Troops Clamor For Precision Mortars

Troops Clamor For Precision Mortars

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.

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The precision 120 mm should have been there a long time ago. Isn’t this a solved problem tech-wise?

And the 81 and 60 mm need to happen, especially the 60 mm.

M1064A3 Gavin 120mm mortar carriers are light tracks far more mobile than any wheeled vehicle in Afghanistan and are available right now to shoot guided and unguided rounds. All any commander has to do is ask for them and their crews and they could be in action in a matter of days. We don’t need to reduce the already tiny HE fill in 60mm and 81mm mortar bombs with guidance heads nor waste millions of dollars and months of time trying to procure them.

The 120mm Mortar is certainly too heavy to hump but thats why we have helicopters. We certainly have the air assets to insert the Mortar Squads or Platoons near the action and displace or extract them when needed. Its not really necessary to be that close with a two mile range! –From a former enlisted Airborne 11C and Infantry officer.

I am a former memebr of CSSC 3/10 CAV, 1st CAV DIV in the early to mid 1970’s. I was colateral duty medic and armorer. We routinely had 81mm mortars in the arms room and mounted on track vehicles during operational activity.

We actually humped the 81mm by foot at times, set it up, fired and relocated. The odd guy out is usually stuck carrying ammo rounds.

I don’t feel we need to put to much emphasis on smart 60mm mortar rounds this is a relatively short range weapon that in the hands of well trained mortarmen can be used quite surgically. Doug is right we don’t need to reduce the charge in these weapons to make room for guidance packages. Isn’t a ten dollar round that be bought in volume better then a round that may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. I know all we cared about was having enough ammo, accuracy was something we shot for, so to speak, because it was in our own best interest. Let’s use technology where it’s appropriate.

rules of engagement… damn „ thats all i heard in vietnam.. what good does it do for moral people to have to wait till they are shot at in order to shoot back???? that stragity is about as dumb as the forefathers standing side by side into a hail of enemy rifles… it didnt work then and it wont now. damn govt crap heads make these rules of engagement„ pisses me off that the top brass still uses a tactic that didnt work in my days and sure as hell is n ot gonna work in this day.. if we can not fight our enemy because of our govt, then it appears our govt is in cahoots with our enemy..

An answer to the problem of enemies taking cover would be a laser rangefinder with integrated GPS unit. The unit would know where it is (GPS) and would know the range and bearing to the target (laser rangefinder). Trigonometry could then be used to derive the target’s GPS coordinates. If the target is behind a target, input an offset and distance from the point the laser is striking.
For an incoming munition, you would then have both a laser designator and a GPS solution. Hurray for redundancy. If this system could be sized like an assault rifle, the infantryman on the ground could self-designate targets for laser and/or GPS guided munitions. Pair the infantryman targeting solution with UAVs overhead, and you could get a very precise solution.

does not Israel already have a 120mm guided munition?

As a former 60mm section leader in the Marine Corps, I think that a 60 fired in handheld mode is much more effective then a section or platoon of 81’s and 120’s when operating in a mountainous environment like Afghanistan. The cannon with baseplate weigh less then 20 pounds, and with every man carrying 2 rounds, you have a 12 man patrol that can wreak havoc on anyone that attacks you. When calling for fire from a section of 81’s or 120’s, you have to be in range as well as have a competent FO who can deliver rounds on target within 3 rounds. Factor in time of flight and accuracy of the first adjusting round along with the speed of the FDC and firing line, it may be 5 minutes before you have effects on target. With a 60 in handheld, it’s under 30 seconds and very accurate in the hands of good gunner. It makes more sense to equip units with 60’s to be fired in handheld mode for this fight and develop the high-speed GPS rounds for the bigger bore guns for a future conflict in an urban theatre where they will be most effective.

120 mm mortars may be too heavy for infantrymen to carry on patrol. But they can easily be trucked or helicoptered into an area of potential fighting. Another expedient while we await a precision mortar round would be to disperse more m777 howitzers armed with excalibur gps guided rounds to hotshots, particularly in Helmand where precision and low collateral damage are increasingly the order of the day.

Send more GMLRS!!

Geof Schmitz, I was a mortar platoon squad leader 172D LIB, 4/23 C Airborne, Fort Richardson Alaska in the early 1980’s. It is quite possible to move the 81mm in adverse mountain terrain, summer or winter. The question that has never been adequatly answered regardless of mortar calibre is how to maintain ammunition resupply to a dismounted section. A well-trained mortar platoon certainly has adequate capability without guided ammunition to engage this enemy. While I agree hand-held mortar fire has its place, it cannot approach the effectiveness of a mounted gun and trained crew. The 81 mm could be lightened a great deal. With the M29A1 the only piece that is truly diffcult to carry is the baseplate. The bipod is heavier, but easier to carry, the barrel is easier than the 90 mm recoiless that we also humped. In so many discussions I see it is not the need for a new weapons system but addressing the weight of carried equipment and the real need for body armor in all combat scenarios particularly where body armor limits carrying adequate weapons and ammunition..

The enemy in Afghanistan moves its mortars, food, water and ammunition… with pack animals. The last mules left the US Army in 1954. I know that in the early eighties they were considered for the Alaskan command. SF has already used local pack animals in Afghanistan. We should at least have the mobility of our enemy. Employing pack animals and the 81 mm would be a reasonably and rapid response to the situation.

what the hell happened to close air support with napalm ? there is nothing but rocks and bushes in those mountains . so there shouldn’t be any collateral damage.

Doug, Doug, Doug — You are being naughty!!!
There’s no such vehicle as a “Gavin” — never was, never will be!!
I suspect there’s brown stuff on your spoon.

Greg … Was Hilt the one who said they would pick a manufacturer :: within ten months :: ? I am trying to get a beat on when this weapon will see action.

“Hilt said, the Army will pick a manufacturer. That should happen within ten months.”


Maj. Hilt told me they were hoping to get it in the field by next summer. Even though things are moving at an accelerated pace for a weapons program, I think a fielding date by the end of 2011 might be more realistic. I am hopeful, though, because McChrystal and his staff are personally involved on this one.

I’ll follow up with PEO Mortars soon to check on its progress.


Thanks Greg

Hey Greg, great research. I was wondering if you have heard anything on the FCMortar Program. It seems very similar to this one.

The FCMortar is a guidance kit designed as an upgrade to existing 81mm mortar ammunition. It will not only provide accuracy of 5m CEP, but also the capability to engage targets in-between buildings down to the street level. This allows for precision fires in terrain not traditionally accessible to 81mm mortars without the fear of excessive collateral damage. This is facilitated through a design that blends new novel technologies and existing COTS products, as well as, leveraging discoveries in ongoing developmental program.


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