Making Things Go Boom: Indirect Firing Systems and Those Who Use Them

Here’s the situation: The commander of a small recon unit sees an enemy tank advancing on his unit’s position. He must determine the best way to engage the tank. U.S. Soldiers are tough, but conventional small arms are no match for the firepower of a tank.

Retreat, clearly, is never an option.

A National Guard Indirect Fire Team Discharges a HowitzerHow about picking up the radio and calling in the tank’s GPS coordinates to the howitzer crew 10 miles away on the other side of the mountain? Within about a minute, with the dramatic sound of an incoming projectile, the enemy tank – rather abruptly – goes boom.

There you have it – threat neutralized and the unit can go on about its business. That’s the power of the indirect firing system.

Indirect firing systems are weapons like mortars, howitzers, and rocket launchers. These systems have two primary features that make them an asset in the field. One is that they can hit targets from far, far away. As in miles. And two, as the term “indirect” implies, line-of-sight is not needed to hit the target. Hence, the fire is indirect (unlike the direct fire required for a firearm).

The concept, of course, is basic. Like catapults hurled stones in the Middle Ages, today’s indirect fire systems fire the projectile in a high-angle trajectory to a predetermined coordinate. They have somewhat more oomph than the catapults of yesteryear, though.

Indirect fire weapons come in all shapes and sizes, and maneuverability, range, and destructive force vary. Some are carried by a team of Soldiers, some are towed with a vehicle to a strategic fire zone, while others are mounted to a vehicle.

The more prominent indirect fire equipment deployed by the National Guard includes:

  • The Mortar: Essentially a hollow tube into which a bomb-like round is dropped (muzzle-loaded), mortars are conceptually simple weapons that have been in use since as early as the 1450s. Depending on the caliber of the weapon, projectiles from a mortar have a maximum reach of 2.1 miles away (M224) to 4.5 miles (vehicle mounted M120/M121 Mortar), and require a team of three to five Soldiers to operate. Common forms of ammunition include high explosive, white phospherous, red phosphorous, and illumination.
  • The Howitzer: Howitzers are the breech-loaded (rear-loaded) brethren of the mortar and operate in much the same way as a hunting rifle. A really, really big hunting rifle. In the Army National Guard, they come in two varieties: 105mm and 155mm, which refers to the size of the round. Rounds are either conventionally powered (again, like a giant bullet), or rocket propelled to increase their already considerable range. With a rocket-propelled round, some National Guard howitzers can hit targets more than 18 miles away. Most howitzer styles are towed by another vehicle to their staging area and require seven to ten Soldiers for standard operation. However, there is one style – the Paladin – that is mounted on a tank-like chassis that requires only four crew members and can be used in what are called ”shoot and scoot” tactics. That’s where they drive up, stop, establish coordinates, fire the weapon, and leave … all in about 45 seconds.
  • The MLRS Rocket Launcher: If you found the range of the mortar and howitzer impressive, then prepare to be stunned. With the National Guard’s Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), Soldiers can hit targets from nearly 28 miles away. Better yet, it’s a self-contained vehicle that can move from one firing position to another to provide counter fire and suppression of enemy combatants. Built like a tank, it can carry a variety of short- and long-range ordnance and requires only three Soldiers to operate the highly automated self-loading and self-aiming system. The MLRS can fire up to 12 rockets in less than 60 seconds.

It goes without saying that these weapons carry significant destructive force and require a lot of knowledge, control, and responsibility to operate. National Guard indirect firing system specialists provide the knowledge and abilities necessary to bring these destructive forces under control. Be part of this team. Check out the Guard’s career options in Armor and Field Artillery.

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