One of the latest toys to come out in American use is the new XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) System, or Individual Semiautomatic Air Burst System, or Punisher, or Super-Secret Choco-Fudgie Game-Changer Contour Line Re-Arranger, or whatever the hell they’re calling it this week:
Designed to defeat both exposed and defilade targets, the CDTE is a shoulder-fired semi-automatic weapon that engages targets with a 25mm airbursting round.
The magazine-fed XM25 is 29.5 inches in length and weighs approximately 12.5 pounds.
Critical to the system’s capability is an integrated target acquisition / fire control that helps the warfighter detect targets, then determines range and calculates the optimal ballistic solution for target engagement. A wiring harness in the weapon then programs the ammunition to airburst at the predetermined range.
Back in the day, since WWI actually, every military in the world used a counter-defilade weapon. It was called the mortar.
British weapons expert Ian V. Hogg was pretty much on the mark when he defined the modern mortar. “…an inexpensive steel tube, with a firing pin on the bottom end, balanced on an inexpensive sort of tripod, and firing cheap ammunition.”
Key words why the American Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex would never touch an Commando mortar: “inexpensive, inexpensive and cheap.” No Pentagon general is going to get a six-figure “consultant” job with a large defense contractor after retirement by selling something like that to the military.
We’re here to look at light or "Commando" one-man mortars which are easily man-portable. Before Vietnam, the American Army, proud of its own mechanization and motorization, got rid of the little 60mm mortar. Since vehicles would be hauling the stuff anyway, the Pentagon wonks decided all that was needed for the infantry was the 115-pound M29A1 81mm mortar.
Turns out that in places like Vietnam, or Korea, or Afghanistan, or a host of other battlefields the Army didn’t expect to fight on you can’t just drive anywhere you please. Come Vietnam, infantry humping through the thick brush, jungle, and hills screamed to get their 60mm mortars back. Out came the mothballs came the 1940-vintage M2 and M19 60mm weapons.
This led to the development of a new light company mortar, the M224 60mm. Fired from the bipod with the sight and T&E and all the bells and whistles it is highly accurate against even small targets and the total package weight is 46 pounds. The weapon was also designed to be used in a light hand-held “assault” role with just the tube and a lightweight baseplate, weighing 17 pounds total. I asked a couple of mortar maggots from the 82nd about the latter as the Iraq War was heating up. They knew the mortar could be used in such a way, but had never trained, let alone fired, it in such a manner.
Enter Afghanistan. Crawling around steep, barren mountains, the M224 in the lightweight hand-held role was suddenly re-discovered. Even in Iraq it was used this way.
Why does this sort of thing have to be "rediscovered" by troops in the field in every war?
The 75th Ranger Regiment, based on experience in ‘Stan and Iraq, reported that:
“…based on the situations that have been encountered during the Global War on Terrorism we always have a 60mm handheld as convoy security. The 60mm mortar is just as responsive as a machine gun and creates a unique psychological effect that is unmatched. During all of the ambushes we have encountered over the past few years the 60mm has been the deciding factor for gaining fire superiority. It is the counter to the rocket propelled grenade and can suppress places that the M2 [.50 cal heavy machine gun] MK 19 [40mm automatic grenade launcher] cannot.”
American soldiers in combat have long wanted a lightweight highly portable “commando” type mortar. In the Second World War, more than a few soldiers and Marines figured out how to use the M19 in this fashion by using a helmet filled with dirt as an improvised baseplate. Other countries had built better mouse traps.
