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Fort Drum soldiers train with improved howitzers

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FORT DRUM — Soldiers took to the field Saturday in a display of firepower not seen on post in about a decade.

Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, fired 155mm rounds from the M777 howitzer, one of the military’s strongest ground weapons. The post last used weapons of that size about 2003, before Army shuffling moved the weapons to another installation. While today’s artillery has firing power similar to previous models, it weighs about half as much — an estimated 8,900 pounds, making it easier to carry by plane and helicopter.

Firing the weapon for the first time after a two-week training class, groups of about 10 soldiers each manned the nine howitzers. Setting up for their shot, soldiers loaded a round, then called out a direction and angle, which had been calculated and double-checked by scouts closer to the target and a secondary team with computers in a tent behind the firing line.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces here,” said Staff Sgt. Bryce L. Anderson, one of the section chiefs in the training. “If one guy fails, we all do.”

The gun fired with a devastating bang, shaking the ground and releasing a plume of smoke at least 15 feet into the air. The howitzer’s foundation dug a hole about 3 feet deep as it recoiled from the shot.

The round soared through the air for nearly a minute before hitting its target, in this case a gutted humvee. Higher-angled shots flew for almost 90 seconds before their landing could be heard from the firing area. The weapon has a maximum range of more than 20 kilometers, or nearly 30 kilometers with rocket-assisted rounds.

Accounting for weather, terrain and even the earth’s rotation, the computers that guide and track soldiers’ shots also can be used to track incoming enemy projectiles.

The Fort Drum soldiers were joined by four soldiers from the Canadian Army who had recently used the howitzer while deployed in the Maiwand district of Afghanistan.

“We call it heavy metal thunder,” said Warrant Officer Steve E. Merson, of the 2nd Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. “The Taliban didn’t like them. They call it the dragon that breathes fire.”

He said their howitzers were posted primarily at the forward operating bases they shared with American forces, and were used to aid soldiers caught in firefights.

The battalion also was joined by members of the 5th Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, Fort Hood, who fired smaller arms to prepare for a coming deployment, and observing cadets from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.

A small group of civilian contractors with previous Army field artillery experience also served as instructors during the soldiers’ training. Jeffrey L. Hale, an instructor from Portsmouth, Va., said his advice to soldiers was be safe.

“It can do a lot of damage you don’t want it to do,” Mr. Hale said.

With soldiers becoming more comfortable with firing the howitzers, Lt. Col. Christopher W. Wendland, the 2nd Battalion commander, said the skill would be necessary for future deployments in Afghanistan.

“Once they learn this, now they’re going to take it to the next level,” he said.

With 2nd Brigade doing much of its firing Saturday, other brigades on post soon will get their chance to learn the new weaponry. The 1st Brigade Combat Team will start training on the weapons Monday, while the 3rd BCT will begin training in the next few months.

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