Back at altitude, I reflected on our situation. So far, we had made two passes, had maybe 40 to 50 rounds of 37mm, 23mm ZPU and who knows what else fired at us and had only dropped two bombs?!! Considering the fuel and ordnance load we carried, expending at this rate would have us work (and being shot at) for at least 10 passes, maybe many more if we fired the .50-caliber machine guns.
And so it was to be! This squadron’s credo was to be persistent and take the time to inflict the greatest damage on the enemy. That took patience and perseverance-and meant dodging considerable hostile fire.
Having expended all the .50-caliber ammunition, we headed home. On the way back, our FAC reported that we had destroyed several trucks and a couple of AAA positions and that we received an estimated 800 rounds of antiaircraft fire!
On the way back, an absurd conversation from the night before ran through my mind. We were marveling that our government paid us $65 a month combat pay. Now, if we flew a mission like this 25 times a month, that meant we would earn $2.60 per mission. If each mission had 10 passes over the target, that meant we would get 26 cents per pass. If on each pass they shot 50 rounds at us, that meant we would get a half cent for each shot fired at us.
Of course, the pay was even worse on Nguyen’s side of the exchange.
And combat pay is higher now. There is that.
Sometimes Nimrod was just busting trucks, economically a fool’s game. The entire COSVN (Central Office of South Vietnam) ran on some six tons of supplies a day, meaning anything more than a couple of trucks that got through was gravy. It was like dealing with a carpenter ant infestation by stepping on individual ants — the house will fall down on your ears before the bugs feel the pressure. But the ant nests were off limits until Linebacker, which was many years, and 50,000 American deaths, in the future as Nimrod worked the Trail.
Sometimes Nimrod was working in support of the SF guys who were not in Laos, officially speaking. Unofficially, or really, covertly, they were leading Lao guard forces around critical sites related to navigation, precision bombing, and signals intelligence; conducting small and stealthy (they hoped!) reconnaissance patrols and occasional Hatchet Force combat patrols under the aegis of SOG; and, sheep-dipped into the CIA, advising Vang Pao’s clandestine Meo army. SF and the Air Commandos, later renamed, as the Invader nav, Nolan Schmidt, wryly notes, because someone in the Air Force thought the name “too warlike.”
At the end of the James S. Michener novel (from the period in which he could write a prizewinning novel of reasonable length, even) The Bridges at Toko-ri, and repeated in the movie of the same title, an admiral, reflecting on the heroic deeds of a Naval Aviator and a Chief Aviation Pilot, stares into the wake of USS Boat and asks a rhetorical question: “Where do we get such men?”
To which WeaponsMan, who has never been in danger of flag rank, would add, “and why do we squander their valor so?”
But if you Read The Whole Thing™, old Invader nav Schmidt doesn’t think, and when we think about it, we don’t think, that it was all done for nothing or even for the silly geopolitical games the gormless Georgetown grads play in the NSC. It was done for the guys, whether it was the guy on your team, the guy in the other seat of the plane, or the guy who was just a sound on the radio, speaking a little more rapidly and at a higher fundamental pitch than his conversational voice.
For some time (we first teased it way back in July) we’ve been promising a report on Gerald Bull’s contributions to ballistic science, and his very big gun designs, with emphasis on his 1960s Project HARP, which bid fair to put a satellite in orbit — from a cannon.
This 48-minute TV show is a fair overview of very big guns whose writers obviously hit hard on one of the references we’re using, Bull’s work on the Kaiser-Wilhelmgeschutz of World War I fame. (Not much question about it — they show the book cover in the video). It’s a hard book to find, and expensive when you find it. It’s highly technical (with a lot of ‘sheet music’) and in our view worth every penny.
Bull was reportedly working on a second volume, covering WWII German advances in the state of the art (several of which are shown here), at the time of his death. He carried his manuscript among other papers in his case, which was taken by his murderers and has never surfaced. If it wasn’t immediately destroyed, it likely gathers dust in the vaults of some intelligence agency even now. Unfortunately for students of artillery, Bull’s manuscript is unlikely to see light again: to produce it now would label the agency which has it as the perpetrator of Bull’s murder.
The video’s non-Bull content includes the Krupp 42cm (420mm or 16.5″) howitzer of World War I, “Big Bertha”; the Wilhelmgeschutz, or “Paris Gun”; the WWII German developments that included the 60 cm (600mm or 24″) mortar Karl and the amazing 80 cm (800mm, 31.5″) tail gun Schwerer Gustav, the remarkable Hockdruckpumpe or V-3 “centipede” multichamber gun, and America’s nuclear cannon.
Its Bull-related content includes not only crisp and rare footage of HARP and the Iraqi Project Babylon and Baby Babylon guns, but a sketchy overview of his contributions to Austrian, South African, Chinese and ultimately worldwide 155 mm guns, and his revolutionary invention, the base-bleed shell, explained with a simple and correct graphic. The talking heads include Bull’s frequent collaborator Charles Murphy, his son Michael, and the late Ian Hogg, as well as the author of one of the three Bull biographies.
