The World’s Biggest Mortar Shelled Israeli Troops and Chechen Civilians
The M240 is devastating
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
The Russian M240 240-millimeter mortar, along with its vehicle-mounted counterpart the 2S4 Tyulpan or “Tulip,” is possibly the largest-caliber tube artillery, not including rockets, used in combat today.
Its massive shells were intended to smash apart heavy military fortifications, but just as often they have been employed to rain devastation upon densely-populated urban areas.
Armies’ fascination with big guns is often of doubtful relevance. The most extreme designs tend to remain impractical prototypes that rarely see widespread production or use.
This is not the case with the M240 and 2S4, however. The Soviet Union first produced the giant mortar in the 1950s. Since then it has seen combat in Soviet, Russian, Egyptian and Syrian hands in six conflicts — the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s, the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the same decade, the 1999 Second Chechen War and the current wars in Ukraine and Syria.
Mortars are the infantryman’s personal artillery. Unlike heavy howitzers and field guns, lighter mortars can be disassembled and carried on foot and used at the discretion of low-ranking officers without them having to pass on a request to a separate artillery unit.
Mortars deliver explosive payloads comparable to cannons of the same caliber and at a higher potential rate of fire, although at the cost of shorter range. A modern medium or heavy mortar typically has a range of three or four miles with regular projectiles, while a contemporary heavy howitzer might shoot to distances of 15 miles or more.
But the sheer portability of the mortar — combined with its usefulness for concealed, indirect fire — has made it ubiquitous in guerilla conflicts and insurgencies around the world. Indeed, mortars are numbered among the “small arms” or “light weapons” that cause 90 percent of civilian deaths in contemporary wars.
The M240, however, is an aberration. Mortar designs above 120-millimeter caliber are few in number — and the M240’s shells are twice that in diameter. Hardly a “light weapon,” the M240 weighs more than 9,000 pounds once its crew deploys it for combat, a process that can take 25 minutes. Each of its five-foot-long shells weighs 282 pounds and includes 75 pounds of high explosives.
The huge mortar can lob these shells a distance between half a miles and five miles at a rate of fire of one shell per minute, although special rocket-assisted ammunition can extend that range to 15 miles.
Instead of the coughing report that characterizes most mortars, each shot from an M240 makes a ringing sound like a gigantic bell as the projectile lances at a seemingly vertical angle into the sky.
What is the rationale behind such a combination of extreme firepower and comparatively short range? Well, the M240 still weighs a lot less than other weapons of the same caliber do, such as the 32-ton 240-millimeter M1 howitzer still operated by Taiwan, and its shorter range is less of an impediment if used against an immobile, fortified target.
In other words, the M240 is a siege weapon.
Goliaths of Yom Kippur
The Soviet Union supplied M240 mortars to the Egyptian and Syrian armies, who gave the weapon its baptism of fire in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The Egyptian mortars pounded the heavy Israeli fortifications along the Suez Canal. The Syrian mortars, grouped in a special high-level artillery formation, smashed the Israeli outposts on Mount Hermon and Tel Fares on the Golan Heights, disrupting Israeli communication networks and blinding artillery observation and intelligence-gathering posts.
Alon Harksberg, an Israeli veteran of the battle on the Golan Heights, later wrote about the effects of a 240-millimeter bombardment. “With the 240-millimeter, warning [of an incoming bombardment] and cover didn’t really matter since if you happened to be in the same general area where they impacted, you’d be dead (if lucky) or horribly maimed/injured from giant shrapnel and flying debris (if not so),” Harksberg wrote.
“During the war of attrition that developed on the Hermon following the 1973 armistice, the Syrians used 240-millimeter (and 180-millimeter [Soviet S-23 field guns]) to rake the ridge from end to end, sometimes on a nightly basis, until we put an end to that in an operation which still cannot be discussed.
“That was a very unsettling experience to say the least, with many brave men succumbing to mental fatigue under the relentless bombardment. […] We used to call them these huge bastards ‘Goliaths,’ both after the Biblical character and after the map grid in which one of the more notorious batteries was located (submerged under nearly two meters of anti-air raid concrete, with only the barrels sticking out, a la the ‘Guns of the Navarone’).”
The Syrian mortars were not permanently silenced, however. Sixteen years later, in an ominous foretaste of their employment in the current Syrian conflict, 240-millimeter mortars and heavy 180-millimeter guns shelled East Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.
