A good Marine Corps M777 howitzer crew operates with a speed that would impress the best NASCAR pit crew.
Each crew is racing against its neighbors in an intense rivalry for bragging rights as the fastest gun, only to retreat to machine gun positions turned smoke pits or take naps under the gun net once the fire mission is over.
The competitive nature and close work required to quickly and accurately fire a cannon helped the 0811 field artillery cannoneer military occupational specialty to create its own subculture, complete with ritual initiation, its own patron saint and its own creative ways to kill downtime — unique even within the cult-like Marine Corps at large.
For more than 100 hundred years the Marine Corps has had artillery specific units, with the core of what became 10th Marines being stood up April 25, 1914, as Marines were sent to fight in the Caribbean. Since the beginning, those artillery units have used cannons.
As the Corps transitions the bulk of Marine Corps artillery from the traditional cannons to rockets, in preparation for future near-peer conflict, some former cannoneers worry the field will lose its traditions and culture along with its M777s.
“In a 777 you got 10 plus people working like a well-oiled machine making sure you get rounds down range as quickly as possible,” Josue Cruz, a veteran of 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, which fired M777s, and the 5th Battalion, 11th Marines, HIMARS unit, told Marine Corps Times.
“With HIMARS … you just plug in some numbers and flip a switch,” he added.
The transition from cannons to rockets is part of Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s plan to increase the Corps’ firepower and have small artillery units dispersed in the littorals fighting a near-peer enemy, and be capable of sinking ships and freeing up the Navy’s movement.
In his force design 2030 plan Berger called for a reduction from the 21 active-duty M777 batteries the Corps currently fields to five, while increasing the number of rocket batteries by 300 percent.
The Corps still has not decided which batteries will be converted to rockets or exactly when the transition will take place, Teresa Ovalle, a spokeswoman for Marine Corps Combat Development and Integration, told Marine Corps Times.
“A decision of the future composition of Marine artillery is pending the outcome of ongoing Phase III force design planning,” she said.
Marine 0811s tend to be arrogant about their craft, proudly claiming to be the “king of battle” and during the surge years in Afghanistan styling themselves as “super grunts” after years of deployments spent on patrol with M4s instead of their beloved cannons.
“We’re better than grunts because we do everything that grunts do, and we do our job,” Cruz added.
The close working conditions, which require about eight Marines to operate in seamless coordination through smoke and chaos to fire a round down range, creates a bound within the crew.
“It teaches team building,” Larry Hilton, a Vietnam Marine veteran who operated the M53 self-propelled 155 mm howitzer, told Marine Corps Times. “There’s a lot to setting up a position and getting the gun ready to fire.”
The Marine asked to be transferred to the infantry while at artillery school, but his instructor told him he would be doing that in Vietnam anyway and it was important to learn the artillery skill as well.
Why its changing
The Corps is making the change from cannons to rockets as part of it shift to dispersed operations that will see small units of Marines with improved training and heavier weapons spread across the littorals of any future conflict.
The Marines will act as a heavy skirmish line against any future enemy, focused on providing information to the joint force and keeping sea lanes open for the Navy.
The force will need to move quickly and hit targets at greater ranges than traditional artillery is capable of.
The Corps already has completed training exercises that put the HIMARS increased range to use on quick raids behind enemy lines.
The raids take place on small islands and kicked off either by traditional infantry units or Marine reconnaissance. The grunts take the island just long enough for a HIMARS to be airlifted in, fire its salvo of rockets and removed.
The concept is called High Mobility Artillery Rocket System Rapid Infiltration or HI-RAIN.
The extra range of the rocket system makes it a viable strategy in the Pacific Ocean where islands may be spaced out by hundreds of miles.
In addition to the extra range needed to be useful in a littoral fight, the Corps will need to pack a bigger punch, despite the reduced size of units involved.
Some of the artillery units will be expected to sink enemy ships before they can engage with Navy, a task well beyond the capability of a 155 mm round.
The Corps currently is searching for a long-range anti-ship missile capable of sinking even the largest of enemy ships, though a congressional budget cut may slow down its progress.
The Corps requested $125 million for Tomahawk missiles and $64 million for ground-based anti-ship missiles and an addition $75 million for long range precision fires in its fiscal year
But the final version of the fiscal 2021 Defense Appropriation Bill had no funding for Tomahawk missile, cut the ground-based anti-ship missile budget in half and reduced the long range precision fires to roughly $20 million.
The cannoneer subculture comes with its own quirks and traditions, where the gun net is viewed as the crew’s home and strangers are required to knock and ask to enter before being let in.
Getting initiated into the 0811 community comes with its own ritual.
After pulling the lanyard on their first round in the fleet, the Marine takes their primer, bites into the hot brass to make a unique impression than uses it down a shot of the murky swab water.
Once the ritual is complete the Marine is congratulated by the veteran members of the crew as they are “jumped in” to the 0811 culture, keeping their primer as proof of their status.
The very closeness of the guns on the gun lines, sometimes with only 20 yards between them, breeds competition among the guns.
Crews race at everything from who is the first to put up their net, who can emplace or displace the gun the quickest to the most important competition of all, who can shoot the fastest.
Between fire missions, when Marines are not napping or taking smoke breaks, the competition between guns continues with everything from trivia competitions to impromptu wrestling matches taking place between the guns.
“When you’re pitting the guns against each other… it’s not just like, ‘Hey let’s go fight the other gun line,’ you’re trying to be better than the other guns on everything,” said Justin Cramer, a veteran 0861 fire support Marine, responsible for calling fires from Marine artillery.
Though he only spent some time on the gun line during his nine-year Marine Corps career, he has knocked on gun nets and even seen a few gun specific guidons, made during a gun crews downtime.
“It’s just one big piece of camaraderie, I think it’s a great thing and I think it makes them a better tool, it makes them a better unit overall,” Cramer added.
When the Corps switches to a rocket focused artillery force many of elements that created this unique culture of comradery and competence will be gone.
Only three Marines crew the HIMARS as opposed to the roughly eight Marines it takes to fire a M777. The distance between HIMARS is also significantly larger than M777s, and the “roughing it” nature of working a M777 is gone, Cruz said.
“The biggest difference to me: 777-wise the comradery is there, the sense of pride, being in that unit, being in that gun section is more than HIMARS,” Cruz said.
Going from a M777 battery to HIMARS, Cruz said he was living in luxury, keeping his issued gear clean and sleeping on a cot every night, with the absolute minimum of physical activity during the exercise. The easy nature of the job also lowered the level of competition between the launchers.
In his time with 5/11 he did not see any gun wars and there was no sense that the launcher was a home, like there is with M777s and the gun net.
The rocket system does have one advantage over the traditional tube artillery, Cruz said: the isolation and small crew. A good noncommissioned officer has the ability to really learn about the two other Marines in his command and is able to get really close to them.
“You’re away from everyone, even when you’re not shooting and you’re in your hide point, you’re away from the brass, you’re away from the senior enlisted its just you and your section,” Cruz said.
“It’s easier to get close to three Marines than a whole gun section.”
While it is unclear exactly when the Marine Corps will make the shift to a rocket focused artillery force, it is clear that the change will have seismic effects on the small Marine artillery community.
“I don’t think we’d have that chip in the shoulder if we were HIMARS only, that pride, I don’t think it would be there,” Cruz said.
Disclaimer: Reporter Philip Athey is a Marine veteran who served in the Marine artillery community.