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The Ghost & General Smith: Chapter 4 by Scott Weibling, Jordan Miller, and Matt Tweedy

St. Barbara, Patron Saint of Artillerymen

Chapter 4

February 2026. Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

General Smith stumbles into a dark room. His arrival clouds the air with dust. Mildewed boxes crowd the floor and rows of bookcases filled with old military publications line the walls. He stares at what must be hundreds of old aiming stakes and firing tables, randomly strewn about the floor.

Frustrated and tired, General Smith calls out, “Get to the point! I’m tired of getting jerked around! Tell me what you want or send me back!”

St. Barbara, unaffected by the dust, appears. “We are in beautiful Fort Sill, Oklahoma, at the Fires Center of Excellence. Before you are what's left of the Tabular and Graphical Firing Tables. The rest were sold to surplus shops, private collectors, or put in the Fiddler’s Green Museum. Manual gunnery has not been taught to Marine Artillery Officers (0802s) or Field Artillery Control Marines (0844s) in six months. A modest resistance has emerged, though. A group of senior officers and enlisted artillerymen are keeping these relics safe in hopes that manual gunnery is re-instated. I’ve brought you to see their last stand. Come with me.”

Logo of the Ft Sill Fires Center of Excellence

General Smith follows St. Barbara into the biting Oklahoma wind. The base was alive with US Army activity. He saw drill sergeants in smokey bears moving formations, privates in shirtsleeves on working parties, and instructors moving smartly between buildings. The best way to understand an 0802 was to spend a week on this old frontier base, its grounds haunted by the Indian Wars and soldiers teaching violent mathematics.

St. Barbara brought him to one of the fort’s newest buildings.

“This building houses the NMESIS program, an unmanned and networked capability, enabling distributed ground-based fires either via the NSM or the Land-based Tomahawk. This is the world’s first fifth-generation anti-ship and land attack cruise missile. The defunct classrooms we just left are no longer needed. This building is for the rare occasion that we do anything in person, though within five years Marines will stop coming to Fort Sill. The die was cast to cease funding manual gunnery and analog systems the moment NMESIS was funded. The Army no longer sees the benefit of spending their money to train, feed, and house Marines since we do not operate common systems. The DOD budget has been flat for 5 years. The NMESIS program required all the fires program funding once artillery regimental motor pools were refit to account for additional maintenance and storage space. Plus, the majority of NMESIS training and readiness tasks are now accomplished through simulation, which required additional facilities and software upgrades.”

St Barbara grabs General Smith by the collar and forces him through a wall. On the other side and unscathed, The Ghost and General Smith stand in another conference room. The Commanding General of Training and Education Command (CG TECOM) sits flanked by the Fort Still Marine Detachment Commander (CO MARDET Ft Sill), a seasoned colonel. He’s sweating and struggles to hide obvious frustration.

Logo of the Marine Corps' Training and Education Command

CG TECOM: “Colonel, I’m still not clear on why you think we should keep manual gunnery in your curriculum. We maintain only one cannon battery per artillery battalion. The cost vs benefit just doesn’t add up. The Army did away with manual gunnery years ago and reaped substantial cost savings. Their folks are saying performance has improved in junior soldiers and officers from additional time on simulators and online modules. Almost all the kids coming in today are at home with tablets and computers, and that’s where we need to be to maximize our future systems.”

CO MARDET Ft Sill: “General, that one cannon battery per battalion is the only option we have left to employ indirect fire support in a GPS-denied environment. Manual gunnery skills are an essential analog capability if automated computational means fail. Sir, as recently as 2018, a cannon battery resorted to manual cannon operations in Syria. In the fight expected for tomorrow’s wars, electronic attack is a reality. If the howitzer’s Digital Fire Control System or Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS) gets compromised by electronic attack, we’ll need manual computation.”

A Marine artillery gun and its crew in Syria, 2017

CG TECOM: “Colonel, howitzers are not part of the plan. We’ve moved past them. This debate has been had and decided. Shit, we don’t employ howitzers in any of our EABO simulations and wargames. They’re too heavy, slow, and can’t range targets from the first island chain.”

CO MARDET Ft Sill: “Sir, even the Tentative EABO Manual says that ‘the FMF as a whole is capable of EABO rather than designed exclusively for EABO’ (TM-EABO). I believe we need to preserve a cannon and manual gunnery capability for contingencies outside of the EABO construct. We both know the arc of instability is as volatile as ever. Our recent history shows that persistent fire support gave us an asymmetric advantage over our enemies.”

CG TECOM: “I understand your position and appreciate your passion, but that call has been made. We’re focused on China and cannons are not part of that fight. Before you retire, you’ll see the last cannon battery roll up their colors. Manual gunnery is dead. The NMESIS and HIMARS are automated for ease of use. Artillery lieutenants can understand everything to know about these systems from on-the-job training. There’s no manipulation or tinkering that a Marine can do to these systems. You know, I spoke with the Raytheon representative at a luncheon the other day and he told me that, once the system receives targeting information, all we need to do is push a button. We’d remove the Marine completely if the public wouldn’t throw a fit about robots indiscriminately killing everyone…but that’s coming. Given where we’re going, I wonder whether there’s utility in having the Fort Sill detachment at all. Why do we need to send lieutenants or Marines to Fort Sill? This six-month school puts a significant dent in our budget. If I were you, I’d focus more on saving the artillery school and less on archaic functions like manual gunnery.”

CO MARDET Ft Sill: “General, the curriculum can be shortened. At a minimum, we still need three months to train lieutenants in the fire support and Joint Fires Observer curriculum.”

CG TECOM: “I don’t think we’re on the same page, colonel. My budget’s not increasing, and we’re still trying to mature the force. The artillery MOS looks like a great place to save training money since we are implementing automated push button systems. My understanding is that, once AFATDS is fully integrated with the Joint All-Domain Command and Control system (JADC2), fire support coordination will be a thing of the past. AFATDS will receive targeting data and automatically pick the best weapon to target match. Once the system is fired, the missile’s built-in sensors will see and avoid friendly systems with encrypted IFF codes. No one’s hanging mission cards and calculating ‘stay aboves’ and ‘stay belows’ anymore, colonel. What will you teach Marines here? Lieutenants can take a JADC2 course virtually before executing orders to their first duty station after TBS. Eventually, the only Marines on this base will be a small staff for integrating with the Army. Build some COAs and send them my way. I want to know how you think we can divest equipment and return the instructor cadre to the fleet. These automated systems will save us millions by not having to send artillery lieutenants and enlisted Marines to Fort Sill. On the job training will suffice. Thanks for the brief, colonel. Oh, and one other thing. I’d like one of those old sticks with the numbers on it. And a 105mm case for my desk…if you have some lying around.”

The general abruptly stands, forcing the others in the room to jump to attention. He puts them at ease and shakes every hand before hurrying out the building towards a waiting SUV. Some of the Fort Sill Marines are shocked. Others, including the colonel, had reached acceptance before the general left the room.

“There you have it, General Smith," says Saint Barbara curtly. “14 years before the disaster in the Pacific, analog artillery died. Memory and skills mothballed alongside the cannons. Only the most senior artillery Marines remember the procedures, but their memories grow less reliable and valuable each day.”

“But we were assured that the systems were resilient to electronic attack. We knew the adversary would try to shut us down. We were confident the lights would never actually go out.”

Saint Barbara and General Smith then walked through Fiddler’s Green, into the white light, and disappeared.

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