Snipers Having Tragic Success Against U.S. Troops

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 11 months ago

Sun Tzu, “The Art of War,” III.26: “He who understands how to use both large and small forces will be victorious.”  Tu Yu comments, “There are circumstances in war when many cannot attack few, and others when the weak can master the strong.”

Courtesy of New York Times: Sgt. Jesse E. Leach of the Marines assisted Lance Cpl. Juan Valdez-Castillo, who was shot by a sniper in the town of Karma.  He survived.

Courtesy of New York Times: Sgt. Jesse E. Leach of the Marines assisted Lance Cpl. Juan Valdez-Castillo, who was shot by a sniper in the town of Karma. He survived.

Background

The insurgents in Iraq for some time had relied on stand-off weapons to do their warfare (i.e., IEDs).  With the influx of the more well-trained al-Qaeda fighters across the Syrian and Jordanian borders, these tactics have given way to guerrilla tactics.  Every stand-up battle in which the insurgents engage the U.S. troops involves a loss for the insurgents, sometimes significant.  It has taken time for the evolution to occur, but the change to asymmetric warfare seems to be about complete.

On June 21, 2006, Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Whyte died from sniper fire in the streets of Ramadi.  On September 26, 2006, Marine PFC Christopher T. Riviere died in the Anbar Province from sniper fire while wearing full body armor.  On October 8, 2006, Marine Captain Robert Secher died from sniper fire.  On October 22, 2006, Specialists Nathaniel Aguirre and Matthew Creed, US Army, died from sniper fire while on foot patrol in Baghdad (see also a North County Times article on Creed).  There is no shortage of personal stories on fatalities from sniper fire, but stepping back from the personal to the statistical, there is no question that sniper attacks have increased in both frequency and lethality.

Sniper attacks on U.S. troops have risen dramatically as more Americans have been pulled into the capital to patrol on foot and in lightly armored vehicles amid raging religious violence.  Sniper attacks, generally defined as one or two well-aimed shots from a distance, have totaled 36 so far this month in Baghdad, according to U.S. military statistics.

That’s up from 23 such attacks in September and 11 in January.

The figures were confirmed by Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the No. 2 commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. “The total numbers are elevated, and the effectiveness has been greater,” he said.

At least eight of the 36 sniper attacks in Baghdad in October have been fatal, according to accounts by hometown newspapers reporting on the deaths of individual soldiers and Marines. Snipers have also killed four U.S. servicemembers in Anbar province this month.

Assessment

The picture above visually conveys the story of the sniper attack that wounded Lance Cpl. Juan Valdez-Castillo.

The bullet passed through Lance Cpl. Juan Valdez-Castillo as his Marine patrol moved down a muddy urban lane. It was a single shot. The lance corporal fell against a wall, tried to stand and fell again.

His squad leader, Sgt. Jesse E. Leach, faced where the shot had come from, raised his rifle and grenade launcher and quickly stepped between the sniper and the bloodied marine. He walked backward, scanning, ready to fire.

Shielding the marine with his own thick body, he grabbed the corporal by a strap and dragged him across a muddy road to a line of tall reeds, where they were concealed. He put down his weapon, shouted orders and cut open the lance corporal’s uniform, exposing a bubbling wound.

Lance Corporal Valdez-Castillo, shot through the right arm and torso, was saved. But the patrol was temporarily stuck. The marines were engaged in the task of calling for a casualty evacuation while staring down their barrels at dozens of windows that faced them, as if waiting for a ghost’s next move.

This sequence on Tuesday here in Anbar Province captured in a matter of seconds an expanding threat in the war in Iraq. In recent months, military officers and enlisted marines say, the insurgents have been using snipers more frequently and with greater effect, disrupting the military’s operations and fueling a climate of frustration and quiet rage.

The New York Times article goes on to say that “across Iraq, the threat has become serious enough that in late October the military held an internal conference about it, sharing the experiences of combat troops and discussing tactics to counter it. There has been no ready fix.  The battalion commander of Sergeant Leach’s unit — the Second Battalion, Eighth Marines — recalled eight sniper hits on his marines in three months and said there had been other possible incidents as well. Two of the battalion’s five fatalities have come from snipers, he said, and one marine is in a coma. Another marine gravely wounded by a sniper has suffered a stroke.”

I have covered the weaknesses in the Interceptor body armor system with its gaps in protection along the lateral torso.  The insurgent snipers have become quite sophisticated in their tactics.  They have become disciplined shots, as this chilling quote by elements of the Second Battalion, Eighth Marines indicates: “Most of the time, the marines said, the snipers aim for their heads, necks and armpits, displaying knowledge of gaps in their protective gear.?

Lance Cpl. Valdez-Castillo was shot through the arm and torso area.  The same kind of numerical success and firing accuracy has been seen in the Baghdad area.  According to Maj. Mark Cheadle, a 4th Brigade spokesman, a soldier was shot in the face while on patrol. The round passed through his sinus cavity and exited his nose, but he survived.  Back in the Anbar Province with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, another incident shows how rapid and devastating sniper attacks can be, but also how the snipers are targeting not only Marines, but unprotected parts of Marines.

