120-mm mortar battery in Afghanistan

B/3-6 FA: 120-mm mortar battery in Afghanistan

James W. Huffman, III

A new day dawns in Afghanistan, and the Bravo Battery Bulls are up and running to contribute to America’s Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) in nontraditional ways. Although the battery was deployed to Afghanistan for nine months, its adventure began one year earlier. Bravo Battery, 3d Battalion, 6th Field Artillery’s (B/3-6FA’s) M119 105-mm howitzers were replaced with 120-mm mortars. B Battery Soldiers would man these for the duration of the 10th Mountain Division’s deployment in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) IV.


The battery’s conversion to the mortar system was the first adaptation required of its artillerymen. In an effort to increase responsiveness and become lighter and more air-assault capable, the men enthusiastically converted to their new weapon system. Once deployed, the Soldiers quickly overcame the challenges of decentralized operations. They provided mortar fires in four locations simultaneously, spanning a distance of more than 1,200 square miles, and influenced coalition operations across eastern Afghanistan.

The first step in the battery’s conversion at Fort Drum, New York, before deploying was two weeks of training by a mobile training team (MTT) from the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. This consisted of classroom and field training that culminated in written and live-fire certifications.

The battery then reorganized from its traditional 105-mm howitzer battery into an eight-gun 120-mm mortar battery. It consisted of two platoons of four mortar crews, each crew with a fire direction center (FDC). Before deploying, the battery trained in platoon-sized elements, focusing on ground-assault convoy movement techniques, emplacements and the delivery and massing of fires.

In OEF, the battery expected to be massing fires as it had been trained to do. However, to adapt and contribute effectively to GWOT, the battery quickly had to overcome several challenges. OEF lessons learned will be incorporated into home-station training for future deployments–lessons on conducting decentralized firebase operations, patrolling and pulling security. Also while deployed, the battery identified several areas in which newly fielded equipment could help defeat a determined insurgency.

Decentralized Ops. We conducted decentralized operations throughout the deployment. Three of the battery’s sections were projected to forward operating bases (FOBs) along the Afghani-Pakistani border where they provided mortar fires for firebase defense and local patrols and executed ground-assault convoys in support of major coalition operations.


The battery’s other two-tube sections remained at Kandahar Army Airfield (KAF) in southwestern Afghanistan where they conducted air- and ground- assault convoys in direct support of infantry battalion task force missions. When not engaged in fire support operations at KAF, the platoon executed daily and nightly presence patrols, counterrocket patrols, vehicle checkpoints and village cordons and searches. The KAF platoon more closely resembled a motorized rifle platoon than an artillery platoon.

During these patrols, the battery identified and monitored the status and progress of many commanders’ emergency reconstruction projects for local villages. The battery also provided airfield security in support of the Hajj pilgrimage, enabling more than 4,000 Afghanis to travel safely to religious sites in Saudi Arabia. These maneuver-centric effects-based operations (EBOs) enhanced security and stability within the Kandahar Province.

The battery conducted split operations throughout the deployment and was never required “to mass” more than two tubes during any firebase or maneuver operation. Each two-tube section consisted of 14 Soldiers, with four men on each of the two tubes and four men in the FDC. Each section also had a medic and was led either by the platoon leader, a fire direction officer (FDO), the executive officer (XO), a platoon sergeant, the chief of firing battery or a gunnery sergeant. These leaders executed decentralized operations autonomously with limited communications with the battery headquarters.

It was imperative they understood the commander’s intent because it enabled them to accomplish their missions with little additional guidance. This latitude enabled the leaders at the lowest levels to make timely and critical decisions that usually resulted in success.

While conducting firebase operations, the battery fired almost nightly to support the FOBs, observation posts (OPs) and patrols. Fire missions consisted mostly of one or two rounds of illumination on mountainsides overlooking the firebases. On occasion, coordinated illumination was fired as a show-of-force. Seldom did a fire order exceed two rounds for a two-gun section because the OPs and forward observers (FOs) rarely identified any targets larger than team-sized elements.

Throughout the deployment, only one section conducted an immediate suppression, danger-close mission when one of the FOB’s OPs was under direct fire attack. On several occasions, observers located enemy elements operating in populated areas but were unable to fire the mortars because of the probability of collateral damage.

Counterstrike Missions. The battery’s mortar sections conducted many counterstrike missions on rocket launch points of origin (POOs). The effectiveness of these counterstrike missions depended on the timeliness of clearing the targets and the efficiency of the FOs in calculating the locations of the launch sites with the grid or polar techniques. First round fires-for-effect (FFEs) were limited because it was difficult to achieve the five requirements for accurate predicted fires.

Precise target location was always a challenge because the FO had to be fortunate enough to be looking directly at the ignition flash and able to calculate the data immediately using the grid or polar technique.

Another limiting factor to achieving FFEs was the difficulty of obtaining accurate metrological (Met) data because forward firing elements usually were hundreds of miles from the nearest Army Met station. The Air Force’s interactive grid analysis display system (IGRADS) predictive Met could be applied where secure internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) access was available, but its predictive accuracy was often distorted due to the large elevation changes in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain.

