Countering mortar attacks in Iraq

I was reading Colby Buzzell’s My War and in it he describes watching a propaganda video of some insurgents mortaring a U.S. base. He thought they would be in a big hurry, but the video showed them taking their time. While reading that, I was wondering why, between counterbattery radar and Predator drones, such people couldn’t be easily targeted. Without violating operational security, can anyone tell me? Do we not have enough drones? Does the radar not work on mortars? Is this no longer relevant because insurgents have switched tactics? I know that we are supposed to have adopted a more rational counter-insurgency strategy. Does that make casually mortaring bases obsolete?


Are you talking about mortar attacks in the Baghdad environs?

Speculation ahead, feel free to skip:

I think the insurgents are probably launching those attacks from man portable mortars hiding in alleys and peoples back yards. By the time a predator is vectored over the general area, the mortar can be broken down and trucked off.

I have no idea how long it takes modern counter-battery radar to detect a launch and pinpoint the probable source, but light mortars are short ranged, and the shell may not be in the air long enough for the radar to get a good solution.

I don’t know dookie about ballistics-detecting radar, but I do know a little bit about mortars and radio stuff.

Mortar rounds descend pretty close to vertically, which makes their origin difficult to pinpoint. This would be because the round loses some horizontal velocity the longer it is in the air (which accounts for the straight down delivery). IF you knew how long the round was in the air you could work backwards to determine where it came from. but you don’t know how long it was in the air.

AHA! But whip out the super fancy radar that can detect and track the tiny little gadflies! OK, if we have anything that cool, you have two choices when it comes to operating it. Heat it up when you know there’s a round in the air or leave it on all the time. You don’t know when the round goes up, so the first method doesn’t work. And if you leave your radar “on” all the time, it’s dead easy to triangulate its source and aim your first round for the radar transmitter. Which renders it useless in short order.

And in a practical sense, once the little buggers start hitting the ground everyone’s too busy shaking the dirt out of their panties and heading for cover to run over to the neat-o radar machine. And even if someone did keep their wits, the rate of fire of a small mortar is about 20/minute. That means you can get 10-20 rounds in the air before anything even hits the ground. So attack is pretty simple. Set up, lob 20 rocks in the air, break down, pack up and go grab a beer.

Six rounds and there would be counter-battery fire heading back. Haven’t seen the video. May just be bad guys training or they are mortaring some open desert because they couldn’t get close enough to do actual damage. Another scenario is where the counter-battery folks have plotted the mortar(s) to a known schoolyard, mayor’s street, or some other off limits area. A patrol is sent in those cases; could be aviation, Bradleys, Hummers, foot, etc… One other holdup is current bureaucracy in both theaters. Many units have to get “clearance” to return fire. Some higher up has to Okay. This really sucks and has unfortunately become closer to the rule than the exception.

Insurgents find out real fast which bases have the radar, at least the one that survive.

Sounds about right. The counterbattery radar operators I talked to back when I wore green used to brag that they’d have the counterbattery fire mission computed and transmitted to our own artillery before the first enemy mortar shell even struck.

This is much more likely to be the hold-up. Having divisional artillery return fire (with interest) is a tactic better suited for set-piece battles. In a built-up area with friendlies and non-combatants around, it is counterproductive.

How much noise does a mortar make when firing? I would think that, as with counter-battery radar, you could develop microphone technology that would be able to triangulate such sounds, provided they’re loud enough.

I didn’t figure it would be prudent to be returning artillery fire to a populated area in a country that we are not at war with. I was wondering if it were possible dispatch a drone to follow these guys back home or something. Do we not have enough of these types of assets to allow this?


Yup. Even without massive artillery barrages, our current attempt to suppress mortar/rocket attacks on the green zone from Sadr City is pissing off a lot of residents:
Iraq PM criticised by Sadr City crowds

You’d probably have to have it in the air and loitering in order to catch anyone.

These guys don’t spend much time on ranging shots - at least, that’s my impression - and they have enough time to set things up. A single tube can fire 10 rounds in 30 seconds, the piece can be broken down in 5 seconds, and 5 seconds after that, all that’s left to see is the smoke. If we assume that the position fix takes 10 seconds after the first round, that gives you less than 30 seconds to get a visual.

The good news is that without ranging, their fire must be highly inaccurate.

Can you have predators loitering around a base 24/7?


They’re not carefully aimed:

If I were an insurgent, I would also have my mortar team in the back of a pickup, or in a van with the roof cut off. This would allow for a fast get-away from the scene, or allow multiple shots while moving, as long as my guys are careful, and the driver stays on a predetermined line. This would make it even more difficult to counter.

This is my guess also. I was assigned to FBTRY 333rd FA when in the Army in Germany, and we were a counterfire unit. Back then, the radars (made by Hughes) were pre-positioned to look out over the Fulda Gap in the event of a massive USSR invasion.

The things are pretty damn neat, but ill-suited to quick insurgent response operations.

They can accurately calculate a back azimuth to an enemy artillery piece within a couple meters (remembering that artillery is intentionally an inexact science with huge kill radii) as the round ascends and descends through the radar beam being projected across the battlefield and generate data to help with a fire mission that goes through the TOC shelter and then to the fire units waiting for a fire mission.

All these things take more time than you’d like, especially in a counter-insurgency, I suspect.

Fortunately, mortars fired by insurgents are terribly innacurate, due to their outdated weaponry, lack of training, and their desire to hurry up and get out before they are discovered and destroyed.

A saying in Iraq amongst the soldiers goes “Ali-Baba can’t shoot for shit”.

But if Ali-Baba gets rounds in the air and they come down near a US installation, mission accomplished, no? Even if they hit noncombatants? Isn’t the idea (and I could be WAY off the mark here) to point to the US and allies in the area and say, “See, if they weren’t here, this wouldn’t have happened!”?

That, and even as ineffective as the fire missions are, they force the US troops in the area to keep wearing body armour, use armoured vehicles, etc. - on other words, to look military. Which makes them look more like occupiers and less like liberators.

Sure, but unless the base is in the middle of a desert, then the view from the drone is going to be blocked (at least part of the time) by things like buildings and other objects. Drone pilots have described controlling the drones as trying fly while looking through a drinking straw.

Also, folks on the ground can some times see the drones, and thus aren’t going to be likely to do anything which will get them their 72 virgins before they’re ready for them.

Not so much. It’s loud when you are right next to it, but it’s more of low frequency “plop” sound than sharp crack like firing the gun. Which means, that it’s easily obscured by background noise.

I was recently reading about one of the sniper detection systems, and it was supposedly able to detect mortar firing based on sound - if conditions were right. Ie. you have to be lucky enough to have detection microphones near mortar firing place and relatively clear path of sound to avoid echo (what’s not exactly easy in big city). But overall - it’s possible. Just not easy.


Why do I keep thinking of Dien Bien Phu?

Check NY Times Article from late Feb. Interview and imbed was with a Captain Kearney (sp) during December 2007. You can also quote me, I’m heading for my 5th deployment on or about 15 August. This is third to Iraq; done two to Afghanistan.

I’ve got the article (pdf) at work if you can’t dredge it up.