Forward Observers in the US Army/Marine Corps
Artillery (Forward) Observers carry the MOS designation of 13 Foxtrot (13F) in the U.S. Army and 0861 in the U.S. Marine Corps. This is considered a Combat Arms MOS, and all enlisted personal schooled in this duty will carry this designation. Officially, FOs are actually designated “Fire Support Specialists”. While they are commonly referred to as Forward Observers or FO’s, FISTERS, or members of a FIST (Fire Support Team), COLTs (Combat Observation Lasing Team)this is more precisely the designation of a Fire Support Specialist in a particular position. The Company Fire Support Officer (or FSO) is the leader of a Company Fire Support Team (FIST).
This oft-overlooked position is considered one of the most challenging positions on the battlefield for a variety of reasons. FOs are highly skilled and usually exceptionally intelligent. They are also able to work silently for long periods of time, as some missions may range from a few hours to several weeks, long. They can operate with minimal support located both on or behind the enemy lines.
Their skills in reconnaissance must be met with similarly high intelligence and ability to think quickly in situations of extreme stress. Their missions are always critical as mental errors under stress can bring the massive firepower and ordnance they control down on friendly forces as well as enemy. FIST team members are especially self-reliant and independent. Their mission requires quick thinking under pressure, effectively integrating with many types of units and command structures as well as the ability to operate independently. At a tactical level the FO can serve in mission planning, strategy, and advisory positions with his command elements.
There exist 2 main duties associated with Forward Observer Teams according to general military doctrine and the FIST field manual 6-30, now known as FM 3-09.30. Primary duty consists of bringing to arms all indirect fire assets (artillery, mortars, naval gunfire and close air support [CAS]). Secondary duties consist of communicating battlefield intelligence such as enemy locations, strength, and activities to the command echelon.
Soldiers in this MOS must meet a number of requirements not demanded of many other military careers. The artillery observer must be acutely aware of the position and movements of their own troops as well as those of the opposing forces. Because of the strategic importance of this information, U.S. Army FOs must qualify for security clearance, the level depending on their specific position. They must be able to work independently for long periods of time, as some missions can last for days or even weeks, and because of the clandestine nature of their work and their frequent placement on or behind enemy lines, the ability to operate with minimal support is of great importance.
Their physical demands are extremely high as the FO's must survive and fight alongside paratroopers, airmobile infantry, light infantry, mechanized infantry, United States Marines and even United States Army Rangers while typically carrying a much greater equipment load (radios, secure communication equipment, laser target designators, etc.) than the maneuver element they are attached to. FM 22-100 lists the common combat loads for many of the MOS's in the US Army. FIST is noted as the second highest combat load. They must also survive in an armored and cavalry environment. Because of this, their infantry fighting skills must be on par with their fellow soldiers in the maneuver element. FOs are often required to train with the maneuver element they are assigned to.
Most and eventually all US Army armored and infantry battalions have converted to the Modular Force organization. Forward observers are members of the Fire Support Platoon of each heavy, light or Stryker battalion rather than being members of an artillery battery that supports that battalion.
Infantry training provides the individual soldier with a direct action skill level that provides them with an optimal survival rate. The Forward Observer is qualified to attend many military schools because of their Combat Arms designation such as, Airborne, Air Assault, Ranger, and Special Forces training. They also qualify for the Army's Combat Action Badge. Forward Observers are also given difficult cardiovascular, strength, infantry and self defense United States Army Combatives United States Marine Corps MCMAP training in addition to their FO training. As the FO is attached to direct action units, this training is meant to ensure they have the capability to perform their more cerebral duties, while under the same stress the infantry unit is exposed to.
Fire Support Specialists may be attached to the mechanized infantry or an armored division. When mechanized infantry or armored, fire support teams consist of a driver, a commander, a Fire Support Non-Commissioned Officer, and a Fire Support Specialist of rank of E4 Specialist. This team works within an M7 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, called a B-FIST or Bradley FIST, which is designed for the task of Coordinating indirect fire. FO teams are often attached to Mechanized infantry dismounted teams. In this scenario they break off with small infantry teams and travel on foot akin to light infantry and search for the enemy. They can also break off in two man FO teams and establish an observation post.
Due to personnel shortages more and more Forward Observers are finding themselves tasked with the duties of the Fire Support Officer and/or Fire Support Non-Commissioned Officer, while simultaneously expected to perform the duties and responsibilities required of them at the platoon level if a qualified Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) is not available to step up to fill in the FO position. Many RTOs are not available for an FO to use, the FO is then expected to perform as an FO while also carrying, operating, and maintaining his radio equipment. If the Forward Observer is tasked elsewhere up the chain of command, an RTO is then expected to perform the duties of an FO without an RTO. This lack of available bodies combined with the high deployment rate is the cause for a mass exodus out of the military by Forward Observers. As a direct result, unqualified RTOs are being promoted to NCOs and E-5s are finding them selves promoted to E-7s within 2–3 years, despite never having put together a proper promotion packet. Many in the field believe the lack of experience and rapid promotion rate is going to create unforeseen problems in the future.
The COLT Team is a high-technology, deeply inserted, observer/reconnaissance team often called on to maximize the use of GPS guided munitions like the EXCALIBUR series weaponry/155mm paladin howitzers. The standard COLT team consists of a driver/Grenadier(PFC/E-3), a gunner/RTO/Observer(Specialist/E-4) and a TC(CPL-SGT), the vehicle commander who oversees the operation on the OP, and approves fire missions. COLTs are now equipped with the FS3 (Fire support sensor system) which has consolidated all of the target acquisition equipment which was previously on the KNIGHT series HMMWVs. These teams typically work closely with attack aircraft to guide air-delivered laser-guided munitions, while still providing ground support for maneuver battalions and acting as a reactive strike force supporting special operations units.
Fire Support Specialists are also vital for their skill in enemy vehicle recognition. Because of this, along with the need for coordinated indirect fire support control at higher levels, Fire Support Specialists are also assigned to augment “Fire Support Elements” that travel with headquarters from Brigade level to Corps.