Responsiveness was critical if counterstrike missions were to be effective as attackers would retreat immediately on foot after a launch using preplanned exfiltration routes. The enemy often ignited rockets with timers, allowing them to depart the area hours before launching the rockets.

Mobility and Positioning. The battery’s two-tube mortar packages also conducted mobile missions. These missions supported every major operation the Combined Joint Task Force-180 (CJTF-180) conducted and required both air- and ground-assault convoys as a means to project the section forward to support maneuver forces with indirect fires. During air assaults, the mortar section loaded two M-Gator utility vehicles onto the CH-47 Chinook, each carrying a mortar tube, baseplate, bipod legs and several 120-mm rounds. On the landing zone, the M-Gators drove off the aircraft and immediately occupied firing positions.

Ground-assault convoys proved to be the movement method of choice as air assets were limited throughout the deployment. While executing ground-assault convoys, the sections never used the mortar trailer due to the extremely rough terrain and unimproved road networks in Afghanistan. Each section bolted a plywood floor to the bed of a high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle (HMMWV) so a mortar could be secured to the floor, protecting the system by eliminating any metal-on-metal contact in the event that an air-assault mission materialized. Each vehicle carried a 25,000-pound sling set for air extractions, as needed. When occupying a position, the mortar system was removed and the baseplate, tube and bipod were emplaced.

Convoys conducted several nighttime maneuvers using either service drive lights or blackout drive lights, depending on the threat. Convoys usually operated with service drive lights on, turning them off and using blackout drive lights for the last kilometers of movement to prevent the enemy from pinpointing the convoy’s precise location when it stopped.

Once in position, the section provided its own perimeter security. Missions usually lasted several weeks, making it imperative to qualify the Soldiers on all crew-served weapons to facilitate rest rotation cycles.

Throughout all operations, the battery’s sections used PVS-7As, which provided early 1990’s night-vision technology. These devices helped execute ground-assault convoys in blackout conditions; however, their grainy images made it difficult to identify a threat before the enemy was well within effective small arms range of the firing position.

This inability to identify a perceived threat highlighted the battery’s need for handheld and howitzer-mounted thermal imaging devices and optical scopes for the M16A2 that are not currently authorized on the battery’s modified table of organization and equipment (MTOE). Because of the mountainous terrain throughout Afghanistan, firebases usually occupied river valleys, and thermal-imaging devices enabled our Soldiers to scan the high ground above their positions for enemy attack attempts. Optical scopes and laser targeting devices mounted on the battery’s M16A2 rifles enabled Soldiers to easily detect, illuminate and engage targets accurately in the dark.


TA Capabilities. Based on the lessons in decentralized firebase operations, patrolling and security operations, the brigade combat teams’ (BCTs’) new Fires Battalions need updated target acquisition (TA) platforms. It is also important to continue to develop and refine fire direction equipment, delivery platforms and munitions to maximize the responsiveness and precision needed on a nonlinear battlefield. We must have digital integration and connectivity of our systems from the instant a target is acquired to the moment of munitions impact and target destruction.

The Fires Battalions will have access to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and lightweight countermortar radars (LCMRs). Both will be more effective if these assets can digitally interface directly with the fire direction computers in the FDC.

The omni-directional LCMR, originally built to Special Operations Forces (SOF) specifications, is designed to detect and calculate the POO of mortar rounds. As well, the LCMR must become reliable at detecting and calculating the POO of incoming rockets and artillery rounds.

Artillery launch detection technology currently exists and is reasonably reliable with the Q-36 Firefinder radar. However, the Army has a limited number of Q-36s and cannot possibly support section-based operations with the battalion’s firing assets in eight different locations simultaneously while in Afghanistan or similar guerrilla-based counterinsurgency operations.

The Q-36 only has a 1600-mil (90-degree) search capability as it was designed for countering a predictable, easily templated enemy. Despite the best predictive analysis in radar deployment orders (RDOs), the system does not account for insurgents attacking with a few rockets from one direction one evening then from the completely opposite direction the next night.

The speed with which the launch location is determined will be vastly enhanced with streamlined digital interface between the radar and the firing asset. The Q-36 does not interface with the mortar fire direction systems; it interfaces digitally with howitzers through the advanced FA tactical data system (AFATDS).

Fire direction technology must continue to evolve remaining ever focused on its ability to digitally interface between the newly fielded acquisition and firing assets. The Centaur, a palm-sized fire direction computer, hopefully, will be an easily transportable and simple means of computing firing data. The new fire direction system should embody the simplicity of the mortar ballistic computer (MBC), which proved more reliable than AFATDS. The MBC was more durable, portable, user friendly and efficient in calculating technical firing data.

The battery’s Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 13D FA Tactical Data Systems Specialists quickly learned how to operate the MBC with minimal training, and more importantly, their supervisors easily could verify that critical initiation data was entered correctly before firing. A small BA5588A/U battery powers the MBC for approximately two days while a generator or vehicle is required to power AFATDS, severely limiting its transportability and stealth required for combating guerillas.