Here’s a bonus video, a German newsreel of some of the World War II German guns. Some of this footage, minus the bombastic German music and voiceover, is used in the above documentary, also. But this is original, period content:
To return to the original video and Bull: the video makes a clearer and more concise run at his history and character than we do in our draft article which we’ve been promising for ages now. What we do have that the video does not is more technical information. Bull did some very particular things to make a 16″ gun shoot to the edge of space, and he documented most of them in either academic papers, many of which we have, or his own book.
The dean of our German scientists, Dr Ing Wernher von Braun.
In the Alistair MacLean novel Ice Station Zebra, and indeed in one of the scenes preserved in the necessarily snappier film adaptation, the British scientist (portrayed by Patrick McGoohan, not playing a spy for a change) observed:
The Russians put our camera made by our German scientists and your film made by your German scientists into their satellite made by their German scientists.
The Cold War thriller assumed facts that everybody suspected to be true, but nobody without a security clearance really knew: that Russian technology had gotten a similar boost from captive Germans as American had from acquiring Walter Dornberger and Wernher von Braun and their rocket team.
Over the years, it became possible to guess from Russian advances that we’d gotten the head start in rocket guidance and program management that led to manned space and surface-to-surface missiles. The Russians had gotten some real talent in rocket engine, jet turbine, and turboprop design (to this day, their engines generally have more thrust than their western equivalents). They also got a jump in air-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles; the Germans had operationalized the first (with which they sunk a number of Allied ships) and were close to operational on the latter at war’s end.
Fortunately, it’s no longer that necessary to guess. The National Security Agency has declassified an internal magazine article about German contributions to the Russian missile effort. Some ideas that we took away from this:
Ivan didn’t really trust his Germans much, and the ones taken to Russia were soon frozen out of design work and shipped home, except for guidance men, who probably took longer to develop good Russian understudies.
As far as we can tell, none of the Germans became naturalized Soviet citizens.
The use of these scientists was completely covert; the soviet public never heard their names.
The scientists were of more help in shaking down processes and overcoming specific logjams than in overall design. The Soviets had their own talent.
One would assume — and the writer of the undated NSA document assumes — the the Soviets’ German scientists were pressganged into service. In fact, they seem to have been recruited, using a blandishment that the US ARmy had taken off the table for its Germans: the ability to stay in Germany. In 2003, Anatoly Zak, in Air and Space magazine, explained:
When I met [former Soviet officer Boris] Chertok in Moscow last year, …. his memory of events that took place half a century earlier was still vivid. He recalled the scramble in 1945 as he and his colleagues tried, with little success, to lure top German talent to the Soviet side. His emissaries made risky dashes into the American zone, approaching the rocket specialists with offers of hefty salaries, food rations, and—most importantly—the opportunity to stay in Germany. That was one of the few battles von Braun and his colleagues had lost in negotiating with the Americans, and the Soviet recruiting campaign appealed to the Germans’ longing to remain in their homeland.
Few took the bait. One who did was Helmut Gröttrup, a physicist by training and a top expert on the V-2’s flight control system. Historians have debated why Gröttrup turned down the offer to work in the United States, suggesting that it was a combination of his leftist views and his refusal to become a bit player on von Braun’s team. Chertok thinks the primary reason was Gröttrup’s wish—and the even stronger desire of his wife Irmgard—to stay in Germany. He doesn’t discount, however, the scientist’s left-wing politics. “He was what we would call a social democrat—definitely anti-fascist,” Chertok recalls.
The deal wasn’t kept on the Russian end, and Gröttrup and his colleagurs were spirited off to the USSR the next year. It’s interesting to compare Anatoly Zak’s post-Cold-War take to the NSA’s in-progress-look on the establishment of an institute in Belicherode (which the NSA report identifies as Institut Rabe).
At the end of World War II, German military technology was in several fields the most advanced in the world. They had world-leading small arms, tanks, aircraft, and entire new categories of guided weapons and missiles that the Allies were far from operationalizing. It did them almost no good at all. The Allies had vast quantities of stuff that was, in many cases, not as good; the German innovations were not enough to stem the logistical tide that buried the would-be thousand-year empire. (Not that that outcome is a bad thing, considering the nature of the empire; but we’re prospecting for lessons learned here).
And what happened to the inventions? And even the inventors like Gröttrup and von Braun? If you lose the war, your enemies get them. QED.
