Troops Clamor For Precision Mortars

Troops in Afghanistan are “screaming” for the 120mm round, according to Maj. Jeffrey Hilt, from PEO Mortars. Frequent skirmishes with Taliban fighters, along with restrictive rules of engagement, put a primacy on immediate, accurate fire support and Afghanistan’s notoriously bad weather means the Air Force often can’t get close air support exactly where it’s needed. We spoke to him about Army efforts to speed a 120mm GPS mortar round to Afghanistan.

A few weeks back we wrote about a new Army program, the Accelerated Precision Mortar Initiative (APMI), a response to an urgent request from Afghanistan to get troops precision mortar fire. While we tend to focus on big ticket items, it’s often the smaller weapons that make huge differences to troops in the field, particularly those chasing fleeting Taliban around Afghanistan’s harsh mountainous terrain. By providing prompt, precise, indirect fire support to the individual rifle squad, the precision mortar is one such weapon.

I spoke to Maj. Jeffrey Hilt, the program lead for the Army from PEO Mortars, to get some more information on the status of the program, where it’s going.

Hilt said troops in Afghanistan are “screaming” for the 120mm round. Frequent skirmishes with Taliban fighters, along with restrictive rules of engagement, put a primacy on immediate, accurate fire support and Afghanistan’s notoriously bad weather means the Air Force often can’t get close air support exactly where it’s needed.

The Army’s marching orders, he told me, is to get a 120mm mortar round to the field as fast as possible. The Operational Needs Statement from Afghanistan specified a GPS-guided 120mm mortar, with a Circular Error Probable (CEP) of 5 meters or less and a 7,000 meter range. It must also be compatible with existing fire control systems, such as the Lightweight Hand-held Mortar Ballistic Computer, which is about the size of the old GPS units. The program is being accelerated via an Other Transaction Authority, rather than the traditional and more labyrinthine acquisition process.

But a smart reader commented in our earlier story that, while a GPS-guided 120mm mortar is certainly a good thing, it’s too big and too heavy to be used anywhere but on established bases and outposts. Also, range limits its fire out to about 7,000 meters distance from the mortar pit. What troops really need, this reader argues, is a smaller precision mortar, in the 81mm to 60mm range. Even the 81mm mortar is too big a weapon to be humped around Afghanistan’s mountains, and 81mm mortar rounds, along with all of the body armor, weapons and ammunition, are too heavy. He thinks a 60mm precision mortar makes more sense, and also suggested it should be laser guided versus GPS.

Laser designation is not a requirement for the APMI, Hilt said, because it costs too much and existing laser designators weigh upwards of 35 pounds, far too heavy for dismounted troops to carry. There is a laser designated 120mm round in the inventory, though Hilt didn’t have much positive to say about it. Also, in Afghanistan, the enemy frequently ducks down behind ridges and rock outcroppings, laser designation would have limited utility, versus a GPS round that can accurately target an enemy taking cover behind obstacles or in dead ground.

There is no current requirement for a smaller GPS guided mortar round, in the 81mm or 60mm range. Although, Hilt told me tests are being conducted next month at Ft. Sill, Ok., on 81mm GPS guided rounds that will be dropped from an aerial drone, to prove the guidance package works and the round will hit the target. Live fire tests will come later (it’s more complicated and costly to do live fire tests than just dropping rounds from the sky). Hilt said the Army hopes to have a precision mortar in the 60mm size at some point, but the money currently isn’t there. It all depends on the funding.

Initially, the APMI was intended to go to the Infantry Brigade Combat Teams. Now, it’s been expanded to include Stryker mortar carriers and the M-113 mortar carriers in the heavy brigades.

Three competitors, Raytheon, General Dynamics and ATK, fired GPS guided rounds at Yuma, Az., in May. Another shoot-off is scheduled for January. Based on that shoot-off, and industry’s subsequent proposals, Hilt said, the Army will pick a manufacturer. That should happen within ten months.