SLOAN, Nevada –
As the Army Reserve moves away from large platform gunnery exercises like Cold Steel, and moves closer towards units hosting their own platform gunnery exercises, the need for highly-trained Soldiers who are skilled experts in all things gunnery increases.
To meet that growing need and increase battlefield lethality for units and Soldiers, the 76th Operational Response Command hosted a five-day gunnery training course here Sept. 9-13, called a Sabot Academy.
The unique course is the first of its kind to be implemented in the Army Reserve, and its overarching goal is to help prepare Soldiers for the U.S. Army Reserve Command’s brand new Senior Gunner Course, scheduled to be held for the first time at Fort Hunter Liggett, California early next year.
“The pathway for gunnery subject matter experts in the Army Reserve thus far has been through the Maneuver Center of Excellence Master Gunner Course,” said Staff Sgt. Ryan Sanders, division master gunner, creator and lead instructor of the Sabot Academy, 76th ORC. “That’s a very challenging 32-day course with more than a 60 percent failure rate, and an even higher failure rate for our command. It also cost a lot of money to send Soldiers to the common core course, and a lot of them were failing and not getting anything out of it. When they did pass, they weren’t really where they needed to be to actually get out there and run these events and implement the gunnery program, especially at the two-star level and down.”
Sanders and many others are hopeful that the new Senior Gunner Course is the solution to that problem. “It’s a three-week course now and the candidates who get sent to it are going to learn everything that is applicable just to mounted machine-gun gunnery,” he said. “They will graduate being the subject matter experts who are immediately ready to hit the field and make a difference on implementing the gunnery program.”
Preparing Soldiers to graduate from the Senior Gunner Course is what the Sabot Academy is all about. “This is purely a preparatory course, with the goal to get 100 percent graduation rate from the Senior Gunner Course,” said Sanders. “Right now the gunnery knowledge base at our unit level just isn’t there, so we are struggling with getting our gunnery program up and running. In order to fix that problem, I have to build a bench of knowledgeable and skilled noncommissioned officers across our footprint that are capable of conducting gunnery which will ultimately result in a higher level of proficiency and qualification at our gunnery events.”
The first step of the process begins before the students even arrive at the academy. “The Sabot Academy is a two phase program,” said Sanders. “These Soldiers all participated in the distant learning portion conducted online, built just like an online college class and Soldiers are compensated for their time. It includes discussion boards where students can interact with one another and talk about what is going on. They also make an introductory post to introduce themselves to other students in the class. I use that to knock out a lot of the course content that I don’t want to waste time on when I have them physically here at the course. Information that is basic and remedial like vehicle identification and ammunition identification I put into the distant learning, phase one.”
On day one of the academy, students start off with an introduction to the integrated weapons training strategy and begin learning about the specific systems used in platform gunnery used to order ammunition, evaluate crews, and keep accurate records of the training. Unique systems that Soldiers at a company level may not be familiar with. They are also given an assignment to create a Unit Training Plan, in which they have four days to complete. The comprehensive plan includes all the tasks the Soldiers would have to complete as a company level senior gunner. The completed project accounts for 20 percent of their overall grade and demonstrates their ability to plan and resource a gunnery event and allow enough time to conduct the event successfully.
The second day begins with classes on range safety and familiarizing students with all the rules and regulations that govern the platform gunnery ranges. After that the focus turns to crew gunnery. Students learn what the different categories are, what constitutes crew gunnery, how to design gunnery events and how to build scenarios.
The third day of the course is packed full of information about the direct fire engagement process as well as crew evaluation procedures and paperwork.
The fourth day starts with a machine gun theory class which dives into the science and theory behind the application of machine gun fire. Students also learn about different units of measure used in marksmanship techniques. The afternoon is spent putting hands-on the weapons systems where each Soldier gets plenty of time intimately familiarizing themselves with each one.
On day five, the students put all their newly gained knowledge to the test, literally, as they take a written exam in the morning, and then a hands-on weapons knowledge test in the afternoon.
