The thoughts conveyed in this article are the writer’s alone, and the following content does not reflect the official views or policies of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the United States Military Academy or the United States Government.
The use of mortars as an effective enabler to Combined Arms Operations is quickly becoming a lost art. As a Battalion level asset, mortars can be a very effective and responsive enabler to the combined arms battalion. But that requires a change in perception in how we view training, equipping and employing a Combined Arms Battalion Mortar Platoon.
Small Unit Maneuver Leaders Are not versed in the Art of Indirect Fire Integration
The primary purpose of mortars is to provide responsive and accurate fires in support of maneuver level leaders. As a Battalion Mortar Platoon we are the lowest available indirect fire support asset for a maneuver battalion, and it follows that battalion mortars should also be the most responsive asset. A Maneuver leader should be able to leverage support from battalion mortars more quickly than assets outside the battalion. External enablers should be prioritized based on availability, responsiveness and effectiveness. Often, maneuver leaders fail to leverage the full potential of mortar assets because they see close air support or field artillery support as a more effective means to deal with a threat—especially an armored or reinforced target. I would offer, that while that may be true, leveraging mortar support can buy space and time to bring other assets to bear. While mortars may not always be an end in themselves—they can definitely be a means to an end—disrupting, fixing, or delaying targets to make them more vulnerable to other available direct and indirect fire systems.
Ultimately, a mortar platoon is only as effective as the observers that spot for them. The capabilities of mortars need to be communicated down to the lowest possible level to be truly effective. It is not something that should be regulated to just fire support teams and savvy platoon leaders. There are a few ways to accomplish this: First, platoon leaders and company commanders should seek out their battalion mortar platoon leader and fire support officer and encourage cross-training down to the squad level. Find out when the mortar platoon is doing their semi-annual Mortar Training and Evaluation Program (MORTEP) and see if you can get some of your soldiers, fire team leaders, squad leaders, tank and vehicle commanders the opportunity to observe rounds during a live fire. If that’s not a possibility, schedule time in the call for fire trainer and see if the mortar fire direction center can attend. Have them explain how changes in observation affect what goes on with the mortar platoon. Ask about their Tactics, Techniques and Procedures for various fuze and munitions types, adjustments to sheaf, and other engagement criteria. Your company-level fire support officer should drive this relationship and is an excellent resource to provide a link between the mortar platoon and the maneuver platoons they support.
Second, the Infantry Mortar Leaders Course (IMLC) needs to be opened up to all MOS positions and not just 11Cs. Anyone who is in a position to observe indirect fire will benefit from a better understanding of the capabilities and limitations of mortars– especially 11Bs and 19Ks. I had the opportunity to attend IMLC prior to taking over Battalion Mortars, and I found myself wishing I had had the course earlier. It was the first time I was truly able to conceptualize the full potential of mortars as an enabler to maneuver. Even if an IMLC student never finds themselves in an actual mortar platoon, the knowledge they gain from the course will help develop maneuver units and make the entire sensor-to-shooter link stronger.
Furthermore, having more IMLC qualified leaders in the ranks increases the flexibility of transitioning from combined arms into wide-area security and will help alleviate some of the problems given the current MTOE. It would allow for mortars to be attached directly to maneuver companies and eliminate the problems of having a shortage of qualified personnel available to act as a fire direction center.
Training Needs to Reflect Real World Operational Requirements
While the battalion mortar platoon’s primary purpose is to provide indirect fire support for the battalion. It is still a maneuver unit composed of infantrymen. In situations where mortars are not being employed due to ROE restrictions or any other reason—the mortar platoon must still be prepared to act as an additional maneuver unit. Because of this, the mortar platoon needs to participate in maneuver training. A mortar platoon leader would do well to fight against the temptation to have mortars act as OPFOR for battalion training events and encourage leadership to involve the unit in the same training expected of the battalion’s rifle platoons.
It is often overlooked but critical that the mortar platoon retains that capability and commanders look to the mortar platoon as a dual-role unit—one that is capable of not only indirect fires, but maneuver missions as well. Small Arms training, simulated training exercises (STXs) and direct live fire exercises (LFXs) should all be part of the Mortar platoon’s training plan.
The Battalion Mortar platoon should have a very tight knit working relationship with the Battalion Scout platoon. Normally, they share an office together under Headquarters and Headquarters Company. Likewise it’s very easy to push them to do training together. Having a strong relationship between these two organizations is mutually beneficial for a number of reasons. First, the Scout and Sniper sections are usually the first to have eyes on the battlefield and typically have the best vantage to observe fires in the early stages of an operation. Both the Mortar Platoon Leader and Scout Platoon Leader should be utilized as advisors to the S2, S3, and FSO during their Mission Analysis phase of the MDMP process. They can provide the tactical level subject matter expertise that will help develop better IPBs and assist in NAI/TAI development.
Furthermore, Mortars can often provide the necessary capability for a compromised scout unit that is looking to break contact back to friendly lines. So having the mortars tied into the scout mission should be standard operating procedure for any combined arms battalion.
One of the consequences for mission command is that the more information commanders have, the more tendency there is to retain authority and decision making at higher levels. Ultimately, this will hamstring subordinate unit’s ability to make decisions without higher’s approval. The same problem applies to Mortars. A Combined Arms Battalion needs to train to a level of trust that clearance for fires can be pushed down to subordinate units. This requires prior deconfliction of air, space, maneuver, and fires and leaders that understand how to leverage all those assets safely and correctly. Most commanders are hesitant to push that authority down because of the risk involved and that ultimately slows the Call for Fire process as it goes through 3, 4, sometimes even 5 approvals and checks prior to being cleared to the gun line. By the time mortars are actually cleared to fire, often times the situation has already changed for that maneuver leader and the mission is likely obsolete. This is particularly true in the mounted fight where the tempo is often very fast and situations change rapidly. A good observer and mortar platoon talking directly to each other should be able to deliver rounds on target in a matter of minutes.
Mortars is a superb asset IF they are properly trained and employed. In my experience, it is often overlooked or under-utilized asset. Many leaders just need a broader understanding of what mortars can provide and training, rehearsals, and repetitions on actually using them. Only when everyone in the call for process has a better understanding on integrating mortar fires into their operations will we begin to see the full potential of such an incredible enabler.
Ty Stephens is a Native of East Texas, and he is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point with a BS in International Relations. After commissioning in 2011 as an Infantry Officer, he has served as both a Armored Platoon Leader and a Battalion Mortar Platoon Leader while assigned to 1st Battalion 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Ft. Riley, Kansas. He has deployed in support of Operation Shared Accord to South Africa in 2013 and Operation Enduring Freedom- Horn of Africa in 2014. Ty has traveled to the North, Latin and South Americas, Western Europe, and South Asia. Ty enjoys the outdoors and adventure sports.