Mortar platoon training focus to meet the evolving battlefield

Mortar platoon training focus to meet the evolving battlefield

Stephen Ward

In the past, the 120mm heavy mortar platoon’s key focus was no different than that of a light mortar platoon. The focus of their training was oriented on how fast they could deploy and fire accurately. Although this is still a critical mission-essential task, a heavy mortar platoon brings a key element to the fight that forces them to expand their training focus.

The M1064 (mortar carrier variant of the M113 chassis) makes the heavy mortar platoon an armored maneuver element, which opens the platoon to new missions far from its traditional role. Convoy escort, cordon and search operations, and raids are all missions that a heavy unit must be able to accomplish. The current gunnery training in a heavy battalion, or combined arms battalion (CAB), only tests the platoons in its traditional role. The training needs of the platoon have expanded. To best prepare soldiers for combat, they must be exposed to the types of missions they will be conducting.

Just prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the 120mm mortar platoons reorganized from six M1064 mortar carriers and two M577 fire direction centers (FDC) to four M1064 and one FDC. It was decided that four mortars could still effectively support a maneuver battalion, which would create more platoons with fewer mortar vehicles.

Losing one FDC and two mortar vehicles prevents a platoon from effectively operating as separate sections, eliminates the redundancy of fire mission calculations, and reduces the battlespace that the platoon can effectively engage. Whereas a platoon could operate as two separate, three-mortar sections and cover a wide sector, it no longer has this capability due to the loss of one mortar vehicle per section and one FDC. This reduces the linear coverage of the platoon from 900m (75m burst radius per gun) to 600m with a four mortar vehicle platoon. To compensate, often the platoon leader’s M998 becomes a secondary FDC. This only works if it is a cargo back, and even then, it does not have all the utilities of an M577.

After the initial advance into Iraq, mortar firing was severely reduced due to the urban environment, a different battlefield requiting a different skill focus. Iraq is more of an environment for heavy mortar platoons because they bring flexibility to the fight. A 120mm mortar platoon is capable of firing both 81 mm and 120mm ammunition, but more importantly, it brings an armored vehicle to the fight.

Mortar platoons need to shift focus from purely effective mortar firing to survivability. A mortar is useless if the crew cannot get to the battle safely. A simple solution is to apply tank direct fire concepts to the mortar platoon. Any senior mortarman will probably tell you that prior to deployment, he never fired an M2 .50-caliber from a moving M1064. Contact drills and maneuvering in contact are not normal situations for a mortar platoon. The modern battlefield forces the mortar crew to be an active part of the fight. Mortar crewmembers must know how to orient on the move and what to do if they make contact. This is easily trained once they understand that regardless of what occurs out of sector, mortarmen must maintain their sector of fire. Squad leaders must now think and talk to their fellow vehicles, much like a tank commander–they must learn to maneuver.

Maneuvering begins at a basic level that teaches squad leaders and drivers direct fire control. The focus is communication between the crews. Crewmembers have to be taught skills, such as shooting on the move, bounding, and supporting the maneuver of other vehicles. When this concept was introduced to my mortar platoon, it took a few attempts before they grasped the idea. This was something entirely new from the vehicle perspective.

Our platoon first began training with a single vehicle, on the move, shooting multiple targets. The platoon was then placed on the range with another mortar carrier and they fought the range in sections no different from two tanks attacking the range. They quickly grasped the concepts of covering each other on the move and engaging targets in their wingman’s sector due to reloading or terrain.

The platoon practiced advancing and breaking contact as a section and squad leaders quickly learned they had more responsibilities than just their vehicle. Once the squad leaders mastered these tasks, we added the whole crew to the equation. Since a 360-degree live-fire range was not available, this training was conducted as a blank fire. During this segment of the training, the entire crew manned their sector on the vehicle and the section moved out as a unit. Contact would be made and the section sergeant would make the decision to advance through contact or break contact. The focus was to increase the gun crews’ situational awareness about the .50-caliber traversing to engage targets, as well as maintain their sectors of fire.

After two days of training, we added all-inclusive training segments that covered losing a vehicle, actions to establish a perimeter, recovering the crew and weapons, and evacuating wounded. This training made soldiers realize the depth of the new missions they would be conducting in Iraq and how critical it was to master these critical tasks prior to deployment.

In the conventional role, there is new equipment now available to the mortar platoon. On the future battlefield, the Army has transformed into a digital army. This has created new equipment, such as the XM31 mortar ballistic computer, a Windows-based fire control program digitally linked to each gun allowing for speed and accuracy in processing fire missions.

It is imperative for mortar platoons to change their training focus. The number of fire missions they conduct is decreasing; the number of other missions they conduct is increasing. To accomplish these missions, mortar platoons must change focus from a traditional role to a full-spectrum operations role. During three days of training, my platoon learned that even simple concepts take time to master. Mortar platoons must be given an opportunity to train for the number of missions they will conduct in theater or pay the consequences in blood.

Captain Stephen Ward is currently a student at the JFK Special Warfare Center, Fort Bragg, NC. He received a B.A. from Virginia Military Institute. His military education includes the Armor Captains Career Course, Mortar Leaders Course, and Armor Officer Basic Course. He has served in various command and staff positions, to include mortar platoon leader, 1st Battalion, 72d Armor, Camp Casey, Korea; and tank platoon leader, B Company, 1st Battalion, 72d Armor, Camp Casey.

COPYRIGHT 2006 U.S. Army Armor Center

COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group