Even if it weren’t Friday, it would be just plain wrong to mention the good Herr Doktor without sharing Tom Lehrer’s musical character study:
James Sizemore and Howard Andre were either busting trucks or supporting a SOG recon team along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos on 8 July 1969 — the records aren’t clear — when their B-26 was hit by ground fire and went straight in. Over four decades later, their remains came home. Then came the snub: the Air Force, playing along with DC political budget games, helped the President make a few points against Congress (or is it the other way round?) by denying the two fallen heroes a fly-over at their funeral.
So, eight civilian pilots stepped up, putting up $24,000 of their own money, not to mention their own aircraft and time. And the two recovered men, once carried as MIAs, got something even the Air Force couldn’t give them now: a flyover by the same type they flew in combat, died in, and were interred in for 44 years: a B-26. Fox’s Jennifer Griffin explains:
Howard V. Andre. That’s a B-26 behind him (and Sizemore).
[O]nce the burial was scheduled at Arlington, the Air Force told their families the U.S. government could not afford to honor the men with a traditional flyover due to budget cuts.
“Following numerous requests to volunteer units, the Air Force is unable to support the flyover request for Major Sizemore due to limited flying hours and budget constraints,” Air Force spokesman Captain Rose Richeson wrote in a statement.
Is it actually the same Air Force that produced a James Sizemore (who has several relatives who became distinguished combat aviators) and Howard Andre, that now coughs up a hairball named Rose Richeson? But some guys didn’t just bitch about it like we do around here: they did something.
This is the plane in which Sizemore and Andre lost their lives (exact tail number). Pics from Bill Paisley’s blog, Instapinch.
That’s when a group of volunteer pilots from the non-profit Warrior Flight Team (http://www.warrioraviation.org/) stepped in and agreed to fly in formation above the Arlington ceremony in their own planes, on their own dime.
Eight civilian pilots honored the veterans, arranging permission from the Department of Homeland Security, Secret Service, and FAA with an aerial tribute above Washington.
They even flew a Douglas A26 Invader – the same plane that the two friends from Georgia were flying when they were shot down 44 years ago. It was flanked by 2 P51 Mustangs.
The estimated fuel cost: of fuel alone for the ceremonial flyover is more than $24,000.
“We’re here today to honor some fallen veterans,” said retired Air Force Brigadier General Jeff Johnson, who flew over Arlington as part of the ceremony. “Do I feel like those two heroes deserved a flyover? Yes, I do, and that’s why we did what did today.”
“I would hope somebody would come after me,” said [Retired Marine Lt. Col. art] Nalls [who flew an L-39 in the tribute]. That means a lot to the individual service member to know that you’re not going to be left behind.”
This is the flyover B26, painted as a WWII A26 but the same airframe.
Sizemore and Andre’s wreck site was excavated, and their remains recovered, last year. A previous analysis of MIA and KIA/BNR cases prepared by the Joint Personnel Recovery Center and widely reproduced on the net tells the tale of their loss:
On 8 July 1969, Major James E. Sizemore, pilot; and Major Howard V. Andre, Jr., navigator; comprised the crew of an B26A that departed Nakhon Phanom Airfield in a flight on an evening armed reconnaissance mission. After spotting enemy personnel on the ground deep in enemy held territory, the Invader made a strafing pass on a communist target entrenched in the rugged jungle covered mountains on the north side of a mountain range. The aircraft was struck by ground fire, continued downward and exploded immediately upon impact with the ground. This region was a hotbed of communist activity with rich rice fields to the north of the enemy target. The area of loss was also surrounded by various sized villages nestled in the mountains in Xiangkhouang Province, Laos.
The crash site was located approximately 2 kilometers southeast of Ban Chaho, 3 kilometers south of Phou Khe, and 13 kilometers southwest of Ban Thuang. It was also 20 miles northeast of the major CIA facility at Long Tieng Airfield, 45 miles west of the closest point on the Lao/North Vietnamese border and 99 miles north-northeast of the Lao capital of Vientiane.
Because of the location of loss in an area under total enemy control, no ground search was possible. An electronic search, however, commenced immediately. At the time the B26A was downed, no parachutes were seen. Likewise, no emergency beepers were heard. When the formal search was terminated, both Howard Andre and James Sizemore were listed Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.
That’s our military these days — bottomless funds for in-Beltway SES drones, for Assistant Diversity Coordinators and PR flacks, and not a dime to pay respects to the combat dead. But it’s not the first time vets have had to step up and do it ourselves.
A note on terminology: during World War II, the Army Air Corps (later Army Air Forces) distinguished between medium bombers and lighter “attack” aircraft used in such tactical roles as close air support and lines-of-communications interdiction. In the last years of the war, the Douglas A-26 Invader replaced the same company’s lighter, slower A-20 Havoc as the Army’s main twin-engine attack plane. Another airplane made by the Glenn Martin company on the other side of the country was called the B-26 Marauder. After the war, the Army (later Air Force) simplified and rationalized its fleet even as it downsized. All the Marauders, a powerful but hard-to-fly airplane, were scrapped, and the A-designation was dropped for a while. The A-26 was renumbered B-26 and served under that name in Korea and Vietnam. (It was actually brought back from the boneyard for Vietnam). As a result, even official documents are often wobbly on the nomenclature of the Douglas Invader. – Eds.
