NIINISALO, Finland — From under the cover of a camouflaged observation post, U.S. Army Spc. Chelsea Phillips, a joint fire support specialist assigned to 6th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment (6-9 CAV), 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, a unit operationally assigned to the 1st Infantry Division in Europe, watches artillery rounds impact in the distance. Peering through her binoculars, Philips observes from about a kilometer away as the shells go screaming into the dirt, sending plumes of debris into the air.
Together, Phillips and U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Hannah Slomkowski, a fire support officer with the 6-9 CAV, orchestrate moves on a chessboard. Instead of moving pieces on a tabletop, play is conducted on a much larger scale with explosive metal ordnance. For this reason, their calculations must be exact. Incorrect coordinates mean missed targets, or worse, the wrong ones.
Soldiers in joint fire support roles, also known as forward observers, play an essential role in coordinating indirect and air support fire from a vantage.
“A big part of my job as a fire support officer is understanding how maneuvers work,” said Slomkowksi. “How we plan out missions so that I can give them the best support with indirect fire.”
A typical sequence of events might go as follows; Phillips locates a target using an AN/PED-1 Lightweight Laser Designator Rangefinder, a portable target locator that gathers coordinates like a viewfinder used by golfers only far more advanced.
“Dismounting from an [M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle], setting up observation points and calling up artillery, motors and attack aviation is my primary job,” said Phillips.
From there, Phillips will check her coordinates and relay them back to Slomkowski, who is connected by radio to a nearby artillery battery. At this point Slomkowski takes over, re-confirming the coordinates with the battery before calling for fire. There are a few pops as the shells are fired, a whistle as they fly overhead then a splash of dirt as they burst upon the earth.
Phillips checks to ensure the rounds hit their intended targets, communicates this information through the chain and the team repeats the process as needed.
“I absolutely love this job, you get a lot of leeway with how you want to paint the battlefield.” said Phillips. “ If you’re somebody that goes into the military and has this expectation of being in the firefight, operating different weapons systems and having some sort of power behind your job, then being a [forward observer] is the way to go.”
Forward observers with the 6-9 CAV corresponded with Finnish artillery batteries and mortar crews during exercise Hammer 22, a two week training operation conducted in Niinisalo, Finland, during the month of November. Their effort developed communication between the two forces allowing Finnish soldiers to familiarize themselves with the protocol used by the United States and its NATO Allies and partners.
“It was a really great opportunity because we got to call up Finnish artillery and motors,” said Phillips. “They’ve learned how we transcribe our fire missions so it was very cool to be able to teach them on the observation post the ways that we operate.”
U.S. Soldiers participated in the exercise alongside soldiers of Finland’s Armored Brigade, Pori Brigade, Karelia Brigade, Uti Jaeger Regiment and its Army Headquarters and Logistics Department of the Defense Forces.
“These past two weeks I have learned more about my job than in the past eight months,” said Slomkowksi. “Without working with the Finnish I would have never had this opportunity to get these reps, this is extremely crucial for us to be better at what we do.”