Soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division recently conducted a large-scale missile fire, one that some soldiers don’t get to see for an entire enlistment, if ever.

Anti-tank platoons from 1st, 2nd and 3rd brigades of the 82nd fired 20 tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided anti-tank missiles on Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Some TOW gunners might serve more than one enlistment without doing an actual live fire of the weapons system. Individual rounds can cost between $55,000 and $94,000, depending on the variant, according to industry sources.

But this type of training folds into the Army’s shift back to large-scale combat operations training. Should the 82nd be dropped into a fight with Russia or China, knocking out tanks or other armored formations will be crucial.

“When we jump in as 82nd Airborne Division, we heavy drop those vehicles into a battle, sending our paratroopers from a C-17 or C-130, find those vehicles, pick those up, then execute a search and destroy of tanks,” said Capt. Matthew Dakota, officer-in-charge of the Sept. 27 shoot and Delta Company commander with the 2nd Battation, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

Shoots such as these are also within larger Army plans to increase training volume and the number of units participating. In 2018 soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 5th Artillery Regiment, fired hundreds of rounds with the 155mm Paladin self-propelled howitzerat Fort Riley, Kansas, during a near continuous, two-week training cycle.

The TOW opportunity came somewhat suddenly, in the midst of Dakota’s unit readiness training. About three months of preparation got the gunners and paratroopers ready to shoot these weapons.

Lt. Col. Michael Burns, public affairs officer with the 82nd, noted that the division’s responsibility as an immediate response force means that paratroopers trained on such systems gives them the “ability to protect their units, gives us a tactical advantage as well.”

Some new soldiers might not understand the significance of the shoot, but more experienced soldiers do.

“It’s a pretty rare opportunity,” said Staff Sgt. Joseph McElroy of 1st Platoon, Delta Company.

McElroy, who helps run the basic skills trainer and has completed the heavy weapons leader course, said it was the first time he’s seen a live fire of this key weapon.

And they got to shoot the new, wirelessly controlled variant.

In rotations to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana, they typically shoot a simulated attack with the systems, McElroy said.

This shoot was much more than a dry run.

Dakota said that they simulated combat conditions as best as possible to make the shoot realistic for the soldiers.

“You can spend all the time you want in simulators at the electronic range, but it really doesn’t compare to feeling the power of the weapons system as it leaves the launch tube,” Dakota said.

They worked on issued intelligence, coordination and sustainment of the formation to the shoot site. Soldiers then moved. That force included 16 vehicles in a fleet, eight equipped with TOWs using two vehicles, one in an elevated firing position.

The scenario included a squad leader, called into position to identify targets at 1,100 meters, who communicated with the vehicles to set up the fires and then destroy the targets.

That’s well within the range of the system, whose optics can spot targets out to 10km and hit targets past the 4km mark, knocking out some enemy main battle tanks with one shot.

Spc. Steven Cronin is serving at his first duty station at Fort Bragg. He’s been in uniform all of about 18 months.

The infantryman/TOW gunner with 1st Platoon, Delta Company, had never worked hands-on with the system outside of a simulator.

“It’s very exciting, I knew of only a few gunners able to shoot them,” he said.

Was he nervous about taking an expensive, perhaps once-a-tour shot and missing?

“We were definitely nervous to miss the target,” he said. “You don’t want to be the guy to miss.”

But we had a good train up, the (basic skills trainer) helps a lot," Cronin said. “I didn’t miss.”

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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