An Army Reserve unit in Iowa has created a training course to address atrophied individual weapons skills in the noncommissioned officer corps. And unit officials hope to expand the training across the entire Reserve.
The two-week Small Arms Trainer Course (SAT-C) -- launched by the 103rd Expeditionary Support Command, headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa -- focuses on everything from field-stripping Army small arms to tackling the service's new rifle qualification standards.
The need for SAT-C grew out of Operation Cold Steel, a series of exercises from 2017 to 2019 that focused on mounted machine gun gunnery as part of an effort to make the force more lethal, said Lt. Col. Craig Lanigan, former commander of Task Force Cold Steel from 2018 to 2019.
Thousands of Reserve soldiers qualified on Humvee-mounted medium and heavy machine guns during Cold Steel I, II and III, but the effort also exposed a lack of small-arms proficiency in the NCO corps of Reserve units, said Lanigan, who has been a key player in standing up SAT-C in the 103rd.
When Cold Steel ended, individual Reserve commands were supposed to start managing their own gunnery programs.
"But if you talked to people, they will tell you they are not ready for that," Lanigan said.
"The NCO corps needs weapons proficiency; they need institutional training for weapons proficiency," he added.
Shortly before Cold Steel ended in September 2019, Lanigan and several members of the Cold Steel mobile weapons training team received permission to run a pilot version of SAT-C in July of that year.
"We thought if we could just train NCOs to go back to their unit and start at the lowest level ... what's to stop these E-5s, E-6s and E-7s from putting on weapons classes themselves," said Sgt. 1st Class Shane Hicks, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the SAT-C.
Before Cold Steel, Hicks did not have extensive weapons knowledge and worked as an ammunition specialist and a supply specialist.
"When you came in to become part of the Cold Steel crew, the mobile training team, you would learn these weapons systems and you would have to do a teach back," Hicks said. "If I was tasked with giving a class on the .50 cal., I would stand up there in front of the rest of our members, and I would be critiqued on the way that I delivered the message, my knowledge, my posture, my voice inflection and all of that.
"Nobody really told us to do this, but when you get that many guys that care about what they are doing in one spot, it morphs and you say, 'Now what can I do; how can it be better?" he added.
A year after that pilot SAT-C, Lanigan got approval to establish the course as part of Operation Cactus Gunnery, which began at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, in July.
The course focuses on the basics of the M9 9mm pistol, M16/M4 5.56mm series, M249 5.56mm squad automatic weapon, M240B 7.62mm machine gun, M2/M2A1 .50 caliber machine gun and the MK-19 40mm grenade launcher.
The first phase of SAT-C consists of hands-on familiarization: loading, clearing and performing functions checks; and breakdown and reassembly of the six different weapon systems. Students from throughout the 103rd also had to demonstrate their familiarity with the various weapons by presenting a class back to the instructors for evaluation.
Instructors stress the need to build an institutional knowledge of small arms in Reserve units, which typically don't have time to devote to the key soldier skill.
"If you are lucky, you are going to qualify once a year, maybe, on an M4, and that's it," Hicks said. "But what happens if there is ever a situation where I may need to fire a machine gun? We're giving soldiers a fighting chance and the knowledge they need to protect themselves if the situation arises."
The SAT-C's culmination puts students through the Army's new rifle qualification standards. The service unveiled the new, four-phase standards in April 2019 to replace a Cold War-era qualification with one that forces soldiers to engage targets faster and to operate as they would during an enemy engagement.
"That is the new hot topic in the Reserves. A lot of soldiers don't even know there is a new qualification, and the majority of them have no idea how it works," Hicks said.
The new course of fire forces soldiers to engage targets from the standing, prone and kneeling positions, while advancing and changing magazines as needed.
In a recent Army news release about the SAT-C course, one student, Sgt. Carol Maluafou of the 980th Quartermaster Company in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, called changing magazines quickly the most difficult part of the new qualification course.
"As you transition, it's pretty intense, and you have to ensure you don't frag anyone with your weapon," Maluafou said in the release, explaining how she had to focus more on pointing her weapon in a safe direction during mag changes. "We must treat every weapon as if it's loaded."
From July to October, the 103rd ESC conducted four SAT-Cs, training about 60 soldiers to be weapons experts in their units. In November, the unit will complete Operation Cactus Gunnery, which involves mounted gunnery training for gun crews.
Ideally, Lanigan and his team of SAT-C instructors would like to see the course expand across the Reserve one day.
Lanigan wants to propose that SAT-C become a prerequisite for the Army Reserve Command's Senior Gunner Course, a school that teaches NCOs how to conduct mounted gunnery in their units.
"You really shouldn't send a person to the Senior Gunner Course if they are not a SAT-C graduate," Lanigan said. "This is a rigorous two-week course, and if they like it, and they are motivated, then they should go to Senior Gunner school."
For now, Col. Keith Barta, chief of staff for the 103rd, plans to have the course continue to focus on training NCOs in the roughly 7,000-soldier ESC.
"I am definitely going to push for this course to continue," Barta told Military.com. "It is an integral part of what the 103rd is doing to increase overall weapons proficiency."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.