During one major air-assault operation consisting of a battery team of two 120-mm mortars and two 105-mm howitzers, the FDC truck with the AFATDS mounted inside was air emplaced at an inconvenient distance from the two howitzers it supported. The surface was a quagmire, making ground movement impossible to reunite the FDC and howitzers. The FDC was forced to rely on the backup computer system (BUCS) until aviation assets could reposition the FDC more conveniently to the howitzers.

An easily transportable, battery-powered fire direction computer could have eliminated this additional air movement and risk to the aircraft, not to mention the attention the movement attracted for the local population and enemies.

To achieve the speed, agility and dexterity needed to fight a new enemy whose guerilla tactics are constantly evolving, the fire support community must pursue a simple, lightweight fire direction computer as a component of our mortar and howitzer systems. It must interface digitally with our direct fire and indirect fire acquisition assets and delivery assets and be able to calculate technical firing data, allowing the mortar and howitzer crews to immediately self lay on acquired targets.

The fire support community desperately needs precision-guided munitions (PGMs) to employ in urban and complex terrain and minimize collateral damage. The 120-mm precision-guided mortar munition (PGMM) that is laser guided and the 155-mm Excalibur and 155-mm/105-mm projectile guidance kits, plus the guided multiple-launch rocket system (G-MLRS) unitary rocket are all PGMs that will make significant contributions on the GWOT battlefields. The PGMs being developed that can update their targets’ coordinates while in flight, ideally receiving the data directly from an LCMR, UAV or other sensor, will also improve our responsiveness and accuracy in FFEs for counterinsurgency operations. Indirect fire PGMs would be all-weather capable, more responsive and achieve the same level of precision at only a fraction of the cost of our current aviation platforms.

Soldiers in GWOT need the best technology available. After nine months of conducting combat operations in Afghanistan, the battery has implemented many changes in the tactical delivery of fires and conduct of combat patrols. Throughout the deployment, B/3-6 FA Soldiers have proven to be extremely adaptable, overcoming all challenges and executing all missions.

RELATED ARTICLE: CounterStrike Task Force: How to Protect Troops from GWOT Insurgents

Enemy indirect fires, primarily rockets and mortars, are the number one cause of injuries to Soldiers and Marines in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army created the CounterStrike Task Force (CSTF) to find holistic solutions to defeat this insurgent threat.

The Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Futures has focused the efforts of the TRADOC school houses–particularly the FA School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and the Air Defense Artillery School at Fort Bliss, Texas–to work on the CSTF with theater leaders and the Army staff. The strategy is to define layered and redundant tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) and employ developmental capabilities to protect our troops.

The CSTF is looking for innovative ideas from Soldiers and other service members to defeat the GWOT insurgents.

The CSTF also has a secure website with operational security (OPSEC) and classified information on it to provide the field force protection information: https://counterstrike.army.smil.mil. Comments and ideas should be submitted via the link on the secure site or by calling DSN 639-5826/5828/5829 or at the same last four numbers with commercial (580) 442.

The following information was provided by Field Artillery to the CSTF secure website, but the website includes much more:

* “4-27 FA in Iraq–Applying [D.sup.3]A to Counterinsurgency Operations.” This article is on Page 10 of this edition. The version on the secure website includes OPSEC TTPs for engaging locals to secure maximum intelligence information, protecting sources, and establishing and employing a time-sensitive target force to engage an insurgent threat rapidly.

* “3/2 SBCT and the Countermortar Fight in Mosul.” The article is on Page 36 of this edition. The secure website has a more detailed after-action review (AAR) of operations in Mosul and classified tools and products to counter enemy mortars.

* “True Counterfire Takes Combined Arms.” This is a brief piece by the 1/11 Marines Artillery Liaison Officer in support of 2/2 Marines in the defense of Mahmudiyah, Iraq, including the employment of the new lightweight countermortar radar (LCMR). A “sidebar” piece, “New LCMR Proves Useful to the Marines of TF 2/2 in Mahmudiyah,” includes specific details of LCMR operations.

* “1-12 FA (MLRS), 17th FA Brigade, Force Protection Initiatives.” This 17-page white paper tells how to up-armor high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs) and heavy expanded-mobility tactical trucks (HEMTTs) after arriving in theater, using local materials. It includes pictures.

By Captain James W. Huffman III

Captain James W. Huffman III was Commander of B Battery, 3d Battalion, 6th Field Artillery (B/3-6 FA), 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), and deployed to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom IV with his 120-mm mortar battery. Currently, he is a Battalion Fire Support Observer/Controller at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), Fort Polk, Louisiana. Also in 3-6 FA, he was the Battalion S4 and Rear Detachment Commander during the Kosovo Forces (KFOR) IIIB deployment and a Battalion Fire Support Officer. He served as a Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS) Platoon Leader and Battery Operations Officer for A/3-27 FA in the XVIII Airborne Corps Artillery at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. During that period, his battery deployed in support of Operation Southern Watch and provided an Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) capability during Operation Desert Fox in Kuwait.

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