Why is an “Mortar”?
A metal tube, some shells, and some math are the hallmarks of one of the most deadly and effective indirect fire weapon systems on the modern battlefield. Designed to support offensive and defensive operations, the mortar and the soldiers that feed her are critical to the success of operations that date back to the First World War. The mortar weapon systems does indeed comprise of a simple-looking metal tube, shells in a variety of lethal and non-lethal payloads, and the crew itself to not only muzzle-load the tube with all manner of shells, but also to adjust that tube with math and field intelligence to lob those shells onto the enemy positions with the correct ballistic trajectory.
Unlike its bigger brother, the field artillery cannon and the more sexy close air support aircraft, mortars are controlled by the soldiers that are actually in the shit that understand the local conditions in both the human and geographic terrain. In addition, the soldiers themselves can get the mortar thudding rounds down range faster and easier than calling in CAS or an artillery strike. Mortars can also be an important psychological weapon that can reap real-world battlefield gains in that enemy soldiers may abandon a position once the steel rain falls in. The enemy would then know that their enemy has this area dialed in and not to be there.
Use of the Mortar on the Modern Battlefield
The modern mortar has been with us since the first "modern war": World War One. This indirect fire system allows for the bombardment of trenches that could not be reached via conventional artillery cannons. Every war/conflict since then has included mortars on both sides, and despite advancements in armed drones and CAS, the mortar is still thumping out shells down range. The basic use of the mortar in the current battlespace is to deliver rounds on enemy targets in both defensive and offensive actions via lethal and less-than-lethal munition types. For example, mortars could be used to break up an enemy formation with high-explosive shells that drive the enemy away, kill/wound them, or cause them to seek shelter all while troops move onto the enemy position.
Mortars allow for chaos to ensue, soften up the resistance that friendly forces will encounter. With skill and good intel, mortar teams can be used as a psychological weapon and drive enemy infantry and light vehicles from a certain position towards another that benefits the friendly units. One video called this tactic: "sheepdogging" the enemy. Another psychological warfare tactics is the use of a few shells to make the enemy think you have more guns than you do, causing them to reposition or to postpone an attack, giving your forces more time. Also, nonlethal rounds can be used to drop in a smoke screen to deceive the enemy and allow for your forces to maneuver while the enemy is under smoke. This not only obscures the infantry, but also makes the target area for aircraft and/or otehr targeting systems.
The Different Types of Mortars
These are an oddity of the mortar world that instead of a muzzle-load drop shell loading technique, the Spigot Mortar has a spike instead of a tube. These were more seen in World War II. One of the advantages of the Spigot Mortar over the conventional mortar is that Spigot Mortars are lighter weight. Some examples were the English Blacker Bombard and anti-tank PIAT. One of the cooler Spigot Mortars is the "hedgehog". Used on the deck of World War II era British and American warships, 24 Spigot Mortar shells could be launcher all at one time as a counter to the deadly U-Boat attacks.
Mortar Carrier/Self-Propelled Mortar Platforms
Due to the effectiveness of mortars and their weight, some armored vehicles and light utility vehicles have fitted with a heavier mortar has their primary weapon. These mortar carriers or self-propelled mortar are normally based around APC/IFV like the M113 or the Stryker (in the form of the M1129) and carry mortars in the 81mm to 120mm range along with some smaller 60mm mortars for dismount use. The largest mortar carrier still in service is the Russian 240mm mortar that is just crazy big. Not all Mortar Carriers are based on armored personnel carriers, like the IDF Merkava MBT that has a 60mm mortar as a secondary weapon system and even some light military utility vehicles are used as mortar carriers as well like the Toyota Hilux or Land Cruiser.
The Different Sizes of Mortars
At the top end of the typical mortar seen in modern warfare is the heavy mortar system that fires between 105mm to120mm size shells. These are the largest explosive payload that has shells over 20lbs and the mortar system itself can weight in over 300lbs. In addition, they are the longest range of mortars, but they are far less man-portable, if even. Most are moved around the battlefield via ground and air transport. Given their offensive power, they are more akin to a junior field artillery piece and have been highly effective in engagements in Afghanistan.
The Current Battlefield Use of Mortars
Since the First World War, mortars have been used and they continue to be used by all military organizations and guerrilla forces around the world. Why? Mortars offer heavy indirect firepower to the soldiers on the ground and at the moment of contact, as we have seen in operations in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, they are cheap to make and operate. For the most part, the use of mortars on the modern battlefield is the same as it always has been and it is likely to be for awhile coming.
The Mortar Shells
According to US Marine and US Army standards, the typical mortar will be run by a team of three to five. At the level of five, you have a squad commander, gunner, assistant gunner, and two shell loaders. This can be slimmed down to three to four or even one in the case of Staff Sgt. Christopher Upp during a Taliban attack in A-Stan in the summer of 2007. At the head of the mortar crew is the squad leader that supervises all functions of the weapon system and the team serving it. The actually aiming of the mortar is handled by the gunner and assistant gunner, who punch in data, alter the position of the weapon by fine or gross adjustments in deflection and elevation. Feeding the weapon with ten pound shells of various munition types are the ammunition bearers. In addition to lying in the shells, they are tasked with pulling security for the crew, filing sandbags, driving the vehicle along with helping setup and breakdown the mortar.