A 1989 briefing in the Knesset by then-Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin suggests a chilling death toll. “In the previous round of fighting, the Syrians employed 180-millimeter and 240-millimeter artillery and mercilessly shelled urban centers in East Beirut,” Rabin wrote. “As a result of this shelling and the Christians’ return fire at West Beirut, more than 900 people were killed and more than 3,000 injured in the last round of fighting.”
A U.N. account of the bombardment noted that “each projectile weighed 110 kilos and could penetrate the concrete shelters which had hitherto afforded the civilian population some protection. Fifteen people had been killed and more than 40 wounded two nights before in a shelter close to the UNIFIL and UNTSO offices in East Beirut.”
The Washington Post and The New York Times also marveled at the devastation, one article noting that an M240 round is more “like a bomb than a shell. It can leave a crater 15 feet in diameter.”
The M240 and 2S4 in Afghanistan
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union first employed its 240-millimeter mortars in combat in Afghanistan. Konstantin Scherbakov, a gunner in the 1074th Artillery Battalion, gave a detailed account of a 1985 strike against a fortress in the Panjshir Valley belonging to the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud — yes, that Massoud, the future leader of the Northern Alliance opposing the Taliban, who was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks.
The 1074th was equipped with M240 mortars towed by MT-LB armored tractors — not 2S4 vehicles as reported in some sources — and had received specialized laser-guided Smel’Chak, or “Daredevil,” rounds that could be directed by a laser designator.
“Going into the gorge, the battery took up firing position on crests to the left and right of our units,” Scherbakov wrote. “Soon the situation was they had blocked our progress with DShK heavy machine guns firing from a protected position inside Massoud’s fortress.
“At this point, the commander of the battalion, Major Vershinin, enlisted the team into destroying the gun emplacements. Commander Beletsky lit the target with a laser rangefinder and we took our first shot using a regular round and then the second with the laser-guided ‘Daredevil.’”
In a twelve-minute fire mission, the fortress was reduced to rubble.
The engagement highlighted one of the advantages of the mortar system. Like all mortars, the M240 shot shells at a high-angle trajectory and could arc rounds over the walls of the fortress, while conventional bombardment from 122-millimeter guns simply slammed into the fortress walls. The laser-guided shells drastically improved accuracy and, furthermore, the sheer weight of the shells meant that they were little affected by meteorological conditions.
However, the weapons could become dangerous if not well-maintained, Scherbakov recalled. “When firing, it was of great importance to thoroughly clean the barrel, literally after every shot […] Once we accidentally left a fragment from a previous shot in the barrel and the next shell jammed while loading.
“The situation was rather unpleasant, since we could neither pull nor push the shell in or out. We had to stack mattresses under the breech and carefully hooked the jammed shell with drag ropes to an MT-LB tractor which pulled in one direction, while a second MT-LB pulled the barrel in another. It barely came out! After that, we made sure to clean the barrel perfectly after every shot.”
The towed M240s were replaced in Afghanistan by self-propelled 2S4 Tulip vehicles, where they continued to prove effective in destroying mountain strongholds and fortified caves. The 2S4 mounts the M240 mortar on a 30-ton armored vehicles with a crew of nine. The peculiar name comes out of a Russian tradition of naming self-propelled artillery after flowers.
These vehicles equipped special “High-Powered Artillery Brigades” during the Cold War that had access to nuclear projectiles.
The 2S4 showed up again in Russian service in the 1999 Second Chechen War, in a manner that foreshadowed tactics later employed in Syria. An independent 2S4 artillery unit “destroyed over 127 targets” in the separatist capital of Grozny, according to one source.
One analysis stated that “[t]he Russians used these [2S4s] in the Second Chechen Campaign to help level Grozny […] Tanks and artillery ringed the city while dismounted infantry and special forces personnel, accompanied by artillery forward observers and snipers, slowly crept into the city searching for Chechen strong points.
“When they found them, artillery and long-range tank fire was directed to eliminate the strong point and crush the building. Large segments of the city were flattened before ground forces moved into the city.”
“Conservative” estimates suggest between 25,000 and 29,000 civilians died from all causes in Grozny. By contrast, the Russian army admits to the loss of 368 soldiers and claims to have killed 1,500 rebels. In 2003, the United Nations named Grozny the “most destroyed city in the world.”
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