Two different stories were making the rounds about the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement system — AKA the 25mm smart grenade launcher — recently. One says it’s cancelled and the other says it’s about to be generally fielded: about as far apart as two tales can get.
Story 1: it has been canc’d due to a February accident.
This is partially true. There was a mishap in which there was a double feed and that caused a primer initiation with the gun out of battery. The soldier was injured, gun destroyed. The Army pulled them all back from theater in early March and sent them back to the manufacturer, ATK (H&K and L3/IOS Brashear have also taken part in system development). The reason for doing this this was: an accident like that was supposed to be impossible, therefore they need to inspect all fielded XM25s. There were, if we recall correctly, three double feed incidents but in only this one was the GI injured (not very seriously), and in one previous one the primer and propellant fired out of battery, destroying the gun with no injuries to the GI. The February mishap happened on a training range in Afghanistan.
Prior to the accident, the gun was popular with the troops that carried it. It was hard to point to a specific combat success or even identify a single Talib whacked by it, but its capabilities have been used for suppression and to permit small patrols to break contact and continue mission. The guy who carries the XM25 carries it as his main weapon, giving up his carbine for the exotic ability to put airbursts on defiladed targets in direct fire more rapidly and precisely than mortars can.
This led to the Senate Armed Services Committee, controlled by anti-military liberals, to zero out the gun’s future budgets in a vote which made a big splash of news in June. Here’s the press release from Carl Levin, the thoroughly anti-soldier committee chair, about the wonders of this committee mark-up. And here’s what he says about the XM25, which he calls a “troubled or unnecessary program,” in it.
Cuts $69.1 million in procurement for the XM25, Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) due to system unreliability and an Army decision to reconsider other weapons available to meet its requirement for a grenade launcher system that can fire programmable air burst munitions.
The anti-military chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, has gleefully announced that he intends to strip funds for weapon systems from the budget. Likely consequence: the armed services will be unable either properly to “reset” the equipment and capabilities that have been used so intensively over the past seven years or be prepared for the next conflict. History teaches that such a posture invites foreign aggression and costs far more than is saved through short-term and short-sighted cuts.
Well, Levin is who he has always been. Can’t change that. And our democratic processes have put him in the driver’s seat on the Senate side of the military budget. So expect things to be cancelled and money to be redirected to redistributive activities. Can’t change that, either.
But this cancellation is not all that it appears. Note that, due to the snags attendant to the mishap and its investigation and any required design remediation, production in FY 14 wasn’t going to happen anyway. So this is a kind of typical Washington sham cut. Funding for RDT&E is still in place.
Thanks to Levin’s cut, there have been numerous news stories in the general and trade press — some of them just this month — declaring the gun dead. (We’re told one was in the dead-tree Aviation Week, but we can’t find it online. But the budget is far from finished, the Senate is only one house of a bicameral legislature, and who knows what strange chaos will come out of the inevitable conference committee. After all, it’s not like any of these guys are any good at budgeting.
All of those stories (and a number of their clones) are rewrites of an Army press release from 9 Aug 13, that the original writers did not link to for whatever reason. (TFB actually excerpted and linked the SOFREP article, which seems to have gotten the PR through the military.com rewrite, but added lots of SOFREP’s own content). Here is the Army release so you can read it yourself, rather than us too rewriting and inadvertently transmogrifying it somehow.
Our take on it is a little different than these other respected journalists and bloggers, after going back to the Army release.
The Army said something rather different from “imminent”. They said that a year from now they may be able to go to LRIP and produce 1,100 of these things and field them to infantry and SOF. The combat units would not have them until 2015. The Army press release was 9th August, and is clearly the source for the Military.com and Defense Tech posts (they both use the quotes and attributions in the release).
So what we have here, with the best intentions, is a kind of journalistic game of Telephone with the message getting distorted a little as it’s passed along.
Low Rate Initial Production is essentially a production shakedown phase. Right now, the XM25s have been built by hand, and each very short run of prototypes has been different than the one before as both the gun and ammo makers & system integrators, ATK, and the electro-optic system makers, L3, respond to troop surveys and comments, and react to incidents, deficiencies, and maintenance difficulties. It’s one thing to make a gun in the lab, something else to make something your techs can take to the flat range and shoot, and then it’s a whole new world of hard to make something you can issue to your median Army rifleman. (Especially if your intent is to issue it to the next 11B when this one turns it in).
XM25 at a technology display.
