Mortars
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By William S. Frisbee Jr.

 

Mortarman.jpg (97681 bytes)One of the most dreaded and revered weapons of an infantryman is mortars. Mortars are light weight and man portable (so say the people not carrying the bastards!) In many militaries light infantry units have a mortar section (three mortars)in every company. In World War Two some German units had a mortar with every platoon.

The mortar was 'born' in World War One. Originally the mortar was built to lob an explosive in a high angle arc so it would land in narrow enemy trenches. Artillery had too much of a flat trajectory and wasn't able to land inside the enemy trenches, but mortars, who's round went almost strait up and came almost strait down, did a magnificent job.

M244 Mortar

The angle of the round is the major difference between artillery and mortars. Some mortars are too large to be man portable (like a 120mm which is towed). A mortar round has a very steep arc while the artillery round has a flatter trajectory. Another difference is that mortars fire rounds at slower speeds than artillery so they must be fired at a higher angle to achieve any range.

Since then it has become a valuable tool for infantry units. Many commanders use mortars as a kind of pocket artillery battery. Because mortars are light enough to be carried they can accompany infantry units through rugged terrain a vehicle could not. The disadvantage is ammunition, it gets heavy and somebody has to carry it. One way to get around this for a light infantry unit in the attack is to have every member of the company carry a mortar round (or two). When the company is getting ready to attack they drop off their rounds near the mortar crews.

Mortars are also a favored weapon of guerrillas and terrorists. A mortar does not have to see the target to fire at it. Mortars can fire over hills, buildings, rivers, ect.

A mortar crew usually consists of at least three members. The gunner controls the deflection and elevation of the D&E mechanism. The assistant gunner loads the round at the command of the gunner. The Ammunition man prepares and hands over ammunition to the assistant gunner. More members may be available to a mortar team to help carry ammo and provide security.

Usually mortars consist of three elements. The tube also called the cannon or barrel, the baseplate and the D&E mount.

The baseplate is important to support and help align the mortar for firing. Without a baseplate the tube would bury itself in the ground and ruin the accuracy of two or more shots. Some mortars may also have a sight mechanism that can be used like a rifle sight. Although the sight does not point along the barrel of the mortar (more like at a 80 degree angle) it is useful when a mortarman can physically see his target.

Mortars are best deployed when they are out of sight of the enemy. This way the enemy cannot shoot back with regular weapons.

A mortar round is usually not as powerful as an artillery round but mortars are usually more available to the individual squad or platoon leader. Mortars provide every company with its own 'artillery'.

It should be noted that most mechanized infantry units do not have organic mortars at the company level. In mechanized or motorized battalions, the mortar is a battalion level weapon. This might have to do with the fact heavier, direct fire weapons are available and mechanized units usually fight mechanized units.

Mortars work very well against dismounted infantry and light vehicles but against tanks and armored personnel carriers their use is limited.

The mortar is good for more than just 'blowing up' the enemy. There are numerous types of mortar rounds that are usually available. High explosives are the most common. Smoke rounds are used to conceal friendly movement or mark enemy positions for air strikes. It should be noted that smoke rounds are best fired on the enemy instead of friendly troops. This way friendly forces are less restricted by the use of smoke and don't 'come out of the smoke into waiting enemy machine guns.' while the enemy cannot even see his fellow soldiers. 82mm Mortar

White Phosphorus is another favorite. It burns, even under water and the fumes are toxic. It is not fun to sit in a fighting hole while everything burns down around you have to breath toxic fumes. While the fumes do not kill someone who breaths them, like nerve gas, they are not exactly harmless either. White Phosphorus or WP can also be used to mark a target for air strikes because it generates a lot of smoke and is visible to a fast moving attack fighter.

Another good round is the Illumination round. The Illum round basically fires a powerful parachute flare into the sky that can provide a great deal of light for night fighting.

There is presently an artillery round that is fired up into the sky where a sensor targets armored vehicles below it. Because the round attacks weaker top armor it can be very effective. It may be only a matter of time before this type of round is designed for the mortar. 120mm Mortar on trailer

Accuracy is acquired by employing maps, forward observers and formulas that take into account the range, wind, type of round, ect. A forward observer calls in the location of the enemy to the mortar section leader (or commander). The section leader determines where the mortars are at in relation to the enemy. Determining the distance the section leader calculates what angle the mortars have to be and what deflection (left-right) setting it must have. The section leader then calls out the settings to the gunners who set the gun accordingly. Mortar rounds also have charge settings. The larger the charge, the more powerful the explosion that propels the round out of the tube. Then the section leader may direct one mortar to fire a 'spotting round'. When the observer sees where the spotting round hits he calls back corrections to the section leader who passes it on to the gunners.

