The largest-caliber mortar system in the world is shelling cities in Syria and Ukraine (2/2)

by Sébastien Roblin. He holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.

Excluding rockets, the Russian 240 mm Mortar M240 — both the 2S4 vehicle and towed M240 systems — is the largest caliber land-based artillery weapon in use. Part one has covered the basic characteristics and its employment in the Yom Kippur War by the Egyptian and Syrian armies, as well in Afghanistan by the Soviets and during the Second Chechen War by the Russian Army. The following second part will cover its use in Ukraine and Syria.

2S4 Tyulpan

2S4 Tyulpan

The M240 mortar in the Syrian Civil War
With the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the rebel-held city of Homs was bombarded by the Syrian Arab Army. In February 2012, a month in which the bombardment is believed to have killed 1,000 civilians, reports began to surface that the Syrian army was using its 240mm mortars on the densely populated city. Conclusive evidence for which was eventually given in the recovered tail-fin fragments of an F-864 shell in the Baba Amr district, and later videos showing the mortars being fired. Human Rights Watch then published several reports that gained wide traction in the media, leading to articles in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and other outlets. (Many articles stated that 2S4 Tyulpan vehicles were used, but none have ever been recorded being sold to Syria nor has any media emerged showing their use, so it is safe to conclude that the systems in question are towed M240s).

Paul Conroy, a war correspondent in Homs who experienced the bombardment, singled out the terror the mortars inspired in several passages in his book “Under the Wire“. After Conrony’s media center was hit by a rocket strike, killing two journalists, and wounding him and fellow French journalist Edith Bouvier, he wrote about being stuck in a makeshift hospital while the city shook under a constant barrage from the mortars:

The first shell of the opening salvo shook our world. […]
“Paul, what do you think that explosion was? It was bigger than anything we have heard so far.” […]
“Okay, since you asked, Edith, that was 240mm mortar – the largest in the world […] If one hits us, we won’t know about it. Not a thing.” […]
In the far off distance we heard three deep, muffled, bass-like thumps. “Here they come,” I said. “Now listen.” There was a four-second delay before we heard the scream of the huge mortars. The sound was long and drawn out […] — Paul Conroy in “Under the Wire“, Weinstein Books, p. 237ff.

In an article he later wrote: “I lay there and listened as salvos of three of these mortars were launched at a time, 18 hours a day, for five days […] The question was, where was all the ammunition coming from?”.

Cluster Munitions in the Suburbs of Damascus
There were few reports of the use of 240mm mortars in 2013 and 2014, besides a YouTube video claiming to depict a mortar strike in 2013 (see video below). This could be a result of depletion of ammunition stocks. However, in late 2015 and early 2016, casings of 240mm rounds designed to carry cluster munitions were identified by ARES in Dhouma and East Ghouta, both suburbs of Damascus. In both cases, the fragments were parts of rocket-assisted 3O8 Nerpa (Seal) cargo projectiles (the rockets double the mortar’s range to 20 kilometers or more).

Photo of the 240mm 3O8 cargo shell that struck the school in Dhouma. The man is holding an unexploded O-10 submuntion, of which 14 are carried in the cargo shell (Photo: Yasser el Doumany).

Photo of the 240mm 3O8 cargo shell that struck the school in Dhouma. The man is holding an unexploded O-10 submuntion, of which 14 are carried in the cargo shell (Photo: Yasser el Doumany).

These specialized “cargo-shells” are designed to rain O-10-FRAG and A01-SCh cluster bomb sub-munitions over an area equivalent to four football fields. Cluster munitions are more deadly than regular High Explosive shells to exposed persons and vehicles, but their use has been curtailed or discontinued in many militaries because a significant percentage of the sub-munitions fail to explode after impact, remaining behind as deadly traps for civilians that may come across them after the fighting has moved on or ended. The 3O8 container shells can carry fourteen O-10 bomblets, weighing 4 kg (8.8 lbs.) each, which fall to the ground with parachutes. O-10s had never been confirmed used in war before, though there were rumors they were used in Chechnya.

Most of the cluster munitions have been dropped by aircraft, but Nerpa shells have been positively identified in at least two cases.

On the 13th of December, two different schools were struck by the Nerpa cluster warheads while students were in class, killing eight children and two teachers. A local organization associated with the rebels, the Damascus School Directorate, posted pictures of the aftermath of the attack, and Human Rights Watch noted that the “photographs and video footage of injured children and damage consistent with a cluster munition strike to what appears to be a school.” To put it plainly: the surviving children in the photographs exhibit multiple deep wounds. Another photo shows two children in pink school clothes lying in a pool of blood next to a wall pocked with multiple impact craters. One of the 3O8 cargo-shells remains buried in the concrete next to the school, where it was photographed, giving proof of the attacks that reportedly had been ongoing for months.

The sudden appearance in late 2015 of these more sophisticated, long-range projectiles for the weapon system leads to the obvious, though unconfirmed, conclusion: these rounds were part of a new shipment of arms sent by Russia, reflecting Vladimir Putin’s intensified support for Bashar al-Assad in 2015, which also has included the transfer of major hardware such as the T-90 tank.

The terminal at Luhansk International Airport after the final bombardment by 2S4 Tyulpans in September 2014.

The terminal at Luhansk International Airport after the final bombardment by 2S4 Tyulpans in September 2014.

The “Tactical Nuke” of Luhansk Airport
Meanwhile, fighting raged in Eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists. The first Tyulpan was sighted in Ukraine on July 5th, 2014 by an OSCE drone. These provided early, indisputable proof of Russian support for the rebel, as the Ukrainian army never owned 2S4s. At least four “batteries” are reported to be in use by Russian-backed separatists.

