The Army's oldest special ops unit jumps into the future of warfare.
Pressing toward the door of the C-130 transport after the short flight from Fort Benning's Lawson Army Airfield, you catch a glimpse of the Chattahoochee River and the drop zone just beyond in Alabama. The knot in your stomach tightens when you see the jump light turn from red to green. In a heartbeat you are at the door, and ready to take the first step toward becoming a member et the legendary U.S. Army Airborne Rangers.
"Your first combat jump itself isn't really all that different from peacetime," says Command Sgt. Maj. Douglas Greenway, thinking back to the night the earned the gold combat star on his own jump wings. "Because of all the events that are going on there's a lot of stress--thinking about the mission, your men, and so forth. But for the most part, you're confident like these soldiers and noncommissioned officers [NCOs]. Because if the training and the attitude that they have, the worry is not what it would be in a unit that doesn't have the money and the resources that we get to do our training here in the Ranger regiment. Those are what separate us. The great attitude. The resources. And the money and time that we get to do our training."
To learn more about how Airborne Rangers train, POPULAR MECHANICS is spending a week with this highly elite combat organization. "We are the largest direct-action force in the special operations community," says Col. Ken Keen, 75th Ranger Regiment commanding officer. Part of the U.S. Army's Special Operations Command, the 75th Regiment comprises three 600- to 700- man battalions of Rangers. The 1st Battalion, 75th Rangers is based at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga. The 2nd Battalion 75th Rangers is based at Fort Lewis, Wash. And, the 3rd Battalion, 75th Rangers, together with regimental headquarters, is based at Fort Benning, Ga.
"Our force structure is very much along the lines of a light infantry unit," Keen says, explaining some of the unique aspects of Army Ranger operations. "Our primary missions exist in the realm of being able to conduct forcible-entry direct-action missions. In particular, our missions include conducting forcible-entry operations to seize an airfield for a variety of purposes and to conduct raids behind enemy lines--anywhere from a platoon-size raid, which we did in Desert Storm, up to a battalion size. I like to say that we're a tactical force with a strategic impact."
The Price Of Admission
You cannot simply enlist in the Airborne Rangers. First you have to prove you have the makings of a competent soldier. It all begins with nine weeks of U.S. Army initial basic training, which all enlistees undergo. From there, it is on to five more weeks of advanced individual training, with the majority of Ranger candidates focused on developing infantry skills. If you are still up for the challenge, you then learn how to jump out of an airplane, with three weeks of Airborne training culminating with your first jump to earn basic jump wings.
Now the slope begins to get steep. All Ranger candidates must pass through the Regimental Training Detachment. Here, privates and corporals complete the Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP). NCOs and officers attend a similar Ranger Orientation Program (ROP).
"The cadre at the training detachment is here to assess individuals for potential service in the regiment," says 1st Sgt. lames Hardy, who had his first combat experience in Somalia in 1993. The assessment focuses on tough physical and academic standards. Of the 34 soldiers in the RIP class that PM observed, there were 22 failures. Voluntary withdrawals normally account for another 15 to 20 percent attrition during the three-week indoctrination phase. Completion of RIP/ROP is the basic price of admission. It allows a soldier to join the 75th Ranger Regiment where he serves for six to 12 months before being sent to the Army's 62-day Ranger School. It is only after completion of this exhausting leadership training experience that the soldier returns to the regiment with the coveted gold Ranger tab above his left shoulder, and the right to wear the distinctive Ranger beret.
The color of that beret recently became the center of a controversy, the outcome of which remains undecided as this issue of PM goes to press. For the past quarter century Airborne Rangers, and only Airborne Rangers, have had Department of the Army permission to wear the black beret. Last October, Gen. Eric Shinseki, Army chief of staff, decided that the black beret should be standard issue for the entire Army. He reasoned that the black beret is a symbol of quality that will spur all units toward Ranger standards of excellence, as the Army itself attempts to becomes more Ranger-like by transforming into a lighter, more rapidly deployable force ("Army's New Ride," Feb. 2001, page 52). Veteran Airborne Rangers reacted swiftly and negatively. A compromise may have the entire Army in black berets, except for the Airborne Rangers, whose new berets may be tan.
Crawl, Walk, Run
In response to the uncertain needs of special operations mission planners, the Army's Ranger battalions cycle through three different readiness postures. A component training cycle focuses on reinforcing individual and small-unit tactical skills. The operational preparation phase ties those skills into the activities of larger units and joint forces. And, a "ready" phase ensures that a powerful combat-capable force can be called up within 18 hours upon notification.
PM joins the 1st Battalion, 75th Regiment during its operational preparation cycle. Here we have the chance to observe the regiment's crawl-walk-run training philosophy in mastering the Fast Rope Infiltration Exfiltration System that quickly delivers large numbers of Rangers from rotary-wing aircraft. Fast-roping is often likened to sliding down a firehouse pole. Only this pole is a 40-, 60- or 80-ft. length of thick, composite nylon rope, with the soldier's gloved hands acting as the brake. The crawl-walk-run training starts on the battalion's 50-ft. fixed-platform fast-rope tower where all Rangers demonstrate their ability under increasingly heavy combat loads, during the day and at night. From here, training moves to the airfield where the ropes are suspended from different types of helicopters. Finally, members of the unit demonstrate what they have mastered by fast-roping from helicopters during live-fire training exercises.
