The Pentagon pushed back hard on an Associated Press report today about a supposed "worldwide" ban on 60 mm mortar rounds in the aftermath of a deadly accident at an army depot in Nevada.
The 60 mm rounds are used in infantry units across multiple branches of the military and are highly effective at rooting out insurgents in Afghanistan. But officials at the Pentagon and Marine Corps told Foreign Policy the ban only applies to the Marine Corps and, even then, includes exemptions for units engaged in combat operations.
"This is not a service-wide suspension, but rather only a USMC suspension," said Pentagon spokeswoman Anne Edgecomb. "Additionally, commanders operating in combat theater (Afghanistan) can use the 60 mm mortar system following an operational risk management assessment."
The Marine Corps mortar ban was implemented after an explosion at the Hawthorne army depot in Nevada killed seven marines. According to reports, the mortar round blew up in its firing tube during a training exercise. (An investigation is ongoing as to why the round went off.)
The specter of a worldwide ban on the mortars surprised weapons analysts this morning given the weapons' utility on the battlefield. "In a place like Afghanistan, with widely dispersed operating locations, mortars can often be the only fire support a local commander has until aircraft appear overhead," said Chris Dougherty, a war games expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments "In that sense, they can function as a sort of 'security blanket.'"
In its report, the AP stated that the Pentagon "banned the use of 60mm mortar rounds by its troops worldwide."
"Absolutely not," said Marine Corps spokesman Richard Ulsh, in an interview with FP.
When asked if the red-tape requirement that combat units fill out risk management assessments to acquire mortar rounds might prevent the weapons from getting in the right hands, Ulsh said the process was simple and that the "precautionary measure would be removed sometime after the investigation is done." He added, "the exception provides the commanders in Afghanistan the flexibility to weigh the risks themselves and use it at their discretion."