FORT BENNING, Ga. — After a three year hiatus, the Best Mortar Competition is back as part of the Maneuver Center of Excellence’s Infantry Week. This year's competition featured more teams, more firepower and more challenges than ever before as 22 teams from around the world spent over three days demonstrating their technical and tactical prowess across Fort Benning, Georgia, from April 10-13, 2023.
This grueling test designed to push indirect fire infantrymen — Army military occupational specialty 11C and Marine MOS 0341 — to their limits determined who could return to their unit as the world’s top mortar team, all while inspiring excellence within the mortar community and enabling teams from across the Army, joint force teams from the Marine Corps and an allied team from the Netherlands to share best practices.
The competition’s first day started well before the sun rose with an Expert Physical Fitness Assessment featuring over a mile of running while wearing body armor, various exercises and lifting weights designed to simulate combat experiences. Competitors moved onto score points as marksmen with the M4A1 Carbine and M17 Pistol before a written examination utilizing a map, plotting board, protractor and compass to compute the data necessary to employ indirect fires between two points using analog systems.
“It’s important to be proficient on analog systems for two significant reasons, the first being for safety. Every time that we run a mission through fire direction control, or FDC, it typically gets through a digital system such as the mortar fire control system or lightweight handheld mobile ballistic computer. It has to be checked on analog systems with the plotting board with Infantry Mortar Leader Course-certified individuals. The plotting board is still essential and highly trained on in the mortar community and at IMLC, and that’s why we hit on it in the BMC and put such emphasis on it," explained Capt. Joshua Kay, the commander of the Mortar Training Company, responsible for providing basic mortar training and advanced mortar courses.
The second big reason is that with the large scale combat operations environment, you can’t solely rely upon your digital systems and capabilities because if they go down you will have to resort to analog capabilities for FDC such as the plotting board,” Kay continued.
Day two, the competition’s most physically challenging day, began with teams racing through an obstacle course before demonstrating more technical proficiency skills such as declination the M2A2 aiming circle to ensure that the device was accurately reading north before it could be used to precisely aim mortar systems. Teams raced to emplace and direct lay a 60mm mortar system onto a target that they could observe themselves before loading up their rucks and taking off on a ruck march towards the next event — without knowing how far they would be going beforehand.
“We didn’t know how far it was going to be and decided that we were going to walk as fast as we can and get there when we get there. Our legs were a bit tired and our feet were a little raw,” said 1st Lt. Kelly Owen, 81mm mortar platoon commander from 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division, based at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at 29 Palms, California. Upon arrival, they had to demonstrate more tactical proficiency by disassembling, reassembling and performing a functions check on the M240 machine gun. “It was tough, and beneficial, but nothing that’s not expected of us in the infantry community.”
The Army’s Indirect Fire Infantrymen are trained similarly to their MOS 11B Infantry brethren — but with all the additional specific training that enables them to effectively employ lethal indirect fires. The Marine Corps trains their mortarmen in similar fashion.
“We focus heavily on mortars and our proficiency within the MOS 0341, which is the 11C community on the Army side, so it’s been a really good time getting to see the fully well-rounded aspects of it with marksmanship, land navigation, physical training and everything expected of an infantryman with the focus on mortars at BMC,” explained Owen.
Similar training allows Soldiers and Marines from any background to learn the skills necessary to become indirect fire infantrymen — even if their previous profession was very different in nature. “I went to college, went to law school and practiced law for a few years. Then I decided that I wanted to join the Marine Corps and came in as a law contract, took quite a few months to get my contract switched to a ground contract, then went to Infantry Officer Course and became an infantry officer.”
After an evening return to catch some much-needed sleep, teams woke early on the third day to start their land navigation event hours before first light. Then teams moved onto another exam, this one focused on characteristics, capabilities, and components of mortars, before being assessed on how quickly they could employ the 120mm mortar while using the mortar fire control system’s touch-screen interface to quickly compute mission data. Finally, Soldiers were assessed on their ability to perform various Soldier skills such as tactical combat casualty care and using a military radio before returning to rest for the competition’s final event, emplacing and engaging a target using the 81mm mortar and the lightweight handheld mortar ballistic somputer.
“Competitions can simulate real-world scenarios by creating high-pressure, dynamic environments that require Soldiers to apply their training and skills in realistic situations,” said Col. Jimmy Hathaway, Commander of the 198th Infantry Brigade. “Participating in a competition can help Soldiers develop their ability to think on their feet and adjust their strategies as needed.”
At the end of the fourth day, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment was crowned as the competition’s champion with 654 points.
“This was a great opportunity to work with other units from the Army as well as partner forces with the Netherlands, and overall, it was a great experience,” said Staff Sgt. Brett Walker, 3rd Battalion’s team sergeant, after receiving the award on behalf of his Best Mortar Team.
1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion followed closely behind, completing a podium sweep by the Ranger Regiment with 597 and 564 points, respectively. 82nd Airborne took fourth with 560 points, the top spot for Forces Command units, and close behind them were the teams from 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division with 518 points and Owen’s 2/7 team with 510 points.
“Past competitions have played an important role in shaping training doctrine by providing a platform for testing and refining military tactics, techniques, and procedures. The lessons learned from these competitions have been incorporated into Army training doctrine, helping improve the overall readiness and effectiveness of Army units,” noted Hathaway. While the MTC and MCOE staff were happy with all the feedback that they received throughout the competition, participants were excited to take their lessons learned home with them to improve their own units’ readiness and effectiveness.
“I joined the Army to have a bigger challenge in my life and pursue my dreams, and one of them is being the best that I can be throughout my day-to-day life. I started as a firefighter and ended up joining the Army because of the physical aspect and wanted to have that type of brotherhood continue on through service, the Infantry branch, and making the best of my life every day that I can. This competition gave us a go-getter attitude for the next one, we learned a lot, and we’re ready to take that back to our units and train up all of the other guys,” said Sgt. Austin High, a mortarman from Copperopolis, California, assigned to 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, with a smile as his team finished the competition’s last event.
Owen conveyed a very similar sentiment as the competition closed.
“It’s been great, we’ve been talking to a lot of the Army units and the Ranger teams and the Dutch team out here and we’ve learned some of their tricks and standard operation procedures and there are certainly things that we’ll take back with us and it’s been very good. I’ve got nothing bad to say about it,” she stated.
While this was the first time the Best Mortar Competition was held since 2019, it certainly won’t be the last. The only question is: how many teams will accept the challenge and compete for the top spot next year?