With an effective team and the position of the enemy zeroed in, the rate-of-fire is about 15 shells per minute per tube. One of the other tasks of the mortar team is to transport the mortar and the ammunition to its firing position, which is a real bitch given that the US military’s M252 81mm mortar system weighs in at about 120lbs and each 81mm shell is an additional 10lbs! Each piece of the M252 can be around 30lbs a piece that all of this as to be considered when moving the mortar. When it comes to the heaviest mortars on the modern battlefield, the 120mm variety, they can weigh in at over 300lbs, complicating logistical considerations for the mortar crew.
The Future of the Mortars
Counter-Mortar Systems (C-RAM)
Can You Really Use Mortar Shells as an Improvised Hand Grenade?
When I was growing up, the term toy mortar often referred to ones packedin with those wonderful Green Army Men, die case toy soldiers, and models...but in the 1960's an American company called Remco Industries made an full-on "Marine Raider long-range mortar launcher". When I saw pictures of this things, I said dear sweet baby Jesus. This Remco toy mortar launcher would fire plastic mortar shells at a distance of around 20 feet via springs and you could even buy more mortar shells for $.50 a set! This toy is consider rare today and sells in the $350 to $400 range. For the modern junior stormtrooper, NERF, under their NFStrike line has released a foam NERF mortar launcher that can fire the "shells" at 15 to 20 feet. Another toy mortar from a toyline that attempted to replicate the success of GI JOE was Coleco’s Rambo Force of Freedom line that had a 81mm mortar designed for the 6inch figures! Patterned after US M29 mortar, the RAMBO 81mm mortar was designed for the SAVAGE enemy forces and even came with several mortar shells that fit down the tube.
Why is There a Lack of the Mortar in Sci-Fi?
Use of a mortar is about 90% math, 9% carrying the damn thing, and 1% actually blowing things up. That's just not all that exciting for most viewers or readers. It's why Spec Ops: the Line gave you this cool parachuting drone that let you just aim the shots”. Of course, some of the lack of inclusion could be chalked up to a simple lack of knowledge about mortars on the part of the general public. FWS reader Trevor J. Conners added this: "most writers lack the experience to really understand the importance of combined arms. Most will research one thing really well (infantry, fighters, naval vessels, etc), and focus almost exclusively on that. Trying to combine multiple aspects of combat requires another level of research and commitment."
Most sci-fi authors are opting for the most high tech stuff. Artillery is mostly orbital, with rods from god being a favorite anymore”.
From the FWS FB page, reader Trevor J. Conners came up with some good points. He said that: “Mortars are very impersonal. Character relays coordinates, and then someone off screen kills the enemy in a way that isn't as satisfying as watching the hero kill the bad guy. Conversely, if a good guy has to die, you want a named main character bad guy to do it in a personal way. It's harder to do a revenge subplot against a guy way off screen that Artillery is sometimes called the King of the Battlefield. To quote Napoleon, "God fights on the side with the best artillery". The trouble with having good mortar support is that if you have artillery dominance, odds are you're winning the battle, at least in conventional warfare. Meaning that if you have good artillery support, the characters aren't in nearly as much of a pickle, making their fight less dramatic. Viewers love a battle that appears hopeless."
The Starfleet and Gorn Mortars from ST: TOS Episode “The Arena”
In one of the best episodes of the original series, "Arena (1x18)", Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and other target practice crew members beam down to an Starfleet outpost on Cestus III. Faked communications lured down key personnel from the Enterprise, and when the landing party beamed down, the outpost was in ruins and most were dead. Quickly, Kirk and company come under Gorn mortar bombardment. With only hand phasers and taking incoming, Kirk runs to the outpost armory and brings an Starfleet "photon launcher" mortar system. Kirk makes adjusts me to a series of controls on the tube from information given to him my one of his crew, then launches a small blue sphere-shaped munition that is likely an anti-matter charge or a low-yield nuclear device.
The Covenant vehicle-based Plasma DE “Mortar” from the HALO Universe
While the UNSC uses a very standard MBT throughout the various HALO games, the alien bastards of the Covenant has taken a different approach with their anti-gravity Type-26"Assault Gun Carriage" known as the "Wraith" to UNSC personnel. Until like a Terran conventional tank, the Type 26 uses an plasma directed-energy mortar as its main armament with some models having crew-served plasma DE rapid-fire cannons as well. While it seems that the UNSC Scorpion MBT would have the advantage in the realm of armored combat, the Wraith's indirect fire mortar system is quite deadly and able to destroy or cripple with one clean impact.