As you might imagine, being gun guys, something crafted individually by hand is crazily more expensive than something built in series production, even if the whole process is distorted by the cost-plus inflation escalators built into defense procurement regulations. So one reason the Army wants to move this along towards production is to make it “affordable”: which in this case means $35k for a gun and $55 per round. The current costs are more like mid six figures per gun and four figures per round, but then, there have never been more than a dozen or so of these hand-crafted prototypes in the field so far.
So for several reasons, LRIP is a big step up from hand-crafted prototype guns and craft-brewed ammo. At that point, you know the GI isn’t going to break it by looking at it, you’ve got the identified failure modes out of it, and you have a design that’s stable enough you can commit to producing hundreds or a thousand of. They’re not saying they’re at this point now, but they say they expect to be at this point in a year, in August 2014, which means the LRIP will happen mostly in the 2015 budget (which kicks off 1 Oct 2014). The budget the Senate is grandstanding over is the 2014 budget, which runs from 1 Oct 2013 to 30 Sep 2014.
The Army brass sniffs a little at the soldiers’ nickname for the gun: the Punisher. So who’s out of touch here, the guys who carry the thing and hope to punish the enemy with it, or the deskbound officers that fret that “punish” connotes images too atavistic for “staffs, distinguished and doddering generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their general’s bowel movements or their colonel’s piles….”
One more thing…
We would call attention to one more thing that has not been highlighted in the other stories: the XM25 is back in action in Afghanistan, with the Army reporting five guns in the field.
A French soldier holds an SA-7 Strela (Grail) tube in Mali. Click to enlarge. Image: French Army.
…is about what we got into in Libya. By waiting until the tiny sliver of the opposition that had something in common with American values had been exterminated by the ruthless regime, and until the only functional opposition remaining was hard-core Islamist, we’re going to be sending arms that will be used against Americans and our allies, not only by these groups and all their islamist-warrior pals, but also by moslem terrorists.
The unintended consequences of the foreign policy of dithering-away-any-advantage in Libya are what our allies, the French, are dealing with in Mali, and it’s pretty ugly. Qaddhafi’s tens of thousands of MANPADS are turning up in terrorist hands in the poor, bedraggled, and now war-torn African nation. So far, nos amis have captured a launch tube, a battery, and several copies of an Arabic-language manual covering all the major Russian MANPADS. A story based on AP reporting:
The manual… adds to evidence for the weapon found by French forces during their land assault in Mali earlier this year, including the discovery of the SA-7′s battery pack and launch tube, according to military statements and an aviation official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment.
The knowledge that the terrorists have the weapon has already changed the way the French are carrying out their five-month-old offensive in Mali. They are using more fighter jets rather than helicopters to fly above its range of 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometers) from the ground, even though that makes it harder to attack the jihadists. They are also making cargo planes land and take off more steeply to limit how long they are exposed, in line with similar practices in Iraq after an SA-14 hit the wing of a DHL cargo plane in 2003.
Header of Page 313 (start of the SA-7 section) of the captured manual.
The Malian terrorists, “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” as they style themselves, were training international terrorists to attack aircraft with the SA-7 missile. The elderly SA-7 was ineffective against military aircraft even in the 1980s, and so it’s probable that this training was intended to facilitate terror attacks on civil jetliners.
In Timbuktu, SA-7 training was likely part of the curriculum at the ‘Jihad Academy’ housed in a former police station, said Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, one of three experts who reviewed the manual for AP. It’s located less than 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the Ministry of Finance’s Budget Division building where the manual was found.
Neighbors say they saw foreign fighters running laps each day, carrying out target practice and inhaling and holding their breath with a pipe-like object on their shoulder. The drill is standard practice for shoulder-held missiles, including the SA-7.
The manual does note that the weapon has a secondary military use, even if it does not destroy many aircraft. It does change their flight profiles, causing them to fly higher and degrading air support to ground troops.
The barrel is still in the 1970s-80s temperate camouflage.
Nope, this isn’t, say, a tube for an Artillery Luger (we already got one) or a Smith M29, nor is it something to SBR your AR with. It’s not 8 inches long, it’s 8 inches in diameter. From land to land. Repeat after us: “that is one BFG.”
Somebody is now in a position to say: we’ll see your Barrett .50 and raise you 7 1/2″. A rare, apparently not demilled, 1978 barrel for the Vietnam-era M110 8″ howitzer was on eBay earlier this month, for sale in San Pedro, California. The gun probably once stalked the deserts of Fort Irwin or the National Training Center, before being surplused. The seller did say he was selling without the breech block.
Somebody bought it for $4,000, less than we’ve paid for some much smaller hardware. According to the seller, that was his reserve, and barely more than the scrap value of the barrel.
Of course, it’s the bare barrel, missing not only the vehicle that hauled it but also the elevating, traversing and recoil mechanisms. And it’s not exactly man-portable: removing this testament to Watervliet Arsenal’s metal-shaping skills from its resting place in the weeds in San Pedro must have involved riggers, heavy equipment, and a truck big enough to haul the 26’6″, 7 1/4 ton monster away.
