The U.S. Marine Corps comes up with great ideas, but often waste millions of dollars on some real losers.  The 120mm mortar is a great weapon, but some people at Quantico lost their minds and spent millions of dollars to develop a high-tech automatic mortar.

Heavy Mortar in ground mount configuration

A simple, reliable, lightweight mortar, or a complex 120mm nightmare.

First, read the Marine Corps official news release:


MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. (May 19, 2000) -- The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab displayed its new, experimental mortar system, the Mobile Fire Support System, May 5 at a firing demonstration on Range 5.  The MFSS is a rifled 120mm mortar system. It is the first remotely fired mortar system.  "It can be fired from anywhere within [range of] communication" said Forrest Lindsey, the senior engineer at the Warfighting Lab. "We can actually put a satellite receiver on it and fire it by satellite."

     The MFSS is equipped with its own Global Positioning System, field radio and fire control computer. The turret has power traverse, elevation and loading capabilities. When the system receives a fire mission over the radio, it can turn, load and fire, within 12 seconds.  "We've designed the very first robotic gun," Lindsey said. "It allows us to respond faster and much more accurately to fire missions."

     The new system has a range of  8.2 kilometers and 13 kilometers when using Rocket Assisted Projectiles. During a test fire, the MFSS, firing from 6,000 meters away, placed nine rounds within a 2-meter circle.  "We have the capability to provide lethal and accurate fire support," said Maj. Lance McDaniel, the ground combat representative for the advanced technology division of the Warfighting Lab. "We're looking to achieve first-round fires for effect."

     The MFSS system's mobility makes it a very agile weapon.  "We're looking for it to be a weapon that can be towed by a hum-vee [Highly Mobile Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle], carried in a V-22 [Osprey], pushed out of a V-22 and set up 200 nautical miles inland," Lindsey said. "Once the LAV body kit catches up, we're looking at making it modular, so individuals can lift the cannon section off, put it on the LAV and move it as a self-propelled artillery piece."

     The MFSS project started in 1996 when Col. Anthony Wood, then the director of the Warfighting Lab wanted to develop a mortar that could be placed in an isolated location and fired remotely.   The mortar system is a result of the combined efforts of the Warfighting Lab; Picatinney Arsenal, N.J.; Rock Island Arsenal, Ill.; Allied Signal Corporation; L3 communications and Thomson Daimler Armaments of France.

     The system is still experimental and is not scheduled to replace any existing system in the Marine Corps inventory.   "In the Warfighting Lab, we build and demonstrate experimental systems," Lindsey said. "It's up to the fleet and the Combat Development Command to decide what the Marine Corps will use."  If incorporated, the new system will make a significant difference to the gun crews that will fire the weapon on the battlefield.  "The gun crew can occupy and fire from trenches 50 to 100 meters away," said Lindsey. "If counter fire comes in, the gun crew is down in the trenches protected from enemy fire."


G2mil Comments

     Obviously, this mortar will cost ten times more than simply buying the Army's latest M120 120mm mortar, now in production.  In addition, the MFSS has dozens of precision moving parts, which will often break and cost a lot of money to fix.   Mortar technicians must be highly trained to calibrate and sight this complex monster.  As for first round fires for effect, that assumes perfect weather and perfect ammunition.  Since it is powered, it requires a generator or a large battery which must be recharged.

     This 6500lbs mortar will weigh six times more than the proven M120.  Worst of all, it will be unable to fire current NATO standard 120mm mortar rounds since it requires a rifled bore to fire unique ammo from a magazine.  This will make the ammunition far more expensive and the types of rounds available very limited.  And since the rounds are in a magazine, the forward observer cannot request different types of rounds.   Spotting will be impossible without smoke rounds.  The gun cannot break open mortar crates and load itself, so several Marines will have to perform this task anyway.

       How many times will a poorly trained or harried Marine push some wrong buttons directing the mortar to automatically "fire for effect" 4000 meters to the rear?   What happens when trained observers are killed or missing, and a lieutenant comes on the net to call for fire?  What happens when a forward observer computer is captured, and his fire control devices used against Marines.  If any part of this complex mortar is damaged or malfunctions, it becomes useless.  Finally, forget about emergency ammo resupply from the U.S. Army or NATO allies because their 120mm mortar rounds won't work.

      The only minor benefit is recognizing the dangers of enemy counterfires; but they are just as likely to kill a Marine reloading the magazine, and more likely to damage a computerized automated mortar.   Will Marines run back and forth "from trenches 50 to 100 meters away" to reload the mortar magazine every few rounds?   As for mobility, this awkward thing will take much longer to unload and set up from a V-22 or truck.   A self-propelled MFSS has been tested on a light armored vehicle, but this heavy monster didn't leave room for much ammo, and the crew must be careful around a self-powered mortar.  The MFSS is a dog and should be canceled today, then the Corps should study mounting the current M120 on the bed of a Heavy HMMWV or a 5-ton truck; that would be mobility.

                                                               Carlton Meyer  editor@G2mil.com

Expert Comments

     They really must check the water supply in Northern Virginia.  The stupidity factor is reaching critical mass.  First, the weight is beyond ridiculous.  A Hummer wouldn't carry it, and would barely tow it.  Not to mention the ammo and gun crew needs, so you have a small convoy for each gun.  Second, this has to be fixed ammunition (i.e., rifle cartridge/tank round), because there is no way you can adjust powder charges remotely.  It would mean that  propellant increments would have to be stripped off by a mechanical device(!!!) before loading.  Fixed rounds mean range is a function of elevation, just like when you fire a rifle, you elevate the muzzle to get the desired range.  

      Third, what are you going to do to get weather (metrological or "met") data for the weapon?  No met data, no first round FFE.  Without met data, you have to fire rounds to get your "did hit" data from your "should hit" shots.  We indirect fire mavens call it a "registration."  Then you have to apply that information in ALL directions (think fighting in a circle or guerilla warfare) when you fire.  THEN, every time you get a decent change in the weather, you do the same thing again.  Sounds like a really big magazine to me.  Oh, and if the ammo has different weights (AMMO weights are different?   Yes, kiddies; tank sabot ammo flies flatter than HE because it is lighter, so you have to tell the ballistic computer what you are firing so you get the desired results on your target.  Artillery mavens do the same thing because our rounds have different weights; even some of the standard HE round weights are different.), you need the data for each type of round.

     If I was going to use a remotely located/fired weapon concept, I'd use a pair of 17-tube 70 mm rocket pods with 17-lb HE warheads on either side of a simple, robust pedestal mount.  The mount would have a cheap electric motor with a battery and, maybe a solar panel, to turn and elevate the pods.  It would be air-dropped, and have a GPS with a SINGCARS digital radio to communicate with its FDC.  Rockets are area weapons, so precision is not needed.  General met data for the area would suffice to hit the target.  Put a hook on the top of the pedestal and it could be retrieved, or have several 1/4 blocks of C-4 to destroy the expensive stuff on command. 

But, get the water tested in Quantico quickly.

Larry A. Altersitz  rgrlarry@aol.com