Japanese Grenade Discharger Type 89 “Knee Mortar”
Caliber: 50 mm (1.97 in)
Barrel length: 0.245 m (10 in)
Overall length: 0.61 m (24 in)
Weight: 4.65 kg (10.25 lb)
Bomb weight: 0.79 kg (1.74 in)
Maximum range: 650 m (711 yards)
Rate of fire: 25 rounds per minute
The most successful weapon of this type was the WWII Japanese 50mm “knee mortar”. Technically a grenade projector, the Type 89 (1929) was a relatively simple weapon, consisting of a steel pipe-like barrel with enough rifling to spin stabilize the projectiles, a trigger housing, a range-adjusting assembly, and a small curved base plate. Windage aiming consisted of a white line painted on the barrel; range was adjustable via a knob and a graduated range scale. Designed to be braced against a log, tree trunk, or the ground, the odd-shaped base plate helped give the Type 89 its deceptive nickname. For whatever reason Allied soldiers dubbed the weapon the “knee mortar” and some even tried (only once) to fire the Type 89 with the base plate braced against the thigh.
Facing the knee mortar on Guadalcanal, GIs and Marines begged to get one of their own. Colonel Merritt “Red Mike” Edson, leader of the famous Marine Raiders, evaluated the knee mortar thus:
“We need the knee mortar badly…
“The following are reasons in its favor:
1. It is a one-man load.
2. A man can carry ten rounds on his person besides his weapon.
3. It had a high rate of fire.
4. It gives the Platoon Commander a weapon of this type which is immediately available to him.
5. This mortar uses the Jap all-purpose hand grenade—ranges 50 yards to 650, I believe.
“The Japs have three (3) of these mortars in a Mortar Squad in each
Rifle Platoon. [A Japanese rifle company fielded twelve (12) 50mm knee mortars…US rifle companies had three (3) 60mm mortars in a separate heavy weapons platoon.] They have two ammunition carriers per mortar. It can be lowered to a low angle and placed against a log and shot straight out further than a hand grenade.”
Edson noted one fault with the knee mortar:
“The Japs have too much high explosive in the projectile and the case is too thin. We get a lot of casualties from it, but they are minor wounds.”
Which brings us an aside to the 25mm anti-defilade projectile. The standard 40mm grenade used in the M203 has only an ounce of RDX for an explosive charge in the HE round and 0.7 ounces in the HEDP round. Now take a projectile 25mm (just under an inch) in diameter, partially full of electronics. Plus you have to have some kind of fragmentation sleeve to provide shrapnel to actually produce casualties. How big of an explosive charge are you going to be able to cram in there after that? I’m just sayin’…
Back to the knee mortar. Marine Corps legend Lewis “Chesty” Puller said, “I consider it imperative [original emphasis] that the Army and Marines be equipped with knee mortars and carry one type of grenade.”
Sergeant C.W. Arrowood of the Army’s 164th Infantry said, “The Jap knee mortar gives us hell. They come in fast, thick and accurate. Can’t we have one?”
The answer to the sergeant’s question was, of course, a big fat NO. Manufacturing something this simple proved beyond the capabilities of the Arsenal of Democracy.
Running a close second because numbers were limited compared to the universal use of the knee mortar, but the better weapon, was the British…
Ordnance, ML 2-inch Mortar Mk II***
Caliber: 2 in (50.8 mm)
Barrel length: 0.5065 m (19.4 in)
Overall length: 0.665 m (26.2 in)
Weight: 4.1 kg (9 lb)
Bomb weight: 1.02 kg (2.25 lb)
Maximum range: 457 m (500 yards)
Rate of fire: 8 rounds per minute
It too was fired with no bipod and a lanyard trigger. It was so effective that it continued to soldier on around the world for decades after WWII. An up-dated version, the L10A1 51-mm mortar, is in use today. Unlike the Japanese TO&E, the Allied 2-inch mortar, was issued only at the rate of one per platoon. Soldiers in the field, of course, bumped it down to squad level whenever possible. Eventually there would be some fourteen different makes and marks. The infantry carried the weapon via a leather sling that included a muzzle cap for the barrel.
Initially, the 2-inch mortar was equipped a complicated gun sight. The unit involved coarse and fine range adjusting knobs, transverse and elevating bubble levels, and a lensatic sight tube. Almost as soon as the war started, this feature was done away with, and the mortarmen got by just fine using a painted white line on the back of the barrel, ala the knee mortar.
