Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dead Space

Marine mortarmen on Fox Hill in the Toktong Pass
phase of the Battle of the
Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War
[cribbed from Gordon and Fixer at Alternate Brain]

Ranger Definition of the Day:
COIN [n]: The tunnel at the end of the light

In war, truth is the first casualty


Your cheap words that you brought on sale

Won't help you through tonight

--Dead Sound
, Raveonettes

This entry is about mortars and their use, or misuse, in the Phony War on Terror (PWOT ©).

As stated previously, mortars -- either 60/81/4.2" -- are some of the best support that an engaged
infantryman can hope to utilize. Mortars are commonly called "hip-pocket"artillery, and are organic to the infantry battalions. This means that they are responsive and are part of the engaged unit's TO & E, which translates out to trust.

These mortar men are fellow unit members and they are effective when properly utilized. The problem is that the U.S. Army has lost, or shuns, this skill set.

For readers without military training, here is a gloss: Mortars are indirect fire weapons that actually lob a mortar bomb a great distance. These are crew-served weapons requiring teamwork to be employed effectively. They must be properly emplaced and defended so that
they may affect the fight by covering dead spaces in the direct fire weapons coverage.

When a U.S. unit at any level is defending, then it can be a hasty or a planned defense. In either case, the unit should do an integrated comprehensive fire plan to include all organic assets. Additional air and artillery assets should be added frosting on the cake.

With direct fire, you must see them to hit them as bullets follow line of vision, flat eye-to-target trajectory. The exception to this is final protective fire, in which pre-planned defensive fires are projected without aiming at specific targets. The idea is to kill anything 6" to 70" off the ground. Mortars cover the dead space that bullets cannot reach: Ditches, hollows, etc.

Mortars may not be being effectively employed because the easy fix is to use the 203/40 mm grenade launcher to fulfill the function. But the effectiveness is limited because these grenades cannot reach objective rally points, avenues of approach and attack positions prior to the final assault.

Sometimes, the best way to win a fight is not to fight it. This can be achieved via judicious use of assigned mortars to break up attacks before they happen. This requires savvy combat experience and leadership.

Over years of discussions with young old soldiers alike, Ranger has generally met with resistance against the use of mortars. Perhaps lack of training accounts for their lack of understanding of the
flexibility of the mortar as a synergistic combat multiplier.

In Mogadishu, if Shughart and Gordon had mortar support they would probably be alive today. When the Army requires soldiers to live and die solely by the rifle and machine gun, then the craft of war fighting has devolved, and combat has become a dull brawl open to any outcome.

In the recent fight in Afghanistan in which eight U.S. soldiers were killed, the other side effectively used mortars during the assault and in general support of the entire operation. News reports routinely support effective mortar attacks employed by the opposition forces.
(The action is covered well here at MinstrelBoy: "U.S. Ignored Warnings before Deadly Afghan Attack.")

They are not fighting as insurgents, but rather as an integrated combat force with experience and discipline, and the ability to press a planned ground assault This was not a hasty assault. The U.S. is fighting as COIN, while they are fighting a real war.

None of our fine military pundits will admit that the opposition will take 3-6 months to prepare the battlefield and the assault. My analysis is that this assault leader is more sophisticated than the defending Battalion Commander. It is obvious this leader prepared the battlefield in depth. If we want to study professionalism, we should study the enemy's action in this battle.

The question is, why are weapons which are being used so effectively for the opponents being marginalized in U.S. operations? This old 11C Ranger would like to know. My bunker is tight, so fire away -- I'm ready for incoming.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Thanks!


Sunday, October 18, 2009 at 7:04:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thought I would mention that this post reminded me of E.B. Sledge's WW II book "With the Old Breed" -- Sledge was part of a Marine motar crew in the Pacific and ended up a college prof in Alabama I believe. Highly recommended book!


Sunday, October 18, 2009 at 7:09:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Gordon said...

We're very glad you cribbed our photo. It is actually a photo of a life-size diorama at the new Marine Corps Museum. Here is how we think of our use of it:

"That's US here at the Brain! Sittin' all alone out in the cold, thanklessly freezin' our beboops off, lookin' for a chance to lob a few at the enemy and praying for a secondary explosion, wonderin' if it's all worth it or if it will make any difference in the scheme of things ..."

Also, I've read "With The Old Breed At Peleliu And Okinawa" by the late Dr. Sledge several times. Damn good book.

Sunday, October 18, 2009 at 8:26:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous barcalounger said...

If they do use mortars, why not bring back mules and muleskinners? I know it's low tech and animals are a lot of maintenance but soldiers carry a lot of gear already.

Sunday, October 18, 2009 at 10:31:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger FDChief said...

Jim: Here's my take on this, just off the top of my head.

There are several problems with the U.S. Army's employment of mortars, some organizational, some doctrinal, some experiential.

First of all, at the organizational level the mortar support at all levels has shrunk from the Cold War era MTO&E. Where leg infantry companies used to have a platoon of 4x81mm they now have a 2x60mm mortar section. MEch companies have no integral mortars at all; all the tubes are located in the battalion heavy mortar (120mm) platoon.

The other big issue for the light, airborne and Ranger mortarmen is resupply; in short, they ain't got it. Companies are especially fucked - they have no vehicular transport at all, really, outside the CO's, XO's and 1SG's rigs. Mortar resupply depends on Joe humping a couple of rounds along with all his other gear. Imagine how well that works.