Interesting to us, the nomenclature engraved on the barrel appears to be M201. We thought the barrel was the “M2A1.” Could Watervliet have made a typo?
But if you collect US military arms, that’s one hell of a collection centerpiece. Or you can just park it in the front garden and keep the damn kids off your lawn. (Laugh if you will: we once knew a retired general who kept an MG08 on sled mount at the top of the walk in front of his tidy split-level. He said it cut down, not only on kids chasing stray balls, but Jehovah’s Witnesses chasing stray souls as well. Wish we could remember his name; he’d been on Patton’s staff as a junior field grade).
The M110 was a self-propelled version of a WWII howitzer that used the same chassis and trails as the 175mm Long Tom. The WWII 8-inch’s projectile and barrel were based on a WWI-vintage British 8-inch howitzer design. The M110 entered service in 1963 alongside the M107 SP version of the Long Tom, and left active duty by 1990, leaving the USAR in 1994 as all USAR combat-arms units were disbanded or reconstituted in the National Guard (while support and service-support units flowed the other way). The guns and howitzers alike were deployed in Divisional, Corps and Army Artillery units. (The Army-subordinate units were later called “Echelons Above Corps” in one of those military jargon changes that gets some O-6 his retirement Legion of Merit). They were one of the principal delivery systems envisioned for W33 and W79 tactical nuclear warheads and GB nerve agent (aka Sarin), before the US’s unilateral chemical disarmament in 1970 and unilateral tactical nuclear disarmament in 1992. This video is an overview of the then-new SP guns and the development of their chassis.
This barrel is from an M110A2, the muzzle brake being used only on the A2 variant. The A2s were not new production, except for the barrels (like this one from 1978). The chassis and mechanism (elevation, traverse, recoil, etc) came from the M107s that were being decommissioned at that time.
What sent the 8-inch (aka 203mm) howitzer and before it, the 175mm gun, to the showers, was the march of technology. New 155mm projos could fly farther and hit harder, making the bigger guns obsolete (yes, they could have chosen to make the larger projos fly even farther and hit even harder, They didn’t, choosing to use the technology to simplify and streamline logistics while keeping combat power and reach at least the same as it had been). The MLRS took away some other big-gun use cases; and US abandonment of chemical and nuclear weapons pulled the rug out from under one of the major justifications for this weapon.
Occasionally you see an M110 chassis for sale (or a recovery vehicle built on the same chassis, which must be useful if you have a lot of tanks). But the barrels are exceedingly rare, and not just for the reason you’d think (that the USG insisted the SP guns be thoroughly demiled before sale). You see, many of the retired 8 inch/203mm barrels got a new lease on life as a new kind of weapon entirely: they were used to form the casings of the deep-penetrating GBU-28 “bunker buster” bomb.
US Army Artillery, 1965. Most of these weapons belong only to history today. The 107mm gun, the WWII-vintage 105 towed howitzer, the Honest John unguided rocket, and all the tactical nuclear systems have gone to the museums and scrappers. Artillery today is lighter, much-longer-ranging howitzers, multiple rocket systems, and projectiles with terminal guidance.
It’s also obsolete — for the sort of wars the US has been fighting.
For the war that comes next, though, artillery of this sort might be absolutely vital.
Let’s explain what we mean. Artillery is a support arm for large-unit force on force engagements. It was in its elements when decimating the Light Brigade in 1854, meeting Pickett’s Charge in 1863, or massacring the flower of Europe’s youth on the Western Front 1914-18.
In a highly mobile campaign, arty is more vital to the defender, because it usually can’t keep up with rapidly moving forces. It takes time to get an artillery battery emplaced, surveyed, with a functioning Fire Direction Center, working communications, and delivering hot steel on target. Forget what the video says about the howitzer being able to be set up in three minutes — that time hack assumes that all the ancillary stuff is already done, or doesn’t need to be.
In the real world, it not only needs to be done, but it usually takes a couple of attempts to get some of the pieces of the puzzle to come together. It must have been a very frustrating life to be an artillery battalion commander under George S. Patton.
And the war in Afghanistan was a Special Forces war. Now, SF guys often have some infantry experience, and they all know how to call in fire support, set up target reference points and so forth. But when we planned for the “big one” we were planning to be 1,000 kilometers from friendly artillery. Even in Vietnam, where the US deployed tons of arty, SF patrols and even SF A-camps were often out of the range of friendly artillery. So we learned to do without.
And in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq, we had absolute air supremacy (an objective this administration’s Pentagon has forsaken for future wars), and the incredible precision fire of the JDAM and the weapons of the A-10 and Apache. It made the immense logistical demands and the to-whom-it-may-concern nature of artillery look totally unfit for any purpose whatsoever. So we left it in the States. Even when Big Green shoehorned its way into the Only War We Had™, making more Afghans join the Taliban than the TB themselves were ever able to do, they didn’t bring their guns. What’s the point? They weren’t long-ranging enough to cover our patrols, hundreds of miles out from there bases at times; or accurate enough to hit our enemies without civilian casualties.
