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.
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).
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 “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 Donetsk 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 they “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.”
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.
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 other 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.