In Iraq, rocket and mortar attacks on Coalition forces, other security forces and civilians are one of the most effective tactics of that country’s insurgents. They are relatively simple for the insurgents to operate, including to break down the launchers and escape retaliation. The so-called Green Zone in the heart of Baghdad receives several such attacks daily. One such attack near Baghdad last October killed or wounded nearly 100 Iraqi National Guardsmen. Although highly inaccurate, these weapons have caused hundreds of U.S., allied and civilian casualties.
Countering these weapons has proven to be extremely difficulty. They are indirect fire systems, meaning that they can attack targets that are not in the attacker’s direct line-of-sight. They also can be fired over intervening obstacles making them a good weapon for urban warfare. Light, man-portable mortars can fire to ranges of between 3,500 and 6,000 meters; rockets have a range of up to 20 kilometers. It is impossible to create a defensive perimeter greater than the range of the threat. Firing back at the launch site risks civilian casualties. Where possible, U.S. forces have deployed rapid reaction units in armored vehicles or helicopters to directly engage the insurgents.
The rocket and mortar threat is now considered so serious that the Pentagon is going to extraordinary lengths to field a defense. The latest idea is to deploy the Phalanx Close-in Weapons System (CIWS), a radar-guided, line-of-sight 20mm Gatling gun that can fire about 3,000 rounds a minute out to a range of several thousand meters. It is a weapon normally deployed aboard ships and intended to defend against missile attacks.
The Phalanx idea is a sign of the Pentagon’s desperation. It would take dozens of them to just defend the Green Zone in Baghdad. Moreover, any shells that do not strike their target will continue on their trajectory until they land, probably in a populated area. Imagine the uproar the first time a Phalanx burst takes out an Iraqi family miles from the weapon’s site. Moreover, some of the explosive shell used with the Phalanx may fail to explode in the air and end up as inadvertent land mines or “toys” for innocent Iraqi children.
There is a better idea. The Missile Defense Agency and the U.S. Army have been working for years on a land-based tactical laser weapon called the Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser (MTHEL). It has been successfully tested against rockets, artillery rounds and mortar shells. It could also defend against man-portable surface-to-air missiles. It would only take two MTHELs to cover the entire Green Zone. A deployable version of the MTHEL could be ready for Iraq a year after a decision to proceed.
The MTHEL appears to have been rejected because it would not be available soon enough. This is ironic because a proposal for a laser-based solution has been knocking around the Pentagon for almost a year already. Instead, the Pentagon is pursuing a policy that can be described as better a bad answer sooner than the right one a little later.
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