They were not exactly as obsolete as cavalry horses. We found a use for cavalry horses.
And then some bright spark in Congress asked Army Chief of Staff Shinseki why we needed the Crusader self-propelled gun, one of Rick Shinseki’s pet projects. (Yes, the same bozo who’s dropped the ball so badly at VA. Competence can be situational but incompetence is rather more universally fungible). Shinseki stammered his way through the hearing, but afterward freaked out and ordered artillery to Afghanistan. Congress killed the Crusader anyway.
So what good is artillery? Well, take a look at the Korean Peninsula. In the campaign that we hope we’re not soon calling the First Korean War, artillery was absolutely vital to the nasty mountain fight, especially when the Chinese entered and drove the Marines back and decimated the Army around the Chosin Reservoir.
If there’s a Second Korean War there will be rather a lot of artillery in play. Now, such a war is something rather unlikely, as Kim Who Ever has learned the principal lesson of the spoiled child, that if he throws a tantrum he gets a cookie. (Or maybe it’s the lesson of the lab rat: do the experimental behavior, get a food pellet). He has assessed his opposite numbers — correctly — as spineless and prone to appeasement, and so the Kargo Kult of Kim does its ritual and waits for the big silver bird to bring the cargo.
If he were to miscalculate himself into a shooting war, though, he’d have a pronounced artillery advantage. The Imjin Gun has many, many times the quantity of guns, and the best of their guns outrange the South Korean and American ones. They have artillery dug into mountainsides, invulnerable to conventional air attack: some 8,000 of their approximately 10,000 artillery pieces are within range of South Korea already. Many of their weapons are excellent, like the Russian-designed 130mm gun which outranges its western counterparts, at least with conventional ammo. They also have chemical and biological capabilities. They also have a ridiculous number of well-trained special operations forces and the capability to land them by air and by sea.
The South Korean and American artillery has a quality edge that comes from people and systems. Ultimately, Allied counterbattery, which uses radar, other sensors, and computer networks unimaginable short years ago, would take those guns out, one by one. And their close proximity to the border is a hazard to their own skins, also: the South Koreans would like nothing more than to punch through that mass of desperate troops and sail around their rear areas defeating them in detail.
The wild card is, as ever on the Korean peninsula, China. But the ultimate fact is that the North Korean regime cannot sustain itself, and therefore it must, some day, end. Therefore it will, some day, end. Hundreds of lives hang suspended by the whims of a dictator, chanced by the unintended consequences of the acts of men of good will, awaiting the summons of the dusky Keres.
We’ll leave you with a few links, and a question to think about.
Here’s the IISS assessment of the forces on the peninsula. BLUF: The Norks can’t attack and win, and the Allies can’t make a preemptive strike without taking lots of casualties.
The South Korean press has reported North Korean artillery attacks on ROK islands, although there seems to be some confusion over whether it was tube artillery or multiple rocket launchers. Worse, the ROK counterbattery fire then hit a place the Norks weren’t any longer.
Only the Internet could make this possible: the South Korean news agency Yonhap, via the Israeli site YNet News, reports that Kim Young Dum has ordered increased artillery and ammo production. In “normal” times, North Korea, which spends between a quarter and a half of its minute GDP on its military, produces about 3,000 tubes a year; it doesn’t fire enough to wear out that many artillery pieces.
And finally, on the northern Nork border, the Chinese, the nearest thing North Korea has to either a friend (a very weak concept among nations) or at least a nation with common interests, are carrying out artillery drills, accoring to the Chosun Ilbo (South Korean paper). They’ve also stepped up their concentration of forces on the border. Their objective may be to keep the humanitarian disaster that a new Korean War would be from crossing their border. They are much more likely to face fleeing Nork civilian refugees than anything like intact Nork units along their border, and they already have a problem with illegal aliens from North Korea.
American Korean War veterans can look at South Korea and take pride in what they helped make possible. What do Chinese Korean War veterans think about what came from all their sacrifices?
News media are reporting that the Marines or the DOD as a whole have ordered a stand down of all 60mm Mortar live fires.
We’re trying to get our mitts on the message. Meanwhile, there are two possible explanations for this:
They’ve already learned something about the Henderson Army Depot accident that casts doubt on M224 mortars or on ammunition. This is unlikely, so early in an investigation. For example, if they knew it was the ammunition, they could order a check fire on that particular stock number (NSN or DODIC) or even on the suspect lot.
They are acting out of caution until the investigation begins to point to a probable cause. This is the explanation Occam’s Razor suggests here.