One of the 38 students attending the academy was Sgt. Christopher Simpson, a team leader and native of Huntsville, Alabama, assigned to the 326th Chemical Company, 490th Chemical Battalion, 415th Chemical Brigade. “In my experience, most Army Reserve Soldiers don’t receive very much ‘hands-on’ training on crew-served weapons systems,” he said. “This course is equipping us with the fundamentals of those systems, as well as familiarizing us with the proper terminology, how to identify enemy targets, how to evaluate gunnery crews and a lot of other related information that is essential to a gunnery event. Overall, we are taking in a lot of information this week that’s helping us prepare to go back to our units and teach our Soldiers how to properly and effectively use these weapon systems.”
Another Soldier who is hoping to take over the role as senior gunner for his unit is Sgt. 1st Class James Artz, motor sergeant and native of Grand Junction, Colorado, assigned to the 340th Chemical Company, 450th Chemical Battalion, 209th Regional Support Group, 76th ORC. “I’m taking this course because at the end of the day I want to know my Soldiers are well-prepared and well-trained because I taught them the right way of doing things,” he said.
Although Artz is hoping to obtain a school seat to the Senior Gunner Course in the near future, he is already planning on using his newly acquired knowledge and skills from the Sabot Academy to help his unit. “My brigade will be conducting gunnery later this year, and I will be and integral part of leading us through that,” he said. “I will be putting what I have learned at this course into practice, as well as getting additional guidance from Staff Sgt. Sanders who will be helping me every step of the way.”
The Sabot Academy is already getting a lot of attention from Army Reserve leaders as the push for conducting unit level platform gunnery increases.
“Gunnery is a brigade and battalion unit level responsibility, and it’s a very important one,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Darlington, command sergeant major, 76th ORC, who took the time to visit with the Soldiers at the Sabot Academy. “The goal of this course ultimately is to prepare you to go back to your units as better noncommissioned officers, to make your units better, more prepared and ensure your Soldiers and your units are capable and combat ready.”
Echoing those remarks was Brig. Gen. Doug Cherry, deputy commanding general, 76th ORC. “If this (Sabot Academy) is successful and we have a high-success graduation rate in the senior gunner course, I guarantee this will become the model for the U.S. Army Reserve Command,” he said. “The skills you are learning here are the skills we need to survive on the battlefield, and unlike when we send a person to school to learn something they will personally need, when you go back to your units you are going to be bringing a set of critical skills the entire unit needs, for some of you an entire battalion or brigade. I appreciate what you are doing, stay after it, and I’ll see you on the high-ground.”
With gunnery events already being scheduled for the near future, Sanders is hoping to get newly trained senior gunners in each battalion. “The last two years we have been running brigade level gunnery events and this year will be our first year moving that requirement to the battalion level,” said Sanders. “These battalions absolutely have to have that subject matter expert to assist in planning these events, and this course is the first step in us getting after it. We are building that bench to get that knowledge base established at that battalion level.”
As far as the future of the Sabot Academy goes, Sanders is planning on conducting one annually, and is looking at possibly adding to it. “One of the things we are looking at for the future is possibly adding a phase 3,” he said. “Actually going out to a range, spending a couple of days out there letting these Soldiers fire the weapons. They are going to be shooting the weapons at the senior gunner course, and I want them to have the opportunity to fire them here before they go, so I know for sure they are prepared and 100 percent set up for success at the senior gunner course.”
Sanders is hoping to send at least 15 graduates of this Sabot Academy to the Senior Gunner Course next year, but he said even those who don’t acquire a school seat, can still use their newly acquired gunnery knowledge to benefit their units. “The Soldiers who don’t get to the senior gunner course, are still leaving here with enough knowledge to go back to their units and implement gunnery training programs. They can help Soldiers get the weapons out of the arms rooms and conduct weapons training, noncommissioned officers doing noncommissioned officer work.”
Time will tell, but all eyes are on the Sabot Academy and the Senior Gunner Course, as the way ahead for gunnery in the Army Reserve. “I think the Sabot Academy is going to prove successful,” said Sanders. “I think the amount of knowledge we are putting out along with the presentation of this course is going to dramatically increase our success rate for these follow on courses.”