The largest-caliber mortar system in the world is shelling cities in Syria and Ukraine (1/2)

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 of the following article will cover 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 second part will cover its use in Ukraine and Syria.

Remnants from a 240 mm rocket-assisted mortar projectile in Damascus.

Remnants from a 240 mm rocket-assisted mortar projectile in Damascus.

The Russian M240 mortar is the largest-caliber contemporary mortar system in use — indeed, along with its vehicle mounted counterpart, the 2S4 Tyulpan (Tulip), it is possibly the largest caliber tube artillery system (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.

The fascination with “the biggest guns” often can seem of doubtful relevance. The most extreme designs often remain impractical prototypes that rarely see widespread production or use. This is not the case with the M240 and 2S4, however, since the mortar was first produced by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, it has been employed in six wars (the Yom Kippur War, Lebanese Civil War, Soviet War in Afghanistan, Second Chechen War, War in Ukraine, and Syrian Civil War) by Syria, Egypt and the Soviet Union/Russia.

Mortars are considered the infantry man’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 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 if needed, though at the cost of having shorter range: a modern medium or heavy mortar typically has a range of 6-7 kilometers using regular projectiles, while a contemporary heavy howitzer might shoot to distances of 24 kilometers or more. But the sheer portability of the mortar—combined with its usefulness for concealed, indirect fire has made them ubiquitous in guerilla conflicts and insurgencies around the world. Indeed, mortars are numbered among the “small arms” or “light weapons” that cause 90% of civilian deaths in contemporary wars.

Video capture from Syria: a 240mm F864 shell compared to a regular shell.

Video capture from Syria: a 240mm F864 shell compared to a regular shell.

The Soviet M240 Mortar, however, is an aberration. Mortar designs above 120mm caliber are few in number, but the M240 shells are twice that in diameter. Hardly a “light weapon”, it weighs over 4,150 kg (9,130 lbs.) once it is deployed for combat (which takes 25 minutes), with each of its 1.5 meter-long shells weighing in at 130kg (282 lbs.), including 34 kilograms of high explosives. It can deliver these shells to a distance between 800 to 9,700 meters at a rate of fire of one shell per minute, although special rocket-assisted ammunition can extend the range to above 20 kilometers. Unlike the coughing report of most mortars, each shot from an M240 makes a ringing sound like a gigantic bell as the projectile shoots up at a seemingly vertical angle into the sky.

What was the rationale behind such a combination of extreme firepower with comparatively short range? Well, the M240 still weighs a lot less than other weapons of the same caliber, such as the 29,000 kg. (64,000 lb.) 240mm 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 the Yom Kippur War
The Soviet Union supplied M240 mortars to both the Egyptian and Syrian armies, who gave the weapon its baptism of fire in the Yom Kippur War. The Egyptian mortars were tasked with pounding 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 240mm bombardment in a web forum:

With the 240mm, 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). During the war of attrition that developed on the Hermon following the 1973 armistice, the Syrians used 240mm (and 180mm [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 2 meters of anti-air raid concrete, with only the barrels sticking out, ala Guns of the Navarone).

The Syrian mortars were not permanently silenced however. Sixteen years later, in an ominous foretaste of their employment in the Syrian Civil War, 240mm mortars and heavy 180mm guns were used to shell East Beirut in 1989 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 mm. and 240 mm. artillery, and mercilessly shelled urban centers in East Beirut. 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 UN account of the bombardment notes that “[e]ach 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 forty-wounded two nights before in a shelter close to the UNIFIL and UNTSO offices in East Beirut.” (Marrack Goulding, “Peacemonger“, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, p. 105).

The Washington Post and the New York Times also marveled at the devastation, one article noting that it was more “like a bomb than a shell. It can leave a crater 15 feet in diameter“.

The Siege of Beirut in 1982.

The Siege of Beirut in 1982.

The M240 and 2S4 Tulip in Afghanistan
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union first employed its 240mm 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 (for Massoud’s role in AFghanistan see also Dr. Adrian Hänni and Lukas Hegi, “The Pakistani Godfather: The Inter-Services Intelligence and the Afghan Taliban 1994-2010”, offiziere.ch, 2013. part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4). The 1074th was equipped with M240 mortars (not 2S4 vehicles as reported in some sources) towed by MT-LB armored tractors, and had received specialized laser-guided Smel’Chak (Daredevil) rounds that could be landed on target by a laser designator.

Going into the gorge, the battery took up firing position on crests to the left and right of our units. 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.” […]. — Konstantin Scherbakov.

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 over the walls of the fortress while conventional bombardment from 122mm guns 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:

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. — Konstantin Scherbakov.

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 (there are also the 2S1 Carnation, the 2S3 Acacia, the 2S5 Hyacinth, and the 2S7 Peony). These vehicles equipped special “High Powered Artillery Brigades” during the Cold War that had access to nuclear projectiles.

M240 Mortars in the Panjshir Valley, 1985 (Photo by Konstantin Scherbakov).

M240 Mortars in the Panjshir Valley, 1985 (Photo by Konstantin Scherbakov).

Leveling Grozny
The 2S4 showed up again in Russian service in the Second Chechen War in a manner which foreshadowed tactics employed in Syria. An independent 2S4 artillery unit “destroyed over 127 targets” in the separatist capital of Grozny, according to one source.

One analysis states 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 25,000 to 29,000 civilians were killed by 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”.

Three buildings in Chechnya reportedly struck by just two 240mm mortar rounds (Photo from the archives of Alexei Terentiev).

Three buildings in Chechnya reportedly struck by just two 240mm mortar rounds (Photo from the archives of Alexei Terentiev).

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 Afghanistan, Egypt, English, History, International, Israel, Lebanon, Russia, Sébastien Roblin, Syria, Technology.

4 Responses to The largest-caliber mortar system in the world is shelling cities in Syria and Ukraine (1/2)

  1. Kohler Eugen says:

    A very instructive report!The Conventions of Geneva have to be respected in any case!So the report is to protect more than any time before the civilian population of cities and villages.
    If any military responsible (officer, unit-Commander) violates the Conventions, he risks to be judged and punished for crimes on humanity. The war-actions in Afghanistan, Libanon, Syria shows to often the worst examples of military conduct against the specially protected civilian population.
    For all these reasons the Conventions of Geneva have to be explained to military personal. These have strictly to observe the rules of conduction war.

  2. Pingback: The largest-caliber mortar system in the world is shelling cities in Syria and Ukraine (2/2) | Offiziere.ch

  3. bill says:

    HMS Hood had civilians on board. the sinking was not a war crime. there are conditions where civilian casualties are acceptable. suppose Saddam strapped a child on each tank, would you fire or die?

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