By the Fall of 2014, the conflicted entered a static phase in which the Ukrainian army and the separatists fought protracted artillery duels punctuated by occasional assaults for control of strategic positions. Chief amongst them were Luhansk and Dontesk International Airports, both barely held on to by Ukrainian government forces. But after a particularly devastating bombardment in September, Ukrainian Defense Minister Valery Gelety wrote on Facebook that Luhansk had been struck by a “tactical nuke”. After this panicked claim, the Gelety later clarified: “In particular, the forces of the Russian Federation made two strikes with self-propelled mortar 2S4 “Tulips” in Luhansk airport. It is for this reason that our military had to leave. The blows were so powerful that “completely destroyed the building from the fifth floor to the basement.”

He further pointed out that 2S4s were capable of firing nuclear projectiles, and claimed the Russians were testing out their “new equipment” in Ukraine. (Russian media mocked him, pointing out the 2S4s had been developed in the 1970s). Gelety said: “If it were not for the Tyulpans, we could have been holding the airport for months and nobody would have ousted us from it.”

A video taken just before the fall of Luhansk airport captures the devastation caused by the bombardment:

160 kilometers to the West, the battle for Donetsk International Airport raged on for 240 days. Again, 2S4s were moved into position. Ukrainian nationalists operating in the rebel-held claimed to have exploded a mine or IED under one 2S4, preventing it from joining the attack. But in January, 2015 the 2S4s launched a heavy bombardment which caused the terminals in the airport to literally collapse onto their foundations. The ensuing tank attack finally forced Ukrainians to withdraw on January 21st.

Once again, the 240mm mortars had a tremendous psychological impact as well as physical one—and incited intense discussion in the media.

Note: An earlier version of this article included a YouTube video which claimed to portray an explosion caused by a 2S4 artillery strike.  However, this explosion was actually that of a chemical plant likely struck by the artillery of the Ukrainian army. 

Artillery and Ethics
No Western army today operates tube artillery as large-caliber as the M240/2S4. But that is simply because they instead rely upon aircraft using precision-guided munitions often heavier than the M240’s 282-lb shells to destroy heavy fortifications, such as JDAMs (which vary in weight from 500 to 2,000 lbs.). There are also large rocket artillery-systems such as the 227mm M270 MRLS used by the US Army. On this basis, some Russian and Syria commenters argue that Western forces have frequently employed heavier, higher-tech ordnance, and that the M240/2S4 are no different than any another weapon of war.

This ignores the context in question. Accurately targeting a 240mm mortar against an identifiable military position, such as fortifications on the Suez canal or a mujahidin cave in Afghanistan, though still gruesome in effect, is not the same as saturating them in an urban area with a heavy civilian population, like Homs or Beirut. A strike from such a massive shell can plunge through reinforced roofs and easily kill or injure all of the occupants in an apartment building, even if they are in “safe” cover. As Conroy observed when he encountered a 10 by 15 meter large cellar packed with 300 female civilians in Homs: “The cellar was a haven for these women and children but it wasn’t a bombproof shelter. A direct hit from a 240mm mortar would kill all of them.” Furthermore, the use of cluster munitions which explode indiscriminately over a wide area, will leave behind a deadly legacy of unexploded sub-munitions outlasting the war itself.

In short, using big guns is not in itself the concern. It is the willingness to employ them against civilian areas — sometimes even with the civilians as the intended target — that is at the heart of the critique.

About Sébastien Roblin

Sebastien Roblin holds a Master's Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.
This entry was posted in English, International, Proliferation, Russia, Sébastien Roblin, Security Policy, Syria, Ukraine.

6 Responses to The largest-caliber mortar system in the world is shelling cities in Syria and Ukraine (2/2)

  1. Kohler Eugen says:

    My first comment is still valuable;the Geneva Conventions have to be strictly applied by the armed forces!So it is very important to give the necessary instructions and orders to military personals. Never such weapons have to be engaged against civilians. The most ugly side of modern civil wars in Syria, Grozny and other places of the globe has been demonstrated. War crimes will be punished today and tomorrow.

  2. Kohler Eugen says:

    You don’t question what? Please be clear!

  3. Serge says:

    “Still, a later video of an explosion caused by a night-time strike by a 2S4 on February 8th, 2015 helps explain what inspired Gelety to make the claim:”

    The blast on the video happened on the rebel-held territory, after shelling from government side (so it can’t be 2S4); probably it was caused by the shell hitting ammunition depot or chemical plant (producing military- and industrial-grade explosives).

    “Again, 2S4s were moved into position, prompting Ukrainian nationalist operating in the rebel-held area to explode a mine or IED under one 2S4 to prevents it from joining the attack. ”

    Link to informnapalm, are you serious?

    Statements like these two undermine the overall credibility of the article.

    • Sébastien Roblin says:

      Hello Serge–I appreciate your feedback, and you proved correct that the February 9th was not a 2S4 strike–the video has been replaced with footage of the bombardment of Luhansk, and I have noted the earlier error.

      Regarding InformNapalm, it is indeed a biased source–but so are the reports of any armed faction in a fight, and such reports are a large part of what any journalist has to work with (whether from rebels or government fighters in any conflict). The claim to have disabled a single vehicle is hardly extraordinary, but as there is no photographic evidence, I have reworded the sentence slightly to reflect the unconfirmed nature of this incident.

      There are of course many misinterpreted or intentionally misleading accounts of incidents in war, and I have no wish to propagate them. However, the error with the February 9th explosion aside–and I am glad to have had it corrected–I stand by the credibility of the many verifiable claims made in this article, which include links back to their sources.

  4. Eugène Kohler says:

    Thanks for Your comment!Now the situation is clarified.

    E. Kohler

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