2009/04/02

Bundeswehr mortars

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Mortars have historically been quite cheap, simple and lightweight high angle fire support weapons for the infantry (albeit very large and complicated ones and very early ones were part of the artillery). The French army uses 120mm mortars as an alternative armament for its light artillery batteries as far as I know.
The major post-WW2 mortar calibres are 51-60mm, 81/82mm and 120mm with few exceptions.

Easily portable 51-60mm mortars without bipods were (and still are) used as platoon-level weapons, with an emphasis on illumination, smoke and direct HE fire. This is still quite popular in Commonwealth armies and Israel, but 40mm grenade weapons (especially such with 40x46mm medium velocity cartridges) are a decent substitute.

60mm mortars with bipod are in use in few countries as company mortars, but lacking in punch unless high quality HE-frag ammunition is used. 60mm are crew-portable, but the weight of weapon and ammunition limits this potential to exceptions. Long 60mm mortars achieve ranges similar to old 81mm mortars.

81mm (NATO, actually 81.4mm) and 82mm (Russia) calibres are in use as company or battalion fire support. The movement of such a mortar and its ammunition without vehicle is practical only over short distances. 81mm mortar bombs could be guided, but this is very uncommon and rather inefficient. Long 81mm mortars achieve ranges similar to old 120mm mortars.

120mm mortars were invented by the Russians, copied by Germans in WW2 and became very wide-spread after the war because everyone had felt their effectiveness.
120mm mortars are both capable of using cargo (bomblets or multiple small smoke agent packages) or guided mortar bombs. The French developed (and successfully exported) rifled 120mm mortars of good impact dispersion. 120mm mortars of today can reach the ranges of WW2 150mm howitzers, albeit with an often unsatisfactory dispersion at long range.

160/240mm mortars still exist in Finland, Russia and Israel. They fire very slowly and are niche weapons (for busting individual buildings, for example).


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The German army (Heer) appreciates the value of mortars - they're (according to our manuals) important high angle fire support weapons of all Panzergrenadier-, Jäger-, Gebirgsjäger- and Fallschirmjäger- battalions.
It even acknowledges in its manuals that the three light infantry battalion types would usually not have artillery or air support in combat (due to the fire support being focused on the Schwerpunkt). These battalions need to rely on mortars for indirect, high angle fire support.
Mortars are acknowledged as an important component of attack, defence and anti-tank combat. Indirect fires are often the only asset that a mountain infantry battalion can move quickly to address a crisis.
Mortars are the "pocket artillery" of the battalion commander.


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The Heer (army) has kept the mortar platoon fire control almost up-to-date so far.

We bought a mortar ballistic computer (1980's technology) during the 1990's and replace the forward observer's sensor with a modern one (with a good infrared sensor).
The mortar platoons can also connect with the artillery's fire control system ("ADLER").
The old mortar-specific forward observers were replaced by all-round forward observers (joint fire support teams, JFST). It might be a good idea to add more provisional mortar forward observer skills to squad and platoon level, though.


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Yet, our mortar force is quite ill-equipped. We've mediocre weapons, vehicles and ammunition in our mortar force. The usual notion that high quality equipment is useful for the mission had no visible effect on the German mortar force.

Issue A) The Panzergrenadiere (~ mechanized infantry) lost their mortar component (6th, heavy company) in 2004.
The armoured troops (Panzerbrigaden and Panzergrenadierbrigaden) depend entirely on the artillery for high angle indirect fires now. That's simply not acceptable in my opinion.

Issue B) The Bundeswehr uses exclusively 120mm mortars.
It can be argued that this is OK because we have 40mm grenade pistols and a single mortar calibre is like Aspirin for the logisticians. 120mm also provides the most bang per soldier.
Yet, it appears that all those armies that decided to use 60 or 81mm mortars might have reasons for their choice.
We banned bomblet munitions - our lethal 120mm mortar bomb is thus now legally limited to the HE/fragmentation type. Fragmentation warheads efficiency declines ceteris paribus with increasing calibre. The fragmentation effect of one ton of 120mm mortar bombs is inferior to the fragmentation effect of one ton of 60 or 81mm mortar bombs. That was the whole idea behind cargo/bomblet ammunition; to mate the good external ballistics of a big shot with many tiny fragmentation warheads for maximum fragmentation.

Issue C) Outdated and worn-out equipment
The Bundeswehr bought more than 600 120mm mortars of "Tampella" (Finnish) and "Brandt" (French - I think that's now TDA) patterns in the 50's and 60's.
Most were mounted (during the Cold War) in the MTW (APC), a mortar version of the M113. The others were truck-mobile.
Material fatigue and small cracks were found in "Tampella" mortar barrels 1988. It was unknown after about four decades of service how often these barrels had already fired (or even how many charges were used). The auxiliary charges were limited to six (instead of eight, peace-time range drop from 6.4 to 4.8 km - less than the 6 km of WW2!).
It took till about 1997 to buy 126 new barrels (which are very cheap).

