2008/07/03

Mortars and howitzers

Mortars have evolved significantly in the past years. Up until the 80's, crude automatic mortars like the 2B9 Vasilek (82 mm) and rifled mortars like the French TDA MO 120 RT (120 mm) were exotic exceptions.

These days, it looks like automatic 120mm mortars on vehicles are in the procurement focus - towed 120mm mortars receive little attention.

The mounting of 120mm mortars in APCs is not new; but these days the projects are often about automatic mortars and even turret-mounted, direct fire-capable mortars.
This requires not only a turret and an autoloader; it requires a recoiling mechanism, often breech loading and some models have fixed ammunition without auxiliary charges, comparable to cannons.

Such mounted "mortars" are in fact more a wild new mixture of cannon, howitzer, mortar and auto cannon. The ranges increased from traditional 6-7 km to 15 km and more. Rifled 120mm mortars are more accurate than mortar users are used to, and guided or at least trajectory-corrected munitions have the same accuracy as the respective howitzer munitions.

A turreted 120mm mortar is closer to a Soviet 2S1 122mm self-propelled howitzer than to a classic 120mm mortar.
The FCS systems NLOS-C (SPH) and NLOS-M (SP mortar) are based on the same vehicle and shall be equally embedded in the radio network.

This begs the question; shouldn't this lead to changes in the employment, organization? Is it really a good idea to insist on calling these weapons "mortars"?

The weapon and its ammunition isn't the only thing that changed a lot. The network approach to C3, especially communications, changes modern armies.

I'm aware of the task organization of artillery and mortars; most of the time they have different jobs. That's how it was done for about 90 years. It's time to check whether the understanding of indirect firepower organization needs an update.

If direct combat units really want/need more complex, mobile and protected indirect fire assets that come close to the light SPH that we removed from our arsenals in the past decades, should they really limit their mission to traditional mortar missions?

Does it make sense to insist on the rather short-ranged (less than 20 km) "mortars" to insure themselves against higher headquarters demands to use these weapons as focus of effort weapons? That requires a good amount of distrust to superiors in my opinion.

Let's think about this; we standardize on a medium SPH for artillery, infantry and armor units (with towed howitzers as alternative stored weapon for air-mobile infantry operations in mountainous terrain). The step in costs from a light SPH-alike mounted mortar to a regular 155mm SPH isn't very large anymore - but the range difference still is.

The direct combat units (infantry and armor) would have priority for their organic indirect firepower (SPHs), but the secondary mission of these systems is to provide horizontal fire support.

The classic way is to ask for fire support by superior units (battalion asks brigade brigade asks division, division asks corps) - that's probably too limited.
Combat teams could provide horizontal fire support to adjacent combat teams as well, regularly. They'd just need the range to do so.
The range is probably the only significant difference between complex "mortars" and regular SPHs. All other differences like logistical and C2 arrangements can be changed - the change would just require orders from the responsible general, there's nothing prohibiting such a change except human inertia.

This horizontal fire support would be limited by the priorities and the available ammunition stocks - but it would be an add-on to the existing capabilities, not necessarily causing a downgrade of artillery capabilities.

Combat team leaders might fear that their own fire support would not be available for their own team when they need it. But that could be solved with proper ammunition supply and highest-ranked standing orders about the priorities.

The ability to support other units up to 30 or 40 km away instead of just up to about 15 km away could lead to a drastic improvement of direct fire support availability and we could save the resources for another AFV version and even eliminate one type of ammunition from the logistical system.
The additional costs would be the small difference between regular SPH and gold-plated mounted "mortars" plus small changes in the support structure (possibly resupply vehicles). The latter costs are kind of "variable", as they depend a lot on how much the new capability would be used.

Light/medium mortars are an entirely different story; they don't overlap much with artillery capabilities and tasks. I'm a strong proponent of rather simple mortars for the infantry. But even there the horizontal support fire concept should be embraced to the limits of the mortar's range.

Sven Ortmann

1 comment:

  1. I hear that some ordinary, infantry-carried mortars can take gliding ammunition that vastly extends their range, and that computer targeting makes such mortars very accurate.

    That's all the exciting news I've heard about mortars. IMHO when a mortar is put on a tank turret, it's just another cannon.

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