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Techniques for Improving Responsiveness of Mortars
During Decentralized Operations

by SFC David J. McKenny, Task Force Mortar, Observer/Controller, CMTC


While working as a mortar platoon Observer/Controller (O/C) at the CMTC in Hohenfels, I have noticed several trends that the mortar community has chosen not to confront. The foremost is decentralized operations. There are numerous manuals about mortar operations and employment techniques. Some of them emphasize that circumstances may dictate decentralizing the mortar platoon.

The theory is sound. But the execution ranges from difficult to impossible.

The reason? A lack of sufficient training at the squad leader level.

Each 11C NCO should be able to receive calls for fire and process them with the equipment and assets available within the squad. Unfortunately, most of the units that train at the CMTC have not reached this level of proficiency. Admittedly, as a unit, platoons normally do well. Not only do they survive, but they also provide quick and accurate indirect fire. But the average mortar platoon usually has only a handful of very knowledgeable NCOs. They work in the fire direction center (FDC) and achieve high standards on both internal and external evaluations. When the platoons decentralize, there are not enough of these seasoned veterans to go around.

This is not new. In fact, what I have seen at CMTC really confirms observations I have made throughout my career. Listed below are the most common trends plus techniques to help improve unit responsiveness during decentralized operations.

* * *

OBSERVATION: Most mortar platoons assign the most FDC-capable NCOs to the FDC. They use the squad leaders to train their squads without giving the squad leaders adequate FDC training.

Technique: Ensure that all squad leaders receive a FDC training. Do not limit the training to inside the FDC. Give squad leaders experience outside the FDC with only their squad members to assist.

* * *

OBSERVATION: When conducting simulated combat operations, survivors take an extended amount of time to reorganize if the FDC is destroyed. They often cannot continue to provide fire support because they do not know how to compute missions without key equipment such as the Mortar Ballistic Computer and plotting board.

Techniques:

1. The platoon should practice reacting to the loss of the FDC.

2. Do not keep the best plotting boards and spare FDC equipment on the FDC vehicle in case the Mortar Ballistic Computer batteries fail. Distribute it within the platoon. You can collect it if needed.

3. Make sure all squad leaders know who has what equipment and who takes charge.

4. Surviving squad leaders should notify the FSO and carry on immediately.

5. Teach squad leaders how to compute fire missions and subsequent corrections directly from the map. This way the only equipment required to compute missions in an emergency is a map, protractor, pencil and a charge book. It may take longer, but it's better than, "I can't fire this mission."

* * *

OBSERVATION: Squad leaders are not adequately trained in the skills required to set up a gun in a remote location and receive fire missions. Some are weak at land navigation. Some cannot accurately lay the gun on the desired direction. Others cannot process calls for fire nor accurately compute data. Any one of these deficiencies will result in failure to support the unit.

Techniques:

1. Emphasize the importance of sufficiently training squad leaders.

2. Afford them the opportunity to lead the platoon to new locations on unfamiliar terrain.

3. Although they may normally not travel alone, they may travel with other non-mortar units when decentralized.

4. Make sure each squad leader can accurately lay in his gun with an aiming circle, an M-2 compass or a lensatic compass.

  • He must be able to do this correctly. Check for with an aiming circle. Repeat until he becomes proficient.
  • He must know how to check the accuracy himself using known points and back azimuths.
  • If he is not able to compute fire missions, he can receive gun data by radio from the FDC but he should be trained to serve as an FDC if communication with the FDC fails.

* * *

OBSERVATION: When the soldiers receive mortar training, they normally do crew drills and practice laying in the gun. This is done in five days at AIT, and the soldiers are 11C-qualified. The more difficult skills of operating an FDC are not normally shown to the more junior soldiers.

Techniques:

1. Overcome personnel shortages by training soldiers from other MOSs to perform as 11Cs. Most of them do very well as gunners or assistant gunners. The hardest skill to learn is the FDC procedures and it seems to be the least trained.

2. Immediately upon arrival in the unit, 11Cs should receive map reading training. This is the source of FDC knowledge.

3. Teach soldiers the basics -- at the lowest level. It takes a long time to become truly proficient.

* * *

OBSERVATION: When the unit being supported is decentralized and the mortar section or platoon cannot cover the entire unit sector, there is a reluctance to become creative or do things other than the standard way. This often leads to less responsive fires in areas that do not fall in the 1600 mil sector of fire on tracked mounted gun systems.

EXAMPLE: During decentralized operations, the supported unit is often spread out beyond the limited 1600 mil sector that a tracked mounted mortar can cover. When a target is outside of this limit, the mortar or section must be relaid to fire the mission. This requires a good deal of time when time is critical.

Techniques: There are a number of methods that can reduce the time. Here are some ways to help. But units should experiment with these and develop others themselves.

1. Do not be reluctant to stray from the way "they always do it."

2. Make sure personnel fully understand map reading and FDC procedures.

3. Encourage them to overcome the limitations of their equipment or circumstances by improvising.

4. Remember: "Excuses don't put rounds on target."

5. Methods to compensate for 1600 mil sector limitation:

  • After the mortars are laid on their MAZ (Mounting Azimuth), mark the position of the vehicle with chock blocks. Relay it on a MAZ using a separate set of aiming posts. If an out-of-sector mission is called, the vehicle is guided to the chockblocks and fired on the data computed for that MAZ.

  • Avoid open terrain whenever possible. If you cannot, you can use a distant aiming point. Sight on the distant aiming point. Record the deflection on the red scale of the sight. The FDC can determine the deflection needed to hit the target using the distant aiming point. Set the deflection from the FDC so that the crew can shift the entire track after centering the turntable. Using a distant aiming point will compensate for the slight movement of the sight's location when pivoting the track.

  • If there is no need to move quickly from the current location, consider ground-mounting the gun.

  • When more than one gun is in the same location, they can be laid on two separate MAZs. The MAZ may overlap sectors or cover completely different areas. This is often used in Assembly Areas. But the same method can be used to expand the sector covered from one location. Normally the guns are computed as separate firing units, but the fire commands are slowed down because each gun receives a different deflection. A way to make the process easier for the FDC is to use the MAZ of the base gun to determine the referred deflections of the other guns. All guns can still hit the same target with the same deflection by altering the referred deflections of the individual guns. The best way to ensure that all guns will be able to hit the same target with the same deflections, no matter how different their MAZs are, is to number a plotting board completely around using the base gun's MAZ. Whatever the referred deflection wold be for the base gun if it were firing at the other guns' MAZs is the referred deflection that is given to that particular gun. The aiming posts may have to be placed in a convenient location and the black scale slipped if the MAZs are greatly different. Example: The base gun has a MAZ of 1200 mils with a referred deflection of 2800. To open the sector of coverage, you determine gun No. 1's MAZ to be 1500 mils. If the base gun was to fire at 1500 mils, its deflection would be 2500. By giving No. 1 gun the command to refer to 2500 and place out aiming posts, you have aligned the two guns to the same deflection. This technique may sound unorthodox; however, if practiced a few times it is simple, safe and effective.

Although using one or a combination of these techniques is not a cure-all for some of the limitations faced by mortar sections, they can enhance their responsiveness. The most effective method to overcome the unexpected problems faced both in training and combat is to train as many soldiers and NCOs as possible in FDC. Not just the procedures, they have to know how and why things are done a certain way. Then when it can't be done that way, a soldier can figure out a different way to do the same thing. The mortar platoons throughout the Army have been doing an outstanding job for many years and invariably will continue to do so. It never hurts to look really hard at oneself and try to do a good thing better.


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