Colonial Marines Mortars from the ALIENS: Colonial Marine Technical Manual
The M402 Multiple-Launch Mortar is a 70-kilogram (including at least one magazine) man-portable artillery weapon primarily used by the United States Colonial Marine Corps in an infantry small unit support fire role. The mortar utilizes an 80-mm twin-tube design, automatically fed from a ten-round rotary magazine. The weapon can be aimed and fired by a remote command handset, either singly or in volleys firing each tube sequentially. All ten rounds can be volley-fired in under eight seconds.[As part of their organic support weapons, the standard Marine rifle platoon is equipped with one M402 mortar.Though it can be carried (by at least three Marines) and fired in the field, the M402 is also commonly carried by the M572 Armored Mortar Carrier, which usually carries up to 200 rounds and can autoload new magazines in under six seconds." Some fans have developed miniatures of the M572 APC variant and even the M402 itself for tabletop warfare games.
The COG Mortar from the Gears of War Universe
The Tyranid Spore Mine Launcher from 40K
The Sci-Fi Mortars from 15mm Miniatures War Games
“Short Fuze” Hasbro GI JOE: Real American Hero 1982 Figure
In the original 9 carded G.I. Joe figures of the Real American Hero 1982 line was a mortar soldier: "Short-Fuze". The real name of this soldier was Eric W. Friestadt and he was an E-4 in the US Army before joining the team. For most of us that were alive during the initial launch of the GI JOE: Real American Hero toyline, we had this figure and he was a rarity among the action figure realm of having a mortar. Including with the figure was a backpack complete with 60mm mortar shells. Short-Fuze never developed the presence in the cartoon, toyline, or comic books as did others in the original 9, but has been re-released several times over the years.
Kaz Takagi’s "Gorilla" E-Frame with "NeoObliterating Mortar Launcher"from ExoSquad
The American toy scene in the 1990's was a crazy time with even crazier color schemes, but two mecha-centered toylines emerged onto the toy aisles in the form of BattleTech and ExoSquad. Neither lasted long sadly, but the toys hung longer than the cartoons. Playmates was pushing ExoSquad toys well into 1996 with some being reissued old Matchbox ROBOTECH toys from the 1980s. One of the later released E-frame toy mecha was 1995's "Kaz Takagi w/ Gorilla E-frame" that featured a rarity, the mecha-mounted "NeoObliterating Mortar Launcher". While the box art showed the mortar being used more like a traditional rocket launcher, it was a mortar launcher mounted to a heavy CLASS-II mech. Little exists on the internet about this 1995 toy besides scans of the box, but it is damn impressive to have a mecha-mounted mortar system made into a major toyline and not some crazy imported Japanese mecha model kit. Many of the sellers listing the Gorilla E-Frame ExoSquad toy state that it is rare, but it does command that high of price. FWS will being digging into ExoSquad with a Forgotten Classics article and a Military Sci-Fi Toys article as well!
“Downtown” Hasbro GI JOE: Real American Hero 1989 Figure
As the GI JOE: Real American Hero figure line continued into the late 1980's, it altered into figures with more garish coloring and more military fantasy than ventured on being more MEGAFORCE than classic GI JOE. During the 1989 lineup, we got our second mortar trooper figure: "Downtown". This figure comes with a 60mm mortar, a personal defense revolver, and a backpack where you can actually fit the six mortars that are loose, which Short-Fuze did not.
The Chinese Mortars from Disney’s Mulan
FWS nearly never discusses Disney films, but Yoel felt I should include this one because of its oddness. In the 1998 Disney animated film Mulan, in the critical scene during the battle in the mountains with the Hun, Mulan takes an early Chinese cannon and uses like a mortar to strike the mountain, triggering an avalanche with a dragon shaped projectile. What is interesting is that the Mulan legend is said to have occurred around the 4th or 5th century and the earliest "Huochong" cannon is from around the 12th and the 13th century.
The IDF Mortars in Waltz with Bashir\
The Chig Mortars from SAAB “Who Monitors the Birds?”
The Mortars from the Hammer’s Slammers Universe
Throughout the Hammer's Slammers novels and the miniature-based tabletop wargame by Pireme Publishing, mortars are used in a similar fashion as of today. According to a website I found about the wargame, the mortar-of-choice for the Slammers is the FN L71 100mm magazine-fed mortar. Loading four 100mm shells of various types, it can shoot its load in under 6 seconds. There is a more complex 100mm mortar system that feeds from two magazines, the L86, and it is mounted to heavier armored vehicles. The more popular is the L71 mortar due to it being able to be mounted to lighter vehicles rather than tanks.
In both of the Titanfall games, there is a specialized variant of the Atlas and Tone Titan classes that is used in an fire support role during the Frontier War: the Mortar Titan.These can only be found in the wave-based Frontier Defense game and these modified Titans use a form of the Quad-Rocket as a mortar system. These Titans stand off of the map and bombard for a good reason...they are weaker than the standard Atlas and Tone Titans.
The A12M-5 “Mortar” from the Quo Vadis SEGA Saturn Video Game
This 1995 Japanese-only mecha video game release on the ill-fated 32-bit SEGA Saturn home console system. The mecha themselves were designed by Fujita Kazumi and the character designs were done by Haruhiko Mikimoto of Macross fame. The game is a mystery given that it is a Japanese only game on a unpopular system. Even the role of the mecha and which game they appear on is a mystery. The identity of the A12M-5 "Mortar" comes from an entry on Gears Online.
The Klingon Mortars from DS9 Episode “Nor the Battle to the Strong”
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