Update circa 1300R:
We’re hearing that it was a single round and it went off in the tube, and there are no signs of a double load or other operator error. While they’re still examining the physical evidence, every 60mm round worldwide is going to be visually inspected. This will be done very rapidly; everyone knows how important these weapons are in ground combat.
We’ve also been told verbally that two Marines have died in the hospital. One was included in the initial count of 7 killed, and one passed away last night from his injuries, bringing the total to 8. RIP, Marines.
There but for the Grace of God…
Update II circa 1400R: USMC Safety of Use Message
Subj: Deadline Safety of Use Message Suspending Employment of the M224A1 60mm Mortar System.
Suspension of mortar system will be in effect until released by the [Marine Corps] Safety Center.
This is a deadline safety of use message suspending employment of the
M224A1 60mm mortar system resulting in the accident that occurred while the
mortar was being fired in the handheld mode.
3- Using units shall immediately discontinue the use of the M224A1 60mm
mortar system, TAMCN E10657m, ID NR 08206B until further notice.
4- An investigation has been initiated. All Commanders will return and
retain the M224A1 60mm mortar in their respective unit areas until further
This does not apply to US Army mortar use. However, the Marines have identified two lots of ammunition as suspect. The Army has also suspended use of those particular lots.
No infantry weapons are more devastating than the very simple, muzzle-loading, smoothbore, gravity fired trench mortar. Normally they’re devastating to the enemy, but initial reports out of Nevada indicate that a round somehow cooked off in a tube, killing the Marines crewing the gun and spreading death and injury around the area.
Seven Marines were killed and seven wounded late Monday during a training exercise at Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada, according to a military and defense officials.
A senior defense official said it appears that a mortar round exploded inside a firing tube instead of flying out. The official, speaking on background, cautioned that initial reports could change on the cause.
In combat, mortars are often emplaced in a pit, but on a training range they’re often on line, for convenience of command and instruction, and because counterfire is not a possibility. Given the extreme simplicity of the mortar, and the quality controls in US ammunition manufacture, accidents are rare. Many millions of rounds are fired without mishap.
In the past, the few accidents we have seen have resulted from crew drill errors (two live rounds in the tube, if trigger fired, or a live round dropped on a dud round) more often than ammunition quality failures.
The M224 is the smallest standard mortar, but it is superior to the Vietnam era 81mm. It can be configured for patrol (l) or employed for direct and indirect fire from a prepared or hasty position (r).
The US currently fields three mortar systems; although Army Special Forces also trains on obsolete and foreign mortar systems, we do not believe these Marines were using anything non-standard. The three are the M120 120mm mortar, which replaced the 107mm (4.2 inch) mortar; the M252 Improved 81mm mortar, and the M224 60mm lightweight mortar. Improvements in the range and lethality of mortars have been remarkable, with both range and lethality roughly doubling in the last 20 years. This means that the new 60 has the range and power of the old 81, and the new 81 approaches the range and lethality of the old 107. The 120 gives infantry battalions organic firepower they never had, including range to 12,000 meters (with rocket-assisted projectiles), and dual-purpose improved conventional munition warheads.
Despite their smooth bores, mortars can be extremely accurate (the projectiles are fin-stabilized). In mortar training, informal competitions for accuracy and volume of fire are common.
Another important mortar mission is illumination. Nowadays, that’s usually infrared illum, invisible to the naked eye.
The limited information released so far makes it impossible to tell which mortar system was involved in the accident. The base in question is often used for pre-deployment live fires and reserve component live fire training because of its desert location and ample range area.
The crews of mortars range from 3 men for the M224 to 5 for the M120 (or its track0mounted M121 sibling), but it’s customary to have extended crews during range fire, or for other men to be observing and waiting their turn to crew (while only a few men in a company or battalion are on the mortar crew, every infantryman learns how to crew the guns). All three mortars have the power to kill and maim that many men, close in.
The M120 does have a muzzle device which is intended to prevent a double feed (it was actually copied from a Russian idea — spasibo, Ivane). Only the 60mm mortar is trigger fired.
We regret the loss of life and offer our condolences to the slain Marines’ families, and our best wishes for a speedy and complete recovery to the wounded Marines.
Update circa 1500R (EST)
A few more details are trickling out. Here’s an LA Times story. Take-away: the accident happened just before 10PM and the Marines were active-duty men from the 2nd MEF at Camp Lejeune. (The rest of the article is filler and an ill-informed attempt to tie the accident to the unrelated ammo storage dump at the same base). This video (caution: autoplay) from the Associated (with terrorists) Press quotes the depot’s safety officer, ID’s the mortar as a 60, confirms that the accident was unrelated to the ammo storage facility, and raises casualty count to 7 dead and 9 injured (one of whom succumbed to his wounds. Not clear if he is counted among the 7).
We reiterate our condolences and best wishes for survivors.