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Marine howitzers return to Afghanistan to mark the war's end

Jun. 7, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Marines of 12th Marine Regiment fire M982 GPS-guided Excalibur ammunition.
Marines of 12th Marine Regiment fire M982 GPS-guided Excalibur ammunition. (Global Military Review)
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For the first time in years, M777 howitzers are defending the Marines' stronghold in Helmand province.

For the first time in years, M777 howitzers are defending the Marines' stronghold in Helmand province.

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CAMP BASTION, AFGHANISTAN — For the first time in years, M777 howitzers are defending the Marines’ stronghold in Helmand province.

Three of the six-ton, 155mm cannons deployed to Camp Leatherneck with elements of the Camp Pendleton, California-based 11th Marine Regiment in Februrary to provide an extra level of security as the Marines hand off their remaining outposts. The howitzers were last deployed in Helmand in 2012, but the need for that level of firepower diminished. They have returned for the final leg of the war at the behest of Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, commander of Regional Command Southwest.

“I decided to bring in the lightweight howitzers because it gets back to capability and capacity,” Yoo said during an interview at his office at Camp Leatherneck. “As we start getting smaller and smaller, I want to have that flexibility ... so as the Marine Corps prepares to get out of here, I can use it up to the very last moment and retrograde it in an orderly and timely fashion.”

The decision, made last October, triggered a whirlwind training workup as the arty Marines worked to complete required field exercises and live-fire training prior to their deployment date. Marines attached to the unit said they understood they had been sent downrange to provide extra security in case of a ramp-up in violence during the drawdown.

“In anticipation of a heavier fighting season before all the U.S. forces pull out of Helmand province, they wanted the howitzers specifically to provide security for Camp Leatherneck and all the forces around it,” said 1st Lt. Carter Dunham, a platoon commander with 5/11 Tango Battery, the howitzer element. “We have a lot of different munitions we can shoot, which gives Regional Command Southwest a lot of options as to what they want to do on the battle space.”

One of the most impressive of these options is the GPS-guided M982 Excalibur round, which can be fired with precision on enemy targets more than 20 miles away. Back in 2011, when the 155mm systems were still being widely used by Marines in Afghanistan, they deployed Excal rounds in Helmand at a rate of up to 30 per week.

As of late May, months into their deployment, the Marines had yet to receive a single Excal mission. The unit’s time has been largely spent instead on night missions with illumination rounds, and occasionally white phosphorus, working with Task Force Belleau Wood, the Bastion-Leatherneck security element, to keep potential threats at bay.

While the Taliban announced its fighting season had officially started May 12, no attacks have been reported so far in the vicinity of Leatherneck.

Despite the quietness of the deployment, Marines said they appreciated the rare chance to spend time in a combat zone.

“A lot of these Marines have never been to Afghanistan before,” said Cpl. Justin Perkins, a howitzer section chief with the unit. “It’s really nice just to have the opportunity to come out here.”

Training alongside the British 105mm cannons at Leatherneck has also inspired some friendly rivalry among the Marines, said Yoo.

“I think the Brits have got a little bit of gun envy, because they were looking at buying that system, too,” he said. “You get these artillery guys next to each other and they start looking at each others’ cannon. I was giving them a hard time.”

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