Although trigger fired, the 2-inch was first officially designed for high trajectory fire from 45 to 90-degrees elevation. It did not take soldiers long to figure out they could fire the weapon horizontally like the knee mortar, bracing the baseplate on vertical objects, especially during house-to-house city combat.
Ammunition included High Explosive, smoke, and flares. The parachute-equipped illuminating flares were particularly liked on the battlefield. The bombs were carried in sealed tubes, three shells per tube, and the tubes came in handy packs of three, with a carrying handle and sling. Thus, for a weight of 20 pounds, any soldier could carry nine rounds for the 2-inch mortar.
Incidentally, the platoons of 3 Para attacking Goose Green during the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982 had to option of leaving behind their 2-inch mortar. Those who did so regretted it. The 2-inch proved invaluable providing illumination rounds for the night battle, greatly superior to the hand-held self-contained flares otherwise issued.
This brings us, very much the long way around, to the modern so-called Commando Mortar. These are, essentially, simple hand-held light mortars. They have been touted for use by Special Forces, “Commandos” but they are also ideal for light infantry, airborne forces, and, of course, the freedom fighter. Both handy and inexpensive, these Commando Mortars are manufactured by numerous nations around the globe. Examples include the Israeli Soltam, Austrian Hirtenberger, Portuguese Indep, South African M4, Yugo M70, Peruvian Patrol Mortar, Turkish MKEK, French/Swiss and other 60mm versions made in the Netherlands and Singapore. Probably the simplest of these weapons is the following.
ECIA 60 mm Commando Mortar
Caliber: 60 mm
Weight: 6.5 kg (14.3 lb)
Maximum range: 1,290 m (1,410 yards)
Rate of Fire: 15 rounds per minute
This Spanish weapon is made by ECIA (Esperanza y Cia) and is the lightest, simplest, and most inexpensive of the Commando Mortars, yet it can still fire the same standard 60 mm rounds as its more complex bipod-mounted brethren to a very respectable range of 1,290 meters. The Spanish Army uses this weapon, and it had been exported to several other nations.
The mortar really is simplicity itself. The barrel has a fixed firing pin for drop firing, and a lightweight circular baseplate. There is a laced-up heavyweight canvas hand grip/heat guard which the gunner holds when firing the piece. Total weight is only 6.5 kg (14+ pounds). With a two-man crew, the ECIA can put out a steady 15 rounds per minute.
A simple bubble level sight is held to the upper portion of the barrel with a hoseclamp. A small bar with rudimentary front and back sight pivots in the center of a disc, pointing to a series of range settings as it is turned. The gunner adjusts the sight for the desired range and raises the barrel until the bubble level is centered. The bar part of the sight is checked to be sure the tube is pointed in the right direction. The readied mortar bomb is then dropped down the tube.
Mobility-wise the weapon comes equipped with a carrying sling with a leather muzzle cap, similar to that found on the old 2-inch mortar.
The Austrian Hirtenberger mortar is very similar, but incorporates some technological improvements. The Hirtenbergers are also in service with several countries, and are being license-built by MKEK of Greece and the Bulgarian firm of Arsenal JSCo.-Kazanlak.
HIRTENBERGER COMMANDO MORTARS
Caliber: 60 mm
Barrel length: 640 mm (2.1 ft)
Overall length: 815 mm (2.67 ft)
Weight: 5.10 kg (11.24 lb)
Maximum range: 2,600 m (2,843 yards)
Rate of fire: 30 rounds per minute
Most impressive in addition to the various weapon and ammunition options is that Hirtenberger offers its own line of accessories for the Commando Mortars. A backpack bag specially designed for the mortar’s cleaning equipment and accessories is available, capable of carrying the mortar tube in the center pocket as well, in a wide variety of camouflage patterns.
