forward Entry Device). A PFED is like a super all powerful, encrypted smart phone, which can send and receive text messages, photos, GPS (Global Positioning System) locations, as well as access various mission applications. Recently added to the PFED is the Mobile Handheld Fires Application (MHFA), which combined with the GPS capability, utilizes both a laser range finder and a precision fire imagery application to generate a grid coordinate that moves digitally up the fire chain to the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS). AFATDS is the Army’s comprehensive fires planning system that acts as the central hub for a commander’s fire support tactical decision making. This past year, 2019, the Army started the replacing the Lightweight Laser Designated Rangefinder, used by Forward Observers. It weighs about 35 pounds and is considered a crew served system. The new system, the Joint Effects Targeting System Target Laser Designation System, weighs less that 17 pounds, and is faster and more accurate, and can be used in all weather. Artillery people are excited about it, they say it turns the big guns into giant sniper rifles, guaranteeing precise first round hits.
A couple years ago Forward Observers in the 82nd Airborne Division started utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s). With the real time video from the UAV’s integrated into the MHFA on their PFED, the FO can see and identify precise targets.
When I was in the Army a first round hit from artillery or big mortars was a combination of skill by everyone involved and a considerable amount of luck. Now first round hits are common and expected. That has been a goal in Afghanistan, to reduce peripheral civilian casualties, because the enemy is often mixed in with civilians.
FO’s spend a considerable amount of time in the field (in the woods) which is an attraction for many, because for boonie rats life is better in the woods than in garrison. But the thing that makes this job so enjoyable for many is almost complete autonomy. When the infantry goes to the field, at Brigade Headquarters there is a Major and a Captain Fire Support Officers (FSO), plus a Sergeant First Class and two Specialists, at Battalion Headquarters there is a Captain FSO and a Sergeant First Class and two Specialists. On the ground, moving with the Company Commander, is a Lieutenant FSO with a Staff Sergeant, a Specialist, and a Private First Class (PFC) and with each 40 man rifle platoon is a Sergeant (authorized but usually actually a Specialist), and a PFC radio operator. With all the modern computerized technology, someone still has to carry a paper map, a compass and a radio. These 13F’s are assigned to the Artillery but they are not with the Artillery, they are with the Infantry which makes them pretty much on their own. As a Platoon Sergeant and as a First Sergeant I never told my FO team to pull guard duty, help load vehicles or any plain labor jobs, as long as they took care of themselves and were always available I was happy with them.
One former forward observer wrote; “It was the best experience I’ve ever had earning money. You’re the red headed step child of the infantry and the artillery. But everyone forgets how important you are until you are needed, in that moment you’re the most important thing in everyone’s life, you make the earth spin and the flowers grow.” Another said, “All good, loved every minute of it.” A retired Master Sergeant Forward Observer wrote; “There you are, on a hill top, looking at an enemy position that is within range of your artillery battalion (which is behind you) calling for fire on that target. You are most likely communicating digitally, but there is still some type of energy being used, which creates heat, which is visible to thermal imaging devices. Once your artillery fires a few rounds, the enemy Counter-Battery fire team will be looking for YOU, so you better be long gone after you say ‘FIRE FOR EFFECT’.”
The ASVAB requirements for 13F are a test score of 93 in the field artillery (FA) aptitude area. The subtests for this area include arithmetic reasoning (AR), coding speed (CS), mathematics knowledge (MK) and mechanical comprehension (MC). A Secret security clearance will be required. The AIT (Advanced Individual Training) is 10 weeks and 4 days long at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Recent graduates say that it is a lot more laid back than basic, but you’re still a trainee. The barracks are three or four man rooms. Some have two double bunks, some have one double and one single. There are closets instead of wall lockers, and a bath room. A typical day in 13F AIT goes something like this; 0500 – wake up, 0530 – room inspection, 0545 PT Formation and PT, 0700 – shower, clean up, get in uniform, 0730 breakfast, 0900 Class time, 1200 Lunch, 1300 – back in class, 1630 Dinner, 1900 – final formation, cleaning until 2000, 2200 – lights out. Weekends; 0600 – wake up, 0630 formation for breakfast, then cleaning until 0900 – sign out for passes (on post),until 2030, lights out at 2200. There is a PX with a food court, a bowling alley, a gym, and a library close.
With the new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), PT will be fairly heavy. This is a combat job, so the physical demands are significant. The Fisters are not infantry, but are part of the infantry, in the field. There are now female FO’s. There are female infantry. I don’t recommend it, but some women want to do that. A recent female 13F AIT student said; “We had to drag a 271-pound dummy for 15 meters (about 50 feet) within three minutes. We broke it down, so the first 10 seconds we drag and the next 20 seconds we rest, so we pretty much had one minute to drag the dummy.”
There will probably be a 12 mile road march, with rucksack, the first week. The first week and a half is land navigation. Some say it is just like land nav in basic, you run the course with a paper map and compass, and find your points. Then you use the DAGR (Defense Advanced GPS Receiver), which, if you enter the coordinates correctly (buddy’s check each other), it will take you directly to your point. 13F’s must be experts at land navigation and locating themselves and targets on various terrains. The second week starts the Call for Fire procedure. 13F’s must also be expert communicators, and voice call for fire is a very methodical and organized process. That learning starts in the classroom on a computer simulator, and progresses to the field, where they call actual live artillery rounds.
I tracked a young man, who graduated from high school in June 2012. In October 2012, he shipped to basic combat training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, graduating in December. After Christmas he reported to Fort Sill, Oklahoma for MOS 13F AIT, graduating in February 2013. From there he went to Fort Benning, Georgia for Airborne School, graduating in March 2013. He then reported to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was promoted to Specialist after about a year. Around the end of 2015, with about three years in the Army, he was promoted to Sergeant. He went home and married his high school sweetheart in March 2016. From July 2016 to February 28th 2017, he was with his Brigade in Iraq kicking ISIS out of Mosul. Their son was born February 1st 2017. Which he was able see on a live feed. In June 2018, with less than six years in the Army, he was promoted to Staff Sergeant. In 2020, he was accepted into the army’s Warrant Officer Flight Training (WOFT) program. He completed Warrant Officer Candidate School, was commissioned a Warrant Officer, and as of this writing is in Flight School learning how to fly helicopters.