The Marines’ goal is to build a string of outposts all the way to Ramadi so that stretches of road now closed to civilians can reopen, Desgrosseilliers said. Then they’ll hand over the area to Iraqi forces.

On the way to the third stop, a burly Marine who was traveling with the jump team but wasn’t a member of it reminded a reporter to keep moving when outside the Humvee. The patrol was in an area where a sniper had been active, he said.

Two minutes later, when the patrol stopped so Desgrosseilliers could check in with a team of Marines with tanks, the burly Marine stepped out of his Humvee and walked about 15 yards toward the tanks. The flat snap of a shot rang out from about 150 yards away in the direction of a mosque, houses and shops.

The bullet hit just under the left side of the Marine’s jaw and passed through his mouth, knocking out some teeth and exiting through his right cheek. He fell to the pavement and a pool of blood began spreading around his head.

More often than not, these attacks end with no shots fired by U.S. troops, with the guerrillas melting away into the urban landscape.  According to the reports, the Marines believe that the snipers have lookouts posted near or around U.S. combat posts, informing them of troop movement.  Regarding the attack on the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, the field grade officers are proud of their troops’ performance.  “Earlier in the war, maybe, or under a different commander, the Marines might have returned heavy fire in the general direction of the sniper to make him stop.  This time, they hadn’t fired, not even once. No one could see exactly where the shots were coming from, and a stream of bullets into the town could have hit innocent civilians and seriously damaged Desgrosseilliers’ plan to calm the area.  Back in camp, he said he was proud of his men for being so disciplined.  “I think the insurgency is trying to get us off our message by getting us to return fire and maybe kill some innocent people,” Desgrosseilliers said. “But it’s just not going to work.”

But while the officers are proud, the grunts and NCOs are demoralized and frustrated.  Secretly, Marines write to tell their parents that the war is lost.  This frustration runs up the chain of command, and even Captain Secher, cited above, wrote home to say that the war was “futile.”

Conclusions and Recommendations

A paucity of strategic thinking has attended the U.S. reaction to the sniper threat.  The U.S. military has dispatched countersniper teams and advised soldiers to be extra vigilant on patrols. ”You’re out on the street, and you take one or two rounds at your patrol that’s (on foot), and you look out there and it could come from literally several hundred different windows,” said Col. Michael Beech, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team. “And you don’t have any idea which one. That’s what makes the sniper threat in an urban terrain, in a three-dimensional battlefield like Baghdad, so difficult.”

I have been critical of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, pointing out disagreements between the newly released U.S. Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM 3-24 and the “Small Wars Manual” concerning prolonged operations in war.  On the issue of snipers, the new manual fares no better.  A search of the PDF document shows that in 241 pages, there isn’t a single usage of the word ‘sniper’.

Of course, military operations on urban terrain (MOUT) are difficult, and have always been problematic to not only U.S. forces, but military forces around the world.  But with the canyon-like walls, cave-like rooms, and noise-reverberating qualities of sprawling urban areas, one would think that the U.S. military had at least developed a point of doctrine regarding snipers.  There is no doctrine, so there can be no strategy, and thus there are no tactics to address this threat.  The best that the U.S. can come up with so far has been “be extra vigilant on patrols.”

While my contributions may matter little in this conflict, there are some recommendations for the strategic thinkers that seem to be more or less prima facie obvious and sensible.  I will cover a few of them.

First, regardless of what Desgrosseillier believes or would like to believe, we have so far failed to “win the hearts and minds of the people.”  Few Iraqis believe that we are fighting for them.  Marines taking bullets to the arms, side-torso and head area without returning fire or even being in a position to know where the enemy fire is coming from does not seem to be accomplishing anything useful.  Patrols in which Marines take shots and never return fire are demoralizing and ineffectual at accomplishing security and stability.

Second, the Modular Tactical Vest promises to remedy the weaknesses of the Interceptor body armor design, closing the gaps in the protective plates along the side torso.  These MTVs cannot be gotten to the front soon enough.

Third, there are technological advances that will assist the Marines and Soldiers to determine sniper locations in the confusing auditory landscape of urban areas.  This equipment – along with the personnel who can teach others to operate it – should be rushed to the front as quickly as possible.

But these points are of secondary or even tertiary importance compared to the changes in tactics that need to be implemented.

More to the point, only a guerrilla can defeat a guerrilla.  A foot patrol which cannot ascertain enemy location in urban areas has no more chance to defeat the guerrillas than did the forces of General Cornwallis to defeat the guerrilla forces and tactics of Francis Marion in the swamps and flatlands of South Carolina.  General Chiarelli has called for countersniper teams to engage the enemy.  But this still does not seem to be the change in tactics that is needed.  There are not enough countersnipers to effect change in the state of affairs.

While the Counterinsurgency Field Manual doesn’t contain the word sniper, the Small Wars Manual does, at least once.  In Section 4-3(c), it says “The rifle is an extremely accurate shoulder weapon.  In the hands of an expert rifle shot (sniper) it is the most important weapon of the combat units.

