Pentagon Fast-Tracks Mortar Defense System

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

In September 2004, Sgt. Shawna Morrison of the Illinois National Guard's 1544th Transportation Company was leaving a mess hall in Iraq's Green Zone for a meeting with her new commander when she was killed in a mortar attack (search).

Morrison's parents, who reside in Paris, Ill., are urging the military to try and do anything to prevent deaths like that of their daughter's.

"Do it. Do it. Do it for our people," said Morrison's mother, Cynthia. "We are just losing too many people and it is all by these types of bombs. If it is not a car bomb, it is a mortar. We are losing an awful lot of kids."

According to The Defense Manpower Data Center, which collects and maintains an archive for the Defense Department, of the 1,136 hostile active-duty deaths (search) reported as of March 5, 39 of them were due to mortar attacks.

The U.S. military is fast-tracking a weapons system to reduce the threat of mortar attacks, one of the leading killers of troops in Iraq. It's called C-RAM, short for counter rocket artillery mortar system.

"If we could avoid half of those casualties, it would well be worth our time," said Ret. Army Brig. Gen. Nick Halley, who was the commanding general of artillery and rocket forces for the 18th Airborne Corps during the first Gulf War. "This is a good step in the right direction, and I think that we should do it. Although it is not the ultimate solution, of course, we don't have anything now that will, with 80 to 90 percent accuracy, take these mortars out."

A mortar launcher is relatively easy to activate and may take little more than a minute from set-up to detonation. Skilled enemies can therefore escape before encountering return fire. Also, mortars don't emit heat and they're relatively small in size, so unlike missiles (search), the military has never had a real defense to knock them out of the air.

C-RAM is like a huge Gatling gun, which utilizes fire-finding radar to track mortar launches.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter is urging Congress to provide $75 million in funding to get C-RAM to the front lines.

"We have to protect these people, and having an anti-mortar capability will be a real advantage to our military," the California Republican told FOX News. "Being able to kill those mortars to shoot down the incoming mortar shell as it comes in would be a real improvement in America's defenses. Right now, we have got this system. We have been testing it, it looks good. We are going to move it to the field as quickly as possible."

C-RAM may borrow some of the same technology from the Navy's Phalanx close-in-weapons system, which defends ships from missile attacks. Phalanx is a fast-reaction, rapid-fire 20-millimeter gun system designed to engage anti-ship cruise missiles and fixed-wing aircraft at short range.

C-RAM will shoot spent uranium shells very quickly and will be able to take a mortar — a fairly slow-moving projectile — out of the air, Hunter said.

"We are always looking for better ways to link sensors to shooters in order to provide faster reaction times and save lives of American soldiers," said Maj. General David Valcourt, commander of field artillery at Ft. Sill, Okla., who said other commands and agencies are also working on C-RAM.

But unlike at sea, Halley said, collateral damage on land could be a factor, particularly when the C-RAM is transferred to an urban setting.

"In an urban area, if you are able to knock these mortars out and have them explode up in the air, then the debris and the shrapnel from some of those rounds are going to fall, and of course it is going to cause possibly some civilian casualties," Halley said.

Hunter said that’s a risk worth taking, and that tests show that C-RAM has a 60 to 70 percent shoot-down capability.

"Shooting the incoming mortar round as it comes into the base is a sure-fire way to stop it without having collateral damage in the towns, without having to worry about this time element and escape element on the part of the guys that threw those mortars at you," the lawmaker said.

FOX News has learned that the military is expected to sign with a defense contractor by the summer to start manufacturing a line of C-RAM. Prototypes are already en route to Iraq.

"The Army is fast-tracking a lot of technology to send it into Iraq because we are suffering casualties there," Halley said. "Normally, these things would be tested for one, two, three or four years before they were put into the field. So, we are going to be putting many of these new systems into the field in Iraq without complete testing, and some of them are going to work and some of them are probably not going to work very well, but I think it is worth our trouble … any American life saved is worth the effort."

Click on the video box above for a complete report by FOX News' Jeff Goldblatt.