Matching Weapons To Missions
The Fast Rope Infiltration Exfiltration System is only one of a plethora of unique combat tools Rangers use to accomplish their demanding missions. "We're always looking to equip the man and not man the equipment," explains Keen. "We understand that the most lethal weapon on the battlefield is the individual Ranger, so we want to provide him with the best and most modern equipment but not to purchase equipment just for the sake of purchasing equipment."
Following this philosophy, Rangers are equipped with a wide range of small arms starting with the M4 5.56mm carbine, which includes the Special Operations Peculiar Modification package. The package provides multiple accessory mounting surfaces for optical and aiming devices. Additional modifications include a muzzle-mounted sound suppressor, commonly called a silencer.
Several Rangers also supplement their small arms arsenal with an additional Remington Model 870 combat shotgun. The M203 add-on to the M4 and the standalone M79 provide grenade-launching capability. The sound-suppressed M4 is also one of the weapons available to the Ranger sniper teams. Depending on the adversary they expect to face, other weapon options available to the snipers range from the SR25 7.62mm Stoner rifle from Knight's Armament Co.--for use in an urban environment--to the M82A1.50-cal. Barrett sniper rifle. Ranger machine gunners rely on the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon modified with the M5 collapsible paratrooper buttstock and a forward handgrip.
One of the most fearsome capabilities of the Ranger regiment is its antitank weaponry. It comes in the form of three company teams equipped with the M3 84mm Ranger Anti Armor Weapon System and the Javelin anti-armor missile.
The Airborne Rangers also have an awesome indirect-fire capability, courtesy of each battalion's mortar section. Mission planners can match the weapon to the threat by choosing among the M224 60mm, M252 81mm and M120 120mm mortar.
Rangers On Wheels
By definition, the Army's Airborne Rangers arrive by air. But this does not mean they have to go without wheels. With us in tow, they travel with Land Rover Model 110 Defenders that ride inside CH-47 series cargo helicopters. A dozen of these Ranger Special Operations Vehicles (RSOVs) are assigned to Company A in each Ranger battalion. The vehicles operate in three platoons of four vehicles each.
"The RSOV isn't a fighting platform," says 1st Lt. Chris Ayers. "It's a means of moving people around quickly with crew-served weapons. The whole idea is to move out quickly, put your weapons in place, and defend somewhere with those heavy weapons."
Along with moving Rangers and automatic weapons, other RSOVs are configured for medical transport and moving the battalion's mortars.
RSOV platoons are also equipped with a number of military motorcycles. From 1988 to 1995, the Airborne Rangers relied on the Honda CR 250. In 1996, they switched to the Kawasaki KLR250, which is used today. The 1st Battalion is also experimenting with a new bike, based on the Suzuki DS80. One of the chief attractions of this smaller bike is that it can be palletized and dropped from aircraft along with the Rangers.
As the tip of America's strategic spear, the Rangers have top-flight radios for communicating among themselves and with commanders in the United States. Their newest field radios come with a control that straps to the wrist. This eliminates the need to pull the radio from a rucksack during intense operations. And, it underscores the importance of the small details that help the Rangers maintain their winning edge.
PM catches a glimpse of how well the Rangers' specialized equipment and hundreds of hours of training come together during the 1st Battalion's Gunsmoke field exercise, held at Fort Stewart, Ga. This is the "run" part of the training philosophy--the Rangers hone their skills in an environment that closely simulates actual combat.
Here, as we watch one group of Rangers arrive in Air Force special operations helicopters, another battalion conducts live-fire missions with M252 81mm mortars, shown on this page. In between these two operations, observers direct the delivery of cannon and rocket fire from 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment helicopters that are hovering only a few feet above the treetops ("Special Ops," Jan. 1999, page 50).
Lt. Col. Raymond Thomas, commander of the 1st Battalion, joins PM as we watch the training. He is pleased with what he sees, especially the regiment's tactical flexibility. "From restrictive rules of engagement conflicts to high-intensity urban combat, we can bring all available firepower assets into play," he says. "This battalion, as with all Ranger battalions, is prepared to fight in all extremes and conditions."
The, Army's Airborne Rangers use a diverse arsenal, with the firepower for a particular mission determined by the objective and the anticipated level of resistance. For example, in addition to the M224 60mm mortar shown here, the Ranger's armory contains 81mm and 120mm versions. Other basic weapons include the: M240B 7.62mm machine gun; M4 5.56mm carbine with an M203 40mm grenade launcher; M4 with a forward grip, special optics and a silencer; M249 5.56mm Squad Automatic; SR25 7.62mm Stoner sniper rifle; M79 40mm grenade launcher; Remington Model 870 12-ga. combat shotgun; M3 84mm Ranger Anti Armor Weapon System; and M82A1 .50-cal. Barrett "Light Fifty" rifle.
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