Hours before the latest ceasefire was announced between Hamas and Israel, two Israeli civilians were killed and five others wounded near the Gaza border by Palestinian mortar fire. This followed a mortar attack Friday that killed four year-old Daniel Tragerman in kibbutz Nahal Oz. Though often overlooked because of their limited range and small size, mortars have actually killed more Israelis in the latest fighting with Hamas than the longer-range rockets. Indeed, two of the other three civilians killed inside Israel were felled by mortar attacks. Additionally, at least five Israeli troops were killed by mortar fire.
Because of their simplicity, small size, and relatively accurate indirect fire, they have been popular among both armies and insurgents since their introduction in the First World War. The most commonly-used mortars are 60mm, 81mm, or 120mm, with rounds typically weighing less than 30 pounds each. A two-man team can fire as many 16 rounds per minute, hitting targets as far as four miles away.
Compared to the more cumbersome rockets, trained fighters can quickly set up a mortar, fire several rounds on target, then quickly pack up and move themselves and the mortar tube before return fire. They can also easily conceal the mortar tube and rounds in a car or home as compared to larger rockets.
Mortars exposed a weakness in Israeli defenses along the Gaza border. The Iron Dome missile defense system, which successfully intercepted rockets fired at populated areas, was incapable of intercepting smaller, short-range mortars. Israel’s military brass have been aware of this, and are now developing a laser-based system called Iron Beam to counter the threat. Iron Beam, however, is still more than a year from deployment.
There are 32 Israeli communities within 120mm mortar range.
But a laser-based system may not be the only solution to countering mortar fire. One system that has already seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan with the United States military is the Centurion. Based on the Phalanx close-in weapons system (CIWS), which protects warships from ship-killing missiles, the Centurion system is a trailer mounted Gatling gun capable of destroying inbound mortars and rockets. Rushed into service in Iraq in 2005 to protect American bases under heavy fire from insurgents, the system uses radars and sensors to detect incoming fire, then automatically sprays bursts of bullets at 75 rounds per second to hit the incoming projectiles as far as 1.2 kilometers away (watch it here). To decrease the risk of collateral damage, the Centurion uses self-destructing bullets which explode at 2,300 meters. The system was hailed as a success in Iraq.
Admittedly, to cover the nearly 60 mile Gaza border, Israel would require more Centurion systems than there are in existence. But Centurion works in the same way Iron Dome does, by only targeting projectiles heading towards populated areas. The systems could be deployed to the most vulnerable communities, like Sderot. The IDF might also consider the German-made Mantis system, which has a larger range, and would require buying fewer to protect the same area.
Patrick Megahan is a research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on military affairs. He manages the website militaryedge.org.