TCS Daily


Terror Out of the Blue

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - July 2, 2004 12:00 AM

When six coalition troops were killed recently in an explosion at a munitions dump near the Iraqi city of Suwariyah it was thought at first that the Polish, Slovakian and Latvian soldiers had been defusing captured ordnance when something went wrong.

But an investigation into the deaths determined that the explosions had been set off by mortar fire. One or more rounds fired by Iraqi terrorists had scored a lucky hit that detonated some of the munitions at the dump, killing the six men.

It was one of the incessant mortar attacks that occur in Iraq day in and day out. Most go unreported unless they cause significant damage or casualties, as was the case when mortar rounds fired into the perimeter of Baghdad Airport this past Tuesday wounded 11 soldiers from a New Mexico National Guard unit and set fire to a petroleum dump.

The terrorists long ago realized that employment of one of their favorite weapons -- the ubiquitous RPG (rocket propelled grenade) -- is a high-risk activity. As we have pointed out in other articles (see The Mighty RPG) rocket grenades must be fired at a target from a relatively short distance. And the blossom of smoke and dust caused by the weapon's back blast immediately gives away the position of the person using it.

But the mortar gives the terrorists a crude remote control weapon that is virtually undetectable. One of the oldest weapons of the gunpowder age, a mortar fires what is in effect a mini-ballistic missile. A mortar shell, usually loaded with several pounds of high explosive (HE) falls, as it were, out of the blue with no warning other than what some soldiers report is a slight hissing sound.

And they are ready at hand -- by the thousands, mostly Soviet-made. An American infantry battalion commander tells of Iraqis selling "complete mortars of various sizes on the main road in Ba'Qubah," for instance. His troops seized 20 mortars at a roadside stand in the city.

As perfected in its lighter, more mobile form during World War I, the mortar is a startlingly simple weapon, capable nonetheless of great lethality. It consists of a steel tube fixed to a baseplate and held at a desired firing angle by a bipod or a single "leg." In the bottom of the tube is a fixed firing pin. You simply drop a shell into the tube. When it falls onto the firing pin the propulsion charge is detonated, sending the shell off on its high angle course toward the target.

At its crudest, this can be a hit-or-miss exercise, a little like lobbing snowballs over the roof of a house at kids unseen on the other side. But in skilled hands it's a different story. An infantry mortar platoon with four 81mm mortars, a ballistics computer and forward observers to direct fire, can lay 1800 pounds of high explosives per minute on an unseen target.

However, there are many factors -- wind and weather, the precision of barrel deflections, the shells themselves -- than can reduce mortar fire to the "luck of the lob." For soldiers in the field, the first rounds, the surprise rounds, are the most dangerous in a mortar attack.

Striking without warning, the first shells (burst radius of an 81mm HE shell is about 140 feet) will have bigger targets for their shrapnel because the troops may well be standing or marching. The casualty rate drops off drastically once troops hit the dirt or scramble into trenches, foxholes or other cover.

But this is precisely why Iraqi "insurgents" perceive mortars to have such a high "terror quotient." They are all about surprise attacks. Rather than lay down coordinated mortar barrages, they want to lob a few surprise rounds onto a target and move on. This is the classic "shoot and scoot" tactic employed by modern mobile artillery.

This tactic is imperative in the relatively few (and bold) mortar attacks made against large U.S. and coalition bases. Modern military forces have the capability, through radar and computers, to almost instantly determine the exact spot from which mortar rounds have been fired and either return devastating counter-fire or deploy troops or helicopters to the area from which the attack was launched.

The standard insurgent mortar attack in Iraq goes something like this: The "militants" -- or whatever you want to call these low-lifes -- operate usually at night and from populated areas thick with apartments and stores. Three or four men materialize, one carrying the mortar tube, the others the shells (minimum weight -- 15 pounds per shell). They might have a marked map of Baghdad. They might even have a GPS device. At any rate, they probably know pretty well the range and direction in which they want to fire.

Usually they just aim the tube in "direct lay mode" toward some landmark near their desired target. Depending on tube angle and the propulsion charge, a mortar round can travel several miles or a few hundred feet to the target area.

The tube is put in place in a minute, literally. In rare instances it may be on the rooftop of a building, but more likely in a vacant lot, an obscure alley, or behind some rubble in a bombed out structure. The terrorists can fire off five rounds in about 10 seconds, pick up the tube and be gone. (The shells make surprisingly little noise when fired.) They might even hope that coalition forces will return fire and kill some innocent civilians. But coalition troops know better than to play that game.

Remember, these are not effective military attacks. They do not deter U.S. troops from their appointed tasks. They are pure harassment and terror, designed to keep troops and civilians off balance, apprehensive. The few casualty-causing hits have the desired psychological effect and get duly reported in the media.

One shell lobbed into the Green Zone, for instance, killed an Army staff sergeant as he was leading troops out of a barracks. Mortar shells have fallen as well in crowded marketplaces, killing and wounding numerous civilians.

There will certainly be more mortar attacks and more casualties in coming weeks. Sometimes U.S. troops analyze craters after attacks, determine likely firing points and try to ambush mortar crews when they return a few days later, but this is rare. Drying up the supply of mortars and shells is virtually impossible. Iraq is a vast ammo dump. The best defense against the mortar nuisance is to seek out and kill anyone carrying mortar parts or mortar shells. Call it preventive maintenance. Crude, but it's about the only solution to the mortar problem.


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