Accessories such as bags and backpacks to fit the weapon and ammunition you use may not seem too impressive until one sees that the United States Army has nothing in the way of issue gear to carry mortar ammunition. Field Manual 7-90 advises mortarmen to have their own canvas carriers sewn up by someone. Other official methods of carrying mortar rounds include two per empty Claymore bag or in sandbags.
So the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex can spend $35,000 each for a Punisher or piss away $500 million of the Land Warrior program but they can’t design and manufacture a friggin’ bag to hang off MOLLE gear?!?!
A Commando Mortar doesn’t have to be a low-tech tube-and-baseplate. The Fly-K incorporates some pretty cool high-tech features.
PRB Fly-K TN-8111 Weapon System
Caliber: 51 mm
Overall length: 605 mm
Weight: 4.8 kg (10.58 lbs)
Projectile weight: 780 g (1.79 lb)
Maximum range: 675 m (738 yards)
Rate of fire: 25-30 rounds per minute
Originally a Belgian design, now manufactured by Titariute SA of France, the Fly-K mortar has been attracting increasing attention for its very different attributes. The Fly-K is more of a spigot mortar than a real mortar, with a lightweight barrel tube with a centrally mounted spigot within. The bomb’s hollow tail tube, with the enclosed propelling charge, is loaded onto the spigot and fired via a trigger. When fired, the blast shears off the lower end of the cartridge and forces it out where it flattens like a disc, pushing tight to the bottom of the mortar bomb as well as against the top of the spigot, forming a closed combustion chamber.
The result of all this is that the Fly-K, when fired, does not betray its location and firer; it produces no smoke, no smell, no flash, nor infra-red signature. While not utterly silent, it is very quiet, no more than 52 decibels at 100 meters. In many, many cases the plainly audible popping of conventional mortars firing has given infantry on the incoming side time to take cover or, in case of illumination rounds, freeze in place. With the Fly-K, the unannounced silent, invisible rain of mortars falling from the skies has great psychological effect, but the main advantage remains keeping the shooters from discovery. This makes it ideal for raiders, commandos, Special Forces, and any kind of irregular or guerilla group.
This system also produces so little heat that the Fly-K mortar is capable of extended rapid fire. Spigot mortars are generally known for short range, but the Fly-K can still shoot out to 675 meters. Although no special munitions have been actively fielded, there exists the capacity to include much larger warheads, since only the tail of the projectile fits down into the barrel.
As another aside, the Fly-K also has an intriguing big brother which utilizes 12 of the standard High Explosive rounds on an electrically fired multiple spigot launcher reminiscent of the Hedgehog Anti-Submarine Projector used on WWII-era destroyers. Although the entire unit weighs a hefty enough 200 pounds, it could certainly be moved quickly by a truck or even ATV to provide mobile artillery, a kind of poor man’s MLRS. It is effective out to 800 meters and so would make an ideal area-protection or route-denial system. One of these planted to cover a likely helicopter LZ would raise hell with any air assault. The manufacturer claims the system can saturate an area 130 by 80 meters with nearly 7,000 fragments.
Fly-K-TN8464: Now that makes for a really Hot LZ.
The original Fly-K mortar was adopted by the French Marines and some export sales were made. The most recent evolution of the Fly-K is the LGI Mle F1 Lance Grenade Individual personal grenade launcher and it is in full use in all branches of the French military.
If one needs any more convincing of the usefulness of these weapons to dismounted light infantry, raiders, or resistance fighter, the two following illustrations of a conventional U.S. Army M224 60 mm mortar squad versus the Fly-K “mortar squad” should clear up any confusion.
U.S. Army M224 60 mm mortar squad
Fly-K mortar “squad”
It just goes to show there's more than one way to skin a defilade cat, some more expensive than others. I'd sure have one of these things if I could. I think it's covered by the Second Amendment, but you know how those pesky Federales are.