When the round hits near the enemy the observer directs the section leader to 'Fire for Effect.' At this point all the mortars fire so many rounds as directed by the section leader.

One or more mortars may be directed to fire a different type of round (like WP instead of HE). Because the weight of the round effects the trajectory needed and the number of charges, the team firing different rounds needs different settings for their mortar.

Tactics: Basically the tactics for a mortar team are simple. Attack the enemy without being seen. The best way to do this is to have someone that can see the enemy radio the mortar team and tell the mortar team where the enemy is, what they are doing ect. When the mortar fires the observer can tell the mortar team where they are hitting and how to adjust their fire so they hit the enemy. This is how it used to be.

Technology is changing this. Radar units can detect mortar rounds in flight, determine where they came from and radio the location to friendly artillery or mortars who will return fire. They also do this with artillery.

Another threat is the enemy may be able to locate, jam or otherwise disrupt radio communications. If the enemy can pinpoint where the radios are they can bomb the radio operators.

This means mortar men will have a shorter life span if they are not careful. In favor of the mortar men, GPS systems help pinpoint locations and ranges, making fire missions faster, more accurate and much more deadly.

The key to survival is to fire and move out of the area very quickly.

Mortar are also very noisy and a patrol could be sent to find the mortar team.

Because a mortar team is usually pretty small, they can move rapidly and undetected. A mortar raid is a favorite guerrilla tactic. A small mortar team infiltrates into an area with a limited amount of ammo. Fires off the ammo and retreats before the enemy can respond.

If the enemy is in protected positions (with overhead cover) mortars may still inflict casualties but perhaps more important, random mortar attacks can demoralize the enemy.

Direct Fire: Some mortars can be used in a 'direct fire' mode. This does not mean the gunner aims the muzzle directly at the enemy however. The gunner can use sights or 'eyeball' it (which is least accurate).

Fire Mission: This is the important part. A forward observer can't just say "they are over by that tree" and expect the mortars to hit the enemy. Frequently the mortar team cannot see the target at all.

The fire mission for mortars and artillery is basically the same. Before getting on the radio the forward observer must have some idea of where he is at. Mortars and artillery can kill friendly troops just as easily as the enemy. Or, the forward observer must know exactly where the enemy is at.

Regardless, the observer should be able to pass on where the enemy is to the mortar (or artillery) unit. It is usually best to tell the mortar section where the enemy is at rather than the FO (Forward Observer). Misunderstanding the transmission can mean the mortars will fire at the FO's location thinking it is the enemy location. This is NOT healthy for the FO. The enemy may also intercept the transmission and do unto the FO before he does unto them.

If the mortar team does know where the FO is (like hidden on a hill in a defensive position) the FO can just call in a direction and distance. The FO can use grid coordinates or can adjust off a designated point (like a hill top or a registered point. A registered point is a place on a map where the mortar unit has already made the calculations to hit.

Firing on a registered point is usually one of the fastest methods.

Here is an example of a fire mission;

"Fox four, Fox four, this is Bravo two. Adjust fire, over," FO would say telling the mortars (F4) to prepare for a fire mission and fire one round at a time. The command "Fire for effect may also be given but if the FO is incorrect or the guns are not accurately set, a great many rounds will be wasted.

"Bravo two this is Fox four, adjust fire out," the mortar section would acknowledge and repeat.

"Grid 455-288. Enemy platoon in the open, over" the FO says informing the mortars of where and what the enemy is. The FO might say "Direction 2400, Distance six hundred meters" and the FO might give more information on the enemy and what the enemy is doing.

Again the Mortar section would repeat the transmission and say 'out'.

"Fire when ready, over," the FO says. The FO might also say 'fire on my command.'

After acknowledging, the mortars would fire. When they fire they might tell the FO "Shot over" to let the FO know the rounds are in the air.

The FO would reply "Shot out."

About five seconds before the rounds hit the mortarman would say "Splash over".

This tells the FO that the rounds are about to hit and he should prepare himself (by taking cover or looking for where the rounds hit). The FO would respond "Splash out."