Doctrinally, the ideal is that units train together to fight together, but in reality the units - never in my experience, seldom in the experience of the guys I talked to - don't use the same ranges, don't work together with live projos and tht has a result in combat, I suspect. Units that have been in theatre for some time - and who are in an area where mortar fires can be cleared - are probably much better about this...(continued)

Monday, October 19, 2009 at 2:44:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger FDChief said...

The experiential problem is that most young officers aren't familiar with the weapon and don't really think of it when they start taking fire. You'd think that an experienced company commander would designated someone like his XO to act as a sort of TOC, integrating fires and generally directing logistical and support elements while the commander fought the tactical battle...but my experience was that the CO tended to get caught up in fire-and-maneuver and would often forget even where the mortars were. I think a lot of this has to do with peacetime training, where you can't really use the mortars because of the problem w/ the live rounds. Again, one would think that a combat experienced CPT would have learned...

I think we like to think of ourselves as hot shit because we're sort of the last man standing, militarily. I suspect that if we were able to resurrect a 1942-vintage German Army division and give them a month to train with our weapons and commo gear we might be nastily surprised. Nowhere in the accounts of the wars we've fought since Vietnam have I read - or seen, during my active service in the 80's and Reserve and Guard time in the 90's and Oughts - of any of our officers, or our units, attacking or defending with the intensity, speed and flexibility of the German Army at its peak. We're big, and heavily armed, and have immense air and firepower superiority. But I suspect that on an absolute scale we're also slow, linear and not particularly cunning. We're the elephant, we don't have to be. Until we do. And then it shows...

Monday, October 19, 2009 at 2:52:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

preparing a battlefield?

it sounds like they are laying the groundwork for another fantasy force on force conflict which, if history is any guide, will never fucking happen.

you will not, ever, get the afghans to line up in pretty ranks and march out in good order to fight you.

they know that if that happens, they lose.

there was a recent op down in hellman that happened to the marines exactly the way that it happened to alexander.

alexander got his own main force concentrated while using "hunter" squads to harry the afghans into place where he could then march out and crush them.

all was looking good for alexander. he reached that point where he marched his force out on good level ground ready to fight that single, decisive battle which would crush the opposition once and for all.

a great plan, masterfully executed, except for one small part. the afghans don't play dat.

rather than fight a big ass battle that they were certain they would lose, they loaded up their burros and simply vanished. they vanished into the gulches and along the goat paths.

they vanished, right up until the point that they started doing night raids along his tenuous supply route. they vanished, except for the incessant harrying pressure on communications, any concentration of supply, or other logistics. they would reappear, without warning and seemingly at will, fuck with alexander for half an hour, and poof! gone again.

mcchrystal can prepare all the fucking battlefields he wants. he could bring the groundscrew from yankee fucking stadium to lay in perfect turf. thing is, that won't be where the fight will happen. rather than a big decisive battle, it will be the death of a thousand papercuts. they will keep bleeding us to death with nicks and scrapes.

that said, jim, i absolutely concur with your assesment. mortars, properly employed, are wonderful things. there were many times when we would be hunkered down somewhere in east fuckingjungle, and our hearts would thump and we'd start to grin as soon as we heard the telltale whump.

we'd grab charlie by the nose, and the mortar crews would kick them in the ass.

worked wonderfully, except of course, when it didn't.

Monday, October 19, 2009 at 10:36:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

Gordon and Fixer,
Thanks , I'm a shameless Army thief, as a former 11C i especially like your diorama.
I stole it in the interest of joint opposition to an insane war.

Monday, October 19, 2009 at 1:01:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

In Korea we used porters to hump ammo up to the distribution point immediately behind the MLR.
This is easier and cheaper than using animals, but in AFGH I wouldn't trust the locals. The bearers could do the recon for the attackers. BTW, the 6th Ranger Bn of ww2 was recruited from muleskinners.
The mortars need not be colocated on the perimeter but ideally should be emplaced within 1/2 their range away from the supported troops. This allows them to cover withdrawals as required by hostile pressure.

Monday, October 19, 2009 at 1:07:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

Regardless of TO&E the defending units can be tasked organised to have heady coverage of mortar fire. All the BN assets are not tasked at the same time. I sense operational laziness here.
Also it seems that the fights we read about are platoon or platoon plus engagements. WWithout prior planning this fire won't just happen in a bejesus moment.
I remember the professionalism of old mortar platoons and wonder where this has gone. I fear the Army is not as STRAC as we are led to believe. Samo USMC.

Monday, October 19, 2009 at 1:12:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

One of my favorite use of mortars was to guide my trail and mask sound of movement. This is a lost art.
Mortars are a great anvil if you have a hammer.

Monday, October 19, 2009 at 1:14:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger bigbird said...

During the cold war companies were fought, not standalone platoons some distance away from the rest of the unit. Company mortars made sense as everyone was in range.

I seem to remember leg infantry companies having trucks to carry the 81s. Not talking light infantry, but leg.

Monday, October 19, 2009 at 3:59:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger bigbird said...

During the cold war our doctrine called for companies to be fought, not independent platoons some distance from the main body. Made sense to have company mortars as everyone would be in range.

Seem to remember that leg infantry, not light, had trucks to carry around the 81s.

We're no longer fighting the Central European mechanized battles.

Monday, October 19, 2009 at 4:03:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Gordon said...

"I'm a shameless Army thief"

I think the Corps is still ahead of ya on that score! If it wasn't for the Army and the Navy, we wouldn'ta had nobody to steal from and would never have had anything.

We love ya, Ranger, even though ya wuz a doggie occifer.

Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 5:27:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

Big Bird,
Doctrinally Captains fight the battles, this is still a fact.

Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 10:41:00 AM GMT-5  

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