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Fires in the Close Fight Newsletter

FSO and Mortar Platoon Leader Integration: Get More Bang for Your Buck

by MAJ Timothy Sullivan

Observer/controllers (OCs) at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) consistently note that infantry task forces fail to integrate their organic mortar platoons into the task force fight. The mortar platoon--the unit's most responsive source of indirect fires--seldom has an impact on the battlefield. The reason for this failure can be traced back to the initial steps of the military decision making process (MDMP). The solution to this problem lies in the hands of the battalion fire support officer (FSO), the fire support noncommissioned officer (FSNCO), and the mortar platoon leader.

Upon receipt of a mission, the battalion staff immediately begins to conduct a mission analysis. Typically, however, as the FSO and FSNCO work through the staff estimate, analysis drops from the equation. By the time many FSOs brief the fire support estimate to the commander they simply present data like round counts and tube status. A true analysis of the data would allow the FSO to impress upon the commander the effects the mortar platoon can achieve given its ammunition and tube status. The job of the FSO is to detail to the commander what the fire support battlefield operating system (BOS) can bring to the battlefield. An analysis of battalion mortar capabilities is especially important since fire support is the only asset that the commander directly controls. Without this analysis from the outset, the commander's guidance for fire support, specifically what he wants his mortars to achieve, will not be as clear and concise as possible.

As the MDMP continues and the S2 develops his picture of the threat, the fire plan begins to take shape. The mortar platoon leader should be a key player. By participating in the planning, the mortar platoon leader can get a feel for what types and sizes of targets he can expect to engage. Along with the fire direction noncommissioned officer (FDNCO), the mortar platoon leader can begin to conduct tactical fire direction. Taking the commander's guidance for fire support and using the effects table found in Appendix B of FM 7-90, Tactical Employment of Mortars, the mortar platoon leader and the FDNCO can determine the volleys of fire that it will take to achieve the desired results. The mortar platoon leader can then determine if his platoon can meet their commander's intent given their current ammunition status. Armed with this information, the FSO can, in turn, brief the commander on any shortfalls that may exist. This will likely get the commander's attention, and energize the staff to coordinate for more ammunition or request additional fire support assets. A shortage in fire support assets may even lead the commander to alter his plan.

Unfortunately such "battle calculus” is rarely conducted. The end result is often a small number of mortar missions fired with an inadequate volume of fire, leaving the commander scratching his head wondering why the most lethal weapon system in his battalion had little impact on the outcome of the battle. The table below (extracted from the Draft FM 6-20-40, Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Fire Support for Brigade Operations, June 1999 outlines the steps that the FSO and FSNCO should take when conducting “battle calculus.” While the table is geared for brigade level, this same analytical process applies to a task force FSO and FSNCO. The steps are detailed and time consuming, but they point out the level of detail that the FSO and FSNCO need to achieve to develop a viable plan for their mortars. These steps also highlight the fact that the FSO and FSNCO need to work hand in hand with the mortar platoon leader.

There are several other keys to success with mortars in the close fight beyond basic battle calculus. “Providing close support fires is the most common mission given the mortar platoon or section” (FM7-90, p. 3-6). In this mission, the term close support fires begs for further coordination and teamwork that must occur between the FSO/FSNCO and the mortar platoon leader. The accuracy required to execute close supporting fires cannot be achieved by the mortar platoon without the support of the survey and meteorological assets available to a direct support field artillery (FA) battalion. The FSO is the key to making this coordination happen.

The survey team from the FA battalion can accurately provide the three required elements of survey: directional control, position control, and altitude. The mortar platoon has the ability through their AN/PSN-11 (PLGR) to obtain position control and an accurate altitude. However, the most elusive (and most important) element of survey is directional control. This is the area that most mortar units neglect and thus introduce errors into their firing solutions. A directional error is a “non-constant error.” In other words, the error will fluctuate as the range to targets changes causing the rounds to “ping-pong” around the target. A declinated aiming circle (declinated using a map or declinated at a verified declination station provided by the FA BN survey team) should never be accepted in place of having an orienting station (ORSTA) and an end of orienting line (EOL) established in each mortar position. Coordinate survey support to this extent is by no means easy, but it is worth the effort. It should always be the goal of the FSO and mortar platoon leader to achieve such support. Such support results from a well thought out plan developed by the FSO/FSNCO and the mortar platoon leader in conjunction with the FA BN S3 and reconnaissance and survey officer (RSO). The benefit of getting survey control will enhance the mortar platoon’s accuracy and acts as a force protection multiplier for friendly troops and a combat power multiplier that increases the platoon's lethality. The mortar platoon, when split into two firing sections on common survey, can be massed accurately.

The other area of field artillery support that the FSO/FSNCO should coordinate is meteorological (MET) support. A meteorological message input into the mortar ballistic computer allows for the mortar platoon to account for the impact that non-standard conditions (for example, wind speed and wind direction) have on mortar rounds. The fire support element and the mortar platoon should be aware of the MET schedule and should “religiously” apply the most current MET message. Coupled with the survey support, the MET message is another aid that brings the mortar platoon closer to the goal of achieving first round accuracy. Mortar platoons may argue that by registering they do not need to apply a MET message because the registration accounts for the elements of a MET message. This is only true for the transfer limits of their registration. Once a mortar platoon traverses outside of these limits, their registration is no longer valid. The MET message they failed to apply would have increased their accuracy.

Reversing the trend of the ineffective employment of the battalion mortars is no small task. There are many components to the solution, but the common thread to put the pieces together lies in teamwork between the mortar platoon and FSE. To aid in this process, the mortar platoon leader and BN FSO should develop a product such as the attached mortar annex. It provides the specificity needed to bring all the pieces of the mortar and fire support puzzle together. “Close support mortar fires are the key to a successful maneuver at the platoon and company level—they can make the difference between success or failure in the defense” (FM 7-90, p 3-6).

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