MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C -- The mock terrain model resembles a huge board game - complete with micro tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces and other assorted military vehicles – to play out the scenario of a combat environment. This isn’t a game… this is the Combined Arms Staff Trainer.
Chief CAST instructor, Staff Sgt. Damian P. Smith, related the following story about Marines under attack at a command post that had to call for supporting artillery fire, to illustrate the need for knowing basic call for fire procedures.
While under fire, a corporal with a weak radio signal, relayed to a lieutenant colonel with a more powerful radio, the proper coordinates of the area from which they were being attacked.
“The lieutenant colonel had called for artillery fire so close that the impacts caused a tooth in his mouth to crack,” said Smith, from Stroudsburg, Pa., of the officer’s precise call.
The ability to call for fire is a necessity in the combat environment. Through simulations, CAST training offers II Marine Expeditionary Force the ability to train Marines multiple times, without having to rely on live combat units positioned in the field for movement and on the cost and wear with the use of maintenance, support and ammunition supplies.
“CAST allows Marines to fight in a simulated environment before they get to the battlefield,” said Donovan T. Cantrall, a retired Marine sergeant major the CAST operator. “We can teach people to coordinate their fire here without expending live ammo and we train them in the simulated environment they want to train in.”
At CAST, Smith knows his section - with its simulation rooms, models and terrain boards - plays a vital role in training Marines to call for air support and artillery fire, as well as maneuvering units on a battlefield.
The CAST trainees carry out a simulated combined arms exercise, allowing them, through simulation, to complete a mission, with calls for fire support and all the chaos a battlefield brings to planners in a war room
Operating under the modeling and simulation section, II MEF, Smith and a mixed group of active-duty and civilian Marines train their fleet counterparts with fire support schemes, using a large projection screen for one simulation and a scaled-down mock terrain for unit-sized simulations.
“At our center or in the field, the procedure for calling fire is all the same,” said Smith. “Everything they learn in here they can take it out to the battlefield.”
Troop leaders are also given a basic tactical knowledge on employing military forces on battlefields, using terrain boards depicting geographical regions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For this particular training evolution, Marine staff non-commissioned officers wore headsets for communication inside the dimmed, cavernous room as they positioned themselves near desert terrain board depicting training grounds at Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif.
“Our theory is if they are not standing around the board, they are not doing what they are supposed to do,” said Smith of the Marines surrounding “battlefield,” pointing out targets on it and calling in grid coordinates.
With more Marines deploying to combat areas, CAST is capable of supporting the level of fire control training necessary for commanding officers with regimental-sized units, down to lance corporals acting as forward observers.
On this training day, Marines from the Staff NCO Academy practiced as forward air controllers and forward observers commanding battlefield combat units placed on the terrain board. The leaders, from varied military occupational specialties that do not require the use of call for fire support on a battlefield, were brought together at the CAST center to refine combat skills.
“You have Staff NCOs here who are welders, disbursers and infantrymen who are working together in a simulated combined arms environment,” said Gunnery Sgt. William Bodette, of Clearwater, Fla., and a infantry company gunnery sergeant training at CAST alongside other Staff NCOs. “They may not totally know all the details, but they will have a general view of combined arms.”
During the evolution, Marines tested their abilities, responding to enemy fire and maneuver and relaying necessary information back, making it possible to pinpoint accurate fire on the enemy positions. It also gave them the opportunity to learn from their errors on a simulated battlefield – one essential benefit of CAST.
“Right here is the time to make mistakes,” said Gunnery Sgt. Daniel P. Schismenos, of Akron, Ohio and a platoon commander for the base Provost Marshall’s Office training at the Academy. “Because the casualties here are on paper.”