When the round(s) hit the FO locates the impact and determines how far away from the enemy it is. He will then call back to the mortarmen and say "Left four hundred meters, drop one hundred meters." or right so many meters, up so many meters. The FO might also say North two hundred meters, East so many meters, ect. If the FO has given the mortarmen an azimuth they he can adjust left, right, ect. (this is the 'Direction' bit.) Otherwise he must use north, south, east or west.

When the impact of the mortar round is close enough the FO says "Fire for Effect, over". The mortarman says "Fire for effect, out," and gives the command to his mortar teams who begin firing multiple rounds.

Of course the enemy isn't going to sit still while things blow up around him. The best way to avoid getting blown up is to run very fast into a location where nobody can see you.

Forward Observing for a mortar or artillery unit is an art form and the FO must have some idea of what mortars and artillery are capable of. This is why many units have special radio operators who are trained as FO's.

One way to insure accuracy is to 'bracket' the target. Try to hit around the enemy. For instance the first round falls two hundred meters to the left of the enemy (you guestimate). So you tell the mortar team to shoot three hundred meters to the right. See where the round hits and then make another adjustment. If it hits where you guessed you tell the mortar team to shift fire left one hundred meters and fire for effect.

This is another case where reading a map is critical for the FO so he can figure out where the enemy is at and the mortarmen so they can figure out where they are at in relation to the enemy.

Laser range finders and GPS units are incredibly powerful tools because they allow great precision and help take a lot of guessing out of the equation.

Several things about mortars. Mortar rounds cannot 'blow up' tanks. For all intents and purposes, mortar rounds are nothing more than beefed up hand grenades. Consider the round, how big it is and the reality behind its manufacture.

Another thing I would like to mention is the 'whining' noise often heard in movies before the round impacts. The target does not hear that. Even artillery does not make that sound for the enemy. The only people who hear that are the people who are listening to the round passing by over head. A bullet (or artillery shell) breaks the sound barrier and in doing so makes a sound. Mortars do not break this sound barrier no more than a beach ball does. You don't hear a beach ball falling on you and you probably wouldn't hear a piano falling on you unless the wind blowing by it created some noise (like a flute).

The enemy might hear the mortar firing from two or more kilometers away (mortars are very loud) but the whistling is something from the movies.

 

The Future

In the future, mortars may be magazine fed. While some mortars are breech loaded, some are not. A magazine fed mortar would allow the mortar team to fire a large number of rounds very quickly. Computers could be used to program the magazine which would set the appropriate charges and settings.

Settings on the mortar may include airburst, burrowing (so it explodes several seconds after impact) and regular impact. It also might be able to set a sensor signature for the target, like a specific tank.

Eventually mortar rounds may have to be 'stealthed' so enemy radar cannot track them. This would make them very expensive.

Automated mortar defense networks may be used to detect incoming mortar (and artillery) rounds, back track their trajectory, pinpoint the location of the enemy mortar(s) or cannon(s) and transmit a fire mission to automated mortar or artillery units. All this could occur within seconds of the attacking mortars firing. The attackers rounds may not have even hit the ground before they are coming under fire.

Because mortars are noisy, sensors built into troopers helmets might be able to network and pinpoint the firing mortar by sound alone. This will probably not be a conscious activity on part of the trooper and it will be computer controlled. Computers would also determine if the mortars (or artillery) is friendly or enemy.

Already radar units can backtrack mortar rounds and help locate the enemy mortar. Technology will only make it easier.

It is my believe that mortars will be like LAW's or other disposable rockets. A futuristic mortar could be a single shot or a magazine fed and automated, 'disposable' weapon. The infantryman places the mortar in a location. Later when he needs fire support he transmits the needed information to the mortar's onboard computer which makes the necessary calculations and fires the rounds. With the ability to determine his precise location and that of the enemy, things would be greatly simplified for the mortar allowing it to shoot very accurately.

By the time enemy forces returned fire on the mortar position, the mortar would be out of ammo and useless anyway. The infantryman would be safely out of range of whatever was trying to blow up the automated mortar.

Current technology allows forces to target and shoot down enemy missiles, using anti-missiles (like the Patriot) or chain guns (like on ships) that shoot thousands of rounds a minute at detected threats. Lasers (or some other energy weapon) might replace chain guns. It may be only a matter of time before mortar, artillery, or rockets can be targeted in-flight and destroyed by dedicated units.

War is not getting any easier is it?

 

 

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