Getting back in the saddle again

Written by Pat Caldwell, for The Observer December 06, 2013 09:43 am

A M1A2 SEP Abrams main battle tank opens fire on a gunnery range at the Orchard Combat Training Center south of Boise, Idaho, in this August 2013 photo. Eastern Oregonís largest Guard unit, the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment, is now back to training on tanks after spending the past 10 years in the Global War on Terror fighting as dismounted infantry. (PAT CALDWELL photo)
A M1A2 SEP Abrams main battle tank opens fire on a gunnery range at the Orchard Combat Training Center south of Boise, Idaho, in this August 2013 photo. Eastern Oregonís largest Guard unit, the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment, is now back to training on tanks after spending the past 10 years in the Global War on Terror fighting as dismounted infantry. (PAT CALDWELL photo)
 

Eastern Oregon unit now beginning to get back to training on familiar vehicles

Ten years ago Eastern Oregon’s largest citizen-soldier combat force left its familiar heavy armor status behind and plunged into the Global War on Terror.

The tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles that were the hallmark of the 3rd Battalion 116th Cavalry Regiment were parked and locked up. Then the 500-plus part-time Eastern Oregon Guard force twice deployed to Iraq as light infantry relegated to utilizing light humvees and mine-resistant, ambush-protected heavy escort vehicles.

While the battalion earned an outstanding reputation in combat, its primary mission — to utilize tanks to fight our nation’s battles — was shelved.

Only now is the battalion — which consists of units from across Eastern Oregon — finally back to training on tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

“Since 2004 the battalion has been focusing on the war in Iraq and training on Humvees and dismounted patrols. This focus took the battalion away from tank training. Now that the war in Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan is winding down, the battalion is moving back to its main mission, which is training on the tank,” Maj. Joseph Lundell, La Grande, the operations officer for the 3rd Battalion, said.

The first big sign the battalion was going back to its traditional armor role was the 2012 delivery of the new, high-tech M1A2 SEP Abrams tank. The battalion was one of the first Guard units in the nation to receive the new “SEP” tank and Eastern Oregon troopers spent more than a year learning the new weapons system.

The vindication of the that training arrived last July at the desolate Orchard Combat Training Center south of Boise where the 3rd Battalion field-tested the new Abrams SEP. 

Yet the 2013 training stint at the Orchard Combat Training Center was just the first step on a long road back to full-fledged armor status for the regional Guard outfit.

Another sign the unit is going full-speed into the future was evident Nov. 16 at the Ontario Armory where four semi-trailers sat parked in the back lot of the installation. From a distance the semi-trailers were unremarkable. Yet collectively, the four trailers represented what is known as the Close Combat Tactical Trainer (or CCTT). 

The CCTT is a computer-focused, virtual simulator that duplicates an M1-A1 Abrams main battle tank. Two of the semi-trailers consist of exact replicas of the internal structure of the Abrams tank crew compartments. Another trailer boasts the high-tech computer system and a fourth trailer serves as a command and control center for the entire system.

“It’s the best piece of training equipment short of getting on the real thing,” Gary Whittier, a civilian contractor site manager for the CCTT said.

When tank crewmen from the battalion step into one of the CCTT simulators they are quite literally walking into a working Abrams, he said.

Yet there are some critical differences between the simulator and the real thing and one of the biggest revolves around money.

A company of battalion tankers – from either Ontario or Hermiston – can maneuver on the desert and shoot enemy vehicles without leaving their armory or spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on fuel and ammunition.

“It is the most cost-effective training device available to the Guard,” Whittier said.

The man in charge of all of the battalion’s tankers, Master Sgt. Daniel Ishaug, conceded the CCTT allows tankers to secure a sense of the modern battlefield without a huge infusion of taxpayer cash.

“We do multiple missions and it doesn’t cost in fuel,” he said.

The 3rd Battalion consists of Guard units from Hood River, The Dalles, Hermiston, Pendleton, La Grande, Baker City, Ontario and Woodburn.