Artillery: 240mm Shells Forever

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September 10, 2016: Another Cold War era weapon is showing it is still useful. The Syrian Army is using Russian made 240mm towed mortars, a design first seen during World War II as the M240. This is a four ton towed mortar that generally fired a 130kg (286 pound) high-explosive shell that contained 34 kg (75 pounds) of explosives. In the 1970s the Russian army replaced the towed version with the 30 ton self-propelled 2S4. Some of these are still in service with the Russian Army. The 2S4 has a crew of nine and the vehicle has enough armor to be safe from machine-gun fire and most shell fragments. Syria and several other East European nations obtained M240s during the Cold War. Some of those Cold War era exports are and still used. Syria used the M240 unsuccessfully against Israeli fortifications during the 1973 war and again in 1989 against anti-Syrian factions in the Lebanese Civil War. In 2011 Syria again brought out its M240s and 2S4s for the civil war but use has been limited, until 2016, by ammunition shortages.

This Russian 240mm mortar remains useful despite short range (about 9,700 meters) because it is accurate and effective at that range, especially if firing at fortifications or in urban areas. The 240mm mortar fires a shell that can carry a variety of payloads. The basic high-explosive version can create lethal fragments out to 150 meters. But what has kept the 240mm mortar in use is the anti-fortification shell can go through several meters of earth and concrete to destroy an underground bunker or troops firing from the basement of a multi-story building. One of the incendiary shells can set fire to most of a large structure, which is useful when firing at warehouses or factory buildings. There is a rocket assisted 240mm shell with a range of 20 kilometers (but a smaller warhead and less accuracy). There is also a laser guided shell for precise targeting. On the downside the 240mm has a low rate-of-fire (one round a minute) despite being a breach-loading (instead of dropping the shell down the barrel.) Most large caliber mortars were breach-loading but most models were not manufactured or used after World War II.

There is only one other tube (as opposed to rocket) 240mm artillery weapon still in use and that is the American M1 240mm howitzer. Taiwan still has four American made 240mm howitzers stationed on the Kinmen islands off the China coast. These four heavy guns are based in bunkers built into mountains and are rolled out to fire.

The U.S. built 315 of these 29 ton towed guns (as the 240mm M1) between 1944 and 1945. These weapons were towed by tractors and used to destroy enemy fortifications. Put into reserve after World War II ended in 1945 some were brought back for the Korean War (1950-53) and some were given to Taiwan for use against Chinese artillery that fired on Taiwanese controlled islands regularly until 1958. By then the U.S. had stopped using its M1s and retired them for good because there was no more ammo and the U.S. could not justify the expense of rebuilding the facilities needed to manufacture more. But Taiwan could, and did, and has kept four M1s (which it calls “Black Dragon”) operational ever since. The M1 requires a crew of 14, has a maximum range of 23 kilometers and fires up to thirty 163 kg (360 pound) high-explosive shells an hour. The Black Dragons have always been stationed on the Kinmens, a chain of small islands (some only two kilometers from the coast). These islands were last heavily fought over (with artillery) in 1958. Since then there has been growing interest in demilitarizing the islands but it hasn’t happened yet.

 


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