Well, that wasn't the only problem; the use of light Mercedes "G" model 4wd vehicles in mortar platoons of Gebirgsjäger and Fallschirmjäger battalions (post-Cold War) offers no protection and handling (move into and out of firing position) is slow.

The M113-based mortar carriers were worn out and in dire need of modernization of replacement - but the Bundeswehr delayed the thorough modernization till 2002.

Issue D) Failure to buy successor systems
Plans to replace the mess with an all-new, superbly protected and capable system existed: The Heer wanted (wants?) to use the gargantuan "Boxer GTK" APC as mortar carrier - possibly even with a turreted mortar.
Well, that's no low tech, low cost lightweight system any more - and it would be expensive - more than € two million for the vehicle alone. I heard very little about this post-'98.

Another system became public sometime around 2000 and was frequently featured (or "hyped") in military journals since 2003 or 2004: the Wiesel2 mortar system.
It's a stretched Wiesel ("weasel") weapons carrier (thin armour) with a 120mm mortar.
The mortar traverse is poor - a tactical disadvantage in regard to firing from a camouflaged position (need to move to turn) and in regard to reaction tempo.It's nevertheless a promising system at least for the Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) because it apparently fits into our CH-53G helicopters..
The state of affairs is that we seem to buy eight - EIGHT!!! - such systems till 2011 - two-thousand-eleven!!!.
That's about enough for one mortar platoon (thus one infantry battalion). Tell me about additional procurement if you know about it - I would greet such news. Such a procurement quantity sounds more like post-1994 Russian Army than like Bundeswehr.

Issue E) No guided ammunition
The usefulness of guided ammunition for mortars is officially acknowledged, but a procurement not deemed possible earlier than 2018.
Several guided 120mm mortar bombs are available off-the-shelf and the German industry works on guided 120mm Mortar bombs (keyword: "Bussard") since the 1980's!


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My favourite would be the use of an Israeli CARDOM mortar system (photo) or the TDA 120 2R2M in the standard vehicles of the Jäger (Dingo2 or Fuchs - should be possible with a recoiling mortar) and Panzergrenadiere (a Puma version).
CARDOM hasn't got an (unnecessary) autoloader, but it's very modern in terms of fire control - and has 360° traverse. An insert can be used to fire 81mm ammunition when 120mm isn't appropriate.
A rifled barrel as in 2R2M could fire both spin-stabilized and NATO standard fin-stabilized ammunition.

The Gebirgsjäger (mountain infantry) likely need no such thing - their mortars are more likely to be packed or lifted by helicopter. They specialize in terrains that don't suit themselves well to shoot-and-scoot tactics, so there's no real need for a self-propelled solution in my opinion. Simple off-the-shelf ATVs might be interesting for their mortar platoons.
The Gebirgsjäger might make good use of the 120mm Lockheed Martin lightweight mortar with its composite barrel. It weighs only 62.6 kg. It may have deficiencies, but I haven't heard of any other than an obviously relatively high price. It should still be much cheaper than a Wiesel2 with mortar. It was demonstrated as early as 1994.
The new conventional mortars in service are acceptable for the Gebirgsjäger as well.

Even more importantly, they should get some towed/pack howitzers (105 or 155mm) - they lack artillery support nowadays. Towed artillery may lack survivability when faced by MRLs and SPHs, but it out-ranges mortars and can be deployed in places the PzH2000 could never reach.

Finally the Fallschirmjäger (paratroops); the Wiesel 2 looks like the best compromise for them. It's important that they can use their mortar also in a dismounted mode. This means that they should probably use the same mortar as the Gebirgsjäger, even though only as backup.

Mortar ammunition is another issue; small bomblet submunition is now banned in Germany. Good HE-frag ammunition is needed to get optimal effects on soft and semi-hardened targets. This requires good fuzes.
Junghans/Noptel offer fabulously ECM-resistant (optronic) proximity fuzes and electronic time fuzes should be more effective (than mechanical time fuzes ever were) with precise setting by the fire control system. Conventional PDSQ/delay fuzes are still a first choice in many situations, though.
Trajectory-correcting fuzes that merely correct the external ballistic range error by deploying air brakes at the right time (this requires a command control or a miniaturized navigation system) might prove to be very cost-effective. Giat Industries Samprass/Spacido is such an example.

Few guided rounds (HEAT-frag) should be available, but will likely not be very important due to their cost and the complexity of their use.
Good smoke ammunition (multi-spectral, no health hazard) is important and illumination (probably both normal and IR-mostly) is another important ammunition type.

