Death From Above – Armoured Mortar System

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Death from above or a crude weapon for a crude war? The utility of the armoured mortar system in future warfare

The future operating environment will be violent and chaotic with military forces deploying the latest lethal technologies alongside weaponry of the past used in new ways. Land forces are expected to fight in an array of scenarios including through highly populated areas where an enemy will be able to simultaneously sever our communications and target our forces with massed fires. In these scenarios, forces will require adaptive, mobile and self-sufficient teams able to pursue decisive action when the opportunity presents.

To win and maintain the initiative, a commander must be given the means to fight the battle. It is here that the armoured mortar system, characterised by mobility, protection, firepower, accuracy, responsiveness, self-sufficiency, and simplicity, is uniquely suited to be a vital weapon in a commander’s lethality toolbox on future battlefields.

Importance of the mortar for indirect fire

The enemy isn’t stupid. Just because we have excellent direct fire weapon systems doesn’t mean the enemy cannot find cover in defile. If we want to suppress and fix the enemy effectively, we must have ready alternatives to direct fire.

‘No comms, no bombs’ is the case for air and artillery. Our system for fire coordination can be slow and unwieldy even in best-case situations, as anyone who has worked in the BG and BDE JFECC understands. The armoured mortar system needs only an observer and a mortar system. This link is unlikely to be far, and can be achieved by UHF, voice, or a fireplan scrawled in a message notebook. Modern armoured mortar systems are capable of direct and indirect fire controlled from the vehicle, including guided top-attack munitions.

Army’s armoured vehicle replacement program brings timely discussion to the importance of mortar capability. Some would argue that the Infantry Fighting Vehicle’s (IFV) organic firepower, combined with combined arms support (from the air in particular) removes the need for a crude weapon such as the mortar. Others argue that we could simply utilise the IFVs as transport and dismount the mortar, or use an open top system as we do now. This thinking is short-sighted.

Highly advanced armoured mortars are proliferating; the Advanced Mortar System has been fitted to the Finnish Patria, and a similar weapon is currently being fitted to the Swedish CV90. They are game-changing. These platforms are capable of extremely rapid fire and movement, effectively negating enemy detection and counter battery fires, and are superbly accurate.

Much has been done to update our mortar doctrine to encourage a more dynamic employment of our current mortar capability. However, continued discussion on the role of armoured mortar systems is needed as we seek new technologies or blend old technology with new employment to fight ever-adapting adversaries.

Past employment

The mortar is a crude weapon that has changed little since the advent of the Stokes Mortar in the First World War; however the systems enabling it have progressed. For its future tactical employment we should not think of the mortar lines of the past; six tubes all lined up, tarps out, goffers everywhere and stationary.

SdKfz 251 Armoured Mortar

The German practice during the Second World War gave a Panzergrenadier Company two armoured half-tracks with 80mm mortars as organic support elements. The way these were utilised in the attack off the line of march is illustrative of effective employment in a fast moving, mechanised conflict. Upon contact they would take up a position in favourable ground rear of the elements in the fight, with direct or almost direct line of sight to the target. Suppression would begin immediately as the attack unfolded. Direction was provided by limited radio communications and signal flares. Observation could be achieved from the vehicle itself in a ‘turret down’ position. They could jockey if brought under fire, and upon becoming ineffective could rapidly relocate. This mitigated vulnerability caused by the vehicle’s proximity to the enemy. Fast, effective indirect fire was brought on the enemy with little communication in a situation where reliance on artillery or airpower would have slowed tempo.

Contemporary experience

We confront the possibility of war quite different to what we have encountered in the past. Operation Serval, the French intervention in Mali, is an interesting example. Utilising the speed of its mechanised forces the French were able to quickly overwhelm an insurgency spread across hundreds of kilometres. Battle Groups and Combat Teams operated in relative isolation, able to pursue their objectives independently and take advantage of opportunities. A key enabler for this was organic, highly mobile indirect fire support from 120mm mortars and SP artillery pieces.

Events in the Ukraine also point in this direction. Despite the complex environment; proxy forces, technological saturation, and massed artillery, the 2S9 120mm Armoured Mortar has been ubiquitous on both sides of the conflict. The situation has favoured rapid intervention by highly mobile forces with organic support, such as the 95th Air Assault Brigade’s raid. These strikes in depth have encountered success on both sides when the enemy’s tempo has been defeated by rapid movement; the flexible and responsive firepower of armoured mortar systems has been crucial in achieving this.

CV-90 with the AMOS system

The Future

Future warfighting may see our forces fight a peer enemy who has highly advanced technology to mass fires against us and actively disrupt our command, control and communications. The future may also see our forces fight in densely populated urban environments while simultaneously being without the means to communicate with higher headquarters or with the JFECC. We therefore require adaptive, mobile, and self-sufficient forces who can pursue decisive action with lethality and accuracy in a communications denied environment.

The armoured mortar system, characterised by mobility, protection, firepower, accuracy, responsiveness, self-sufficiency, and simplicity, is uniquely suited to the current and future operating environment. It is a key to success when our communications have been sent back to the Stone Age by enemy electronic warfare systems and direction from headquarters is sporadic. As we see more conflict in densely populated urban areas, the pinpoint accuracy of these news systems becomes paramount. The ability to pair them with Small Unmanned Aerial Systems will have a devastating effect on the enemy.

It would be an expensive decision to purchase armoured mortar systems; however, given our lack of SP artillery, armoured mortar systems would enhance a commander’s lethality toolbox and in doing so enable the means to pursue decisive action when the opportunity presents and communication with higher has been severed.

(Note: I have concentrated on mortars for the mechanised battalions. A possible candidate for motorised units is the Elbit ‘Spear’.)

About the author

Frank Tamsitt is a Captain in the Royal Australian Infantry. He was previously Mortar Line Officer at 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and is studying Project Management.

Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.