Artillery: February 4, 2004


The U.S. Army wants smart mortar shells, and it wants to get them into service as quickly as possible. The army has come to believe that speed saves lives and ends wars more quickly. That was the experience in Iraq, and there are thousands of years of military history back this up. But the army has found that speed outside the combat zone can be helpful as well. To that end, the army is trying to get some speed out of the procurement process. Designing smart 81mm mortar shells would, normally, take a decade or more. The army wants to do it in two years. During the 1980s, the army spent a lot of money developing a smart artillery shell for it's 155mm howitzers. This was an anti-tank round (the Copperhead), that homed in on laser light (directed by front line troops) reflected off an enemy armored vehicle (or bunker). Seemed like a good idea at the time, but the 155mm Copperhead shell left the barrel at a speed of over 2500 feet per second. As a result, everything inside the shell had to withstand 15,000 times normal gravity and keep functioning. This proved difficult. It was originally thought that the shells could be produced for about $60,000 each (in current dollars.) Didn't work out that way. Each of the 3,000 Copperhead shells that were produced cost over half a million bucks each. Some were used during the 1991 Gulf War. They worked, but the troops preferred something they had more control over. Thus the plan for 81mm smart mortar shells. 

Mortars are part of, and under control of, the infantry battalions. Moreover, 81mm mortar shells travel at only about 700 feet per second, making it easier and cheaper to create and fit components inside the shell. Two types of smart shells are planned. One would be GPS guided, with the front line troops using a laser range finder to get the location of the target, transmit that data right back to the mortar crew, who would have the shell in a cradle that automatically transferred the coordinates to the shells memory. The shell would be dropped down the tube and, assuming the mortar crew aimed the mortar tube in the right direction, the shell would home in on the coordinates, landing with 30 feet of the target. This is more than three times as accurate as current mortar shells. In fact, current shells get a lot less accurate the longer the range. Smart mortar shells would have the same accuracy at any range. Another smart mortar shell would seek out transmitters of a certain frequency, which would destroy enemy radios, and cell phone transmitters. Another smart round already in development is the "Recon Round", that carries a camera and parachute in the shell. While the shell is slowly coming to ground with it's parachute deployed, it sends pictures of what is below to a nearby company commander via a laptop equipped with a signal receiver card. 

All of this activity is an attempt to make the 81mm mortar a more useful weapon. Smart bombs and more responsive artillery have left the 81mm mortars with less to do. But the battalion commanders don't what to give up their mortars, for when they do need them, they come in very handy. But when a weapon is not used a lot, it's always in danger of being removed from service. There have been earlier attempts to make smart 81mm shells, but the technology just wasn't there yet. The U.S. Army believes now is the time. In two years, everyone will know if it's true.




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