We should later examine the advantages and disadvantages of smaller calibre mortars with operational research, tests, interviews of veterans and by studying foreign lessons learned documents. Getting the 120mm mortar platoons right should be first priority.


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I suspect a failure in setting priorities and definition of hardware requirements on part of the Bundeswehr (actually, it appears as if the Heer is trying its best and the problem sits a bit higher).
The greater problem is likely a political one, though. Apparently not a single secretary of defence has pressed on the issue in the past twenty years.
I have a rather 'unenthusiastic' opinion of our six last SecDef.
Most of them were completely defence-unrelated career politicians.
The political leadership has failed to press on the issue and to provide the (relatively small) necessary funds.


P.S.:
I had also an earlier, not really related text about mortars here.

The NVA (Eastern German army) bought modern 120mm 2B11 "Sani" mortars in the late 1980's - these were later absorbed by the Bundeswehr. I wasn't able to learn about their fate, or whether they could have helped during the 90's.
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6 comments:

  1. I totally agree on your opinion. Looking at the facts about mortars in the HEER, it looks like we desperatly try NOT to be able to give our LIGHT troops a sufficient fire support. I think the Wiesel 2 is the result of "industy thinking". What kind of vehicle needs to be bought to support our industry... Regarding the "Luftbewegliche Jägerregiment 1" 1 st Air Assault Infanty Regiment, they desperatly need fire support, since they will not be able to rely on attack helicopters all the times (even though everybody tells them otherwise), and they are supposed to receive the Wiesel 2 Mortars. Its nice to be on the list for modern equipment, but last I saw was a date of around 2014 for the above mentioned 8 systems... A lightweight, helicopter-transportable system is absolutly necessary for them (and all other light forces). The 81mm would probably be the solution, its cheap, reliable, accurate (more less, depends on what you need..) and portable! The german HEER wants protection for all its soldiers, understandable and a nice thought, but finding a suitable landing spot for a ch53 isnt as easy as it may sound, and getting a (only lightly proctected) Wiesel in or out can take up to 15 minutes. That is not very flexible! Infantry (and everything they can carry)on the other hand can get out almost everywhere, fast. Same with underslung loads like the (good old) 105mm howitzers. The HEER used to have them, as far as I know they are gone now. And speaking of ammo for mortars, looking at Sweden or the US, there is some intelligent ammo out there, laser guided, GPS guided and some kind of "Mini-SMArt" for the 120mm.

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  2. Perhaps mortars are suffering from a "cultural" problem, because they are at the border between two different culture, and they are not fully included/assimilated by any of them.
    The culture I refer are those of Infantry and Artillery.
    A mortar is a kind of artillery weapons. Still, it's not a weapon of Artillery (as a Corps): they don't like it, what the Artillery like are Big Guns and Smart Rockets. Ask the artillery to develop a mortar and they will come up with some sort of very heavy ultra-sophisticated contraption, with space based targeting, extra-long range, high price etc... something quite different from the type of mortar we are used.
    A mortar is a weapon for Infantry, and we all know that they were created for trench infantry and so on. Still, mortars are a somewhat strange weapon for Infantry, because they are Non-Line of Sight weapons, while Infantry is a Line-of-Sight arm, with an appropriate culture. So (western) Infantry does not see the mortar as a top priority: assault rifles and antitank weapons are much more important (because are line-of-sight weapons).
    In short, mortars are not really part of Artillery culture, and are only a marginal part of Infantry culture.

    Historically, mortars have been one of the most effective infantry weapons, especially in WWII. But history is long gone.
    War can shape military cultures, but also 60 years of peace can reshape those cultures. Bundesheer, as any other western army, is no more influenced by WWII experience. It is now an americanized army (as all NATO armies), and americans has never been really in love with mortars. So mortars have a very low priority for Bundesheer.

    Regards

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  3. Nice article. One question: From what I can tell, the Bundeswehr used Tampella 81mm mortars with the HS30 Mörserträger until sometime in the late 1960's when they were replaced with 120mm units. Any idea if the Bundeswehr ever used 81mm mortars for the GbJg, FsJg, Jäger, or territorial units? Cheers, BW

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  4. No idea. I actually forgot about the short 81mm episode even though I know a photo of a firing HS30 with 81mm mortar in its back.

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  5. From my experience in the IDF, mortars, even though they are not line-of-sight are a vital part of any infantry force. They provide awesome fire power at the company or even platoon level and can be deployed organically with infantry troops. They provide immediate and devastating fire support. Stick with the CARDOM, i've seen it in action and it is quite effective!

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  6. The 120mm Mortar is a soviet copie of french
    "Mortier de 120mm Mle 1935 Brand"

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