This is an interesting statement, and while dated, brings to mind a number of things concerning the nature of Marine training.  The Unites States Marine Corps is the only branch of the military in the world which requires qualification with the rifle at 500 yards.  Urban areas don’t have distance considerations that require snipers on the level of Carlos Hathcock.  Each and every Marine should be able to operate as a sniper — or a countersniper.

Following the counsel of Sun Tzu, we should not be fighting the snipers.  We should be fighting their strategy.  If there are spotters for the snipers, the investigative work needs to be done to determine who they are.  When they are found, once again following the counsel of Sun Tzu, they should be treated kindly.  We should purchase them and use their services rather than injure them or in any way lose their trust.

If there are regularly scheduled combat patrols that allow the snipers to plan their activities, these schedules should be changed, and changed again, and then again.  If the sniper and his spotter are known to be in an area, Marines should be dispatched in night time operations to find concealment from which they can then observe enemy movements the next day, or two, or three.  This last suggestion is the most radical, since it involves the breakup of squads and possibly even fire teams, and the decentralization of command and control.  Further, there is the problem of training.  Only a few Marines have been trained to be “Recon” Marines.

But these tactics (i.e., decentralized command and control, concealment of guerrillas, significant lattitude given to small teams of fighters, long periods of time without direct communication with command) are exactly the tactics used by Hezbollah to fight the ground forces of the IDF to a draw in southern Lebanon.  It is doubtful that the Hezbollah guerrillas had received anything like the training received by U.S. Marines, and the typical Marine should be able to function quite nicely for a couple of days under concealment in homes, ditches, and on roof tops.  A few MREs and a Ghillie suit might enable a Marine to stay in the field long enough to find one of these snipers or spotters.  When the enemy snipers become aware of the fact that they are being watched, and some of their brethren have been sniped, the U.S. will be on the way to winning the battle.

If the suggestion that U.S. forces take on guerrilla tactics seems amateurish and unable to be implemented, then the reader is left to construct his own solution.  According to the New York Times article, “Across Iraq, the threat has become serious enough that in late October the military held an internal conference about it, sharing the experiences of combat troops and discussing tactics to counter it. There has been no ready fix.”  Conditions are certainly no better than they were last October, and statistics prove that they are worse.  Since there has been no ‘ready fix’, the counsel I have given here is certainly no worse than the counsel to “be more vigilant on patrols,” which is similar to the counsel in American industry to “do more with less” and “work smarter, not harder.”  It is meaningless and no one listens to it.

All warfare is based on deception. If your enemy is superior, evade him. If angry, irritate him. If equally matched, fight and if not: split and re-evaluate.”

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  • Chris

    From my point of view, create Marine and Army Guerrilla teams. We have this in the form Recon Marines, and possbily Rangers for the Army. However, the military should create teams exactly for guerrilla combat. The Marine Raider teams from WWII could also be brought back to fight the insurgents and snipers at their own game. In addition, special forces, and seals could be used. There are many options available, and the military just needs to pick one.

  • BOB X from TEXAS

    The total destruction of any neighborhood that allows an enemy sniper to operate should commence after the first shot is taken.

  • anonymous

    We had quiet a problem with snipers where I was deployed. And I’m talking about snipers, not small arms fire. From about 15 minutes on in a neighborhood, we could be expected to be sniped. A few times it was down to 5 minutes in a neighborhood before well placed shots. As far as we figured, we were either followed in cars (this was a big city in Iraq) or the neighbors would call up as soon as we started a dismounted patrol. My feeling is that to catch a sniper, you need a company sized element with aerial support on stanby. One patrol element goes into a neighborhood to bait the sniper, while the other elements are a few, maybe 2-3 minutes away, perhaps concealed, ready to lock down the neighborhood and then sweep through it, looking for weapons and doing the hand wipe tests on all males. However, this is incredibly man power intensive and we just don’t have the numbers.

    As for your suggestions:
    Body armor: They’re using API rounds, which can/do go through Humvee doors. So body armor…

    Guerilla tactics: This requires support or acquiecense from the population, which we don’t have. Someone will dime those teams out, or spot them, as it’s very difficult to emplace for any time in a neighborhood (even at night). People just figure out where you are, not always, but enough time. So then two things happen: the snipers/IED emplacers move to where you are not, or they wait for those emplaced elements to move out and hit you. Also, you again draw a lot of combat power for the QRF. Now if you let the teams go without contact and move at will, they’re going to get ambushed and killed. And a whole team killed or captured like that, well, it’s not good.

    Also, those electronic find the shooter gizmos aren’t very good. Schedules are changed, but there are only so many exits out of a FOB, so they can track you. And finding spotters is so difficult because all they may have is a cell phone and then you can never be sure and you have nothing to hold them for.

    Bottom line: We need more troops but of course have nowhere to get them from. Everything we need to do is very manpower intensive.

  • Herschel Smith

    anonymous,

    I don’t like to leave anonymous comments. I would rather have a name and valid e-mail address. I never divulge this information.

    Regarding what you are saying, it seems doubtful that ALL of the snipers are shooting API (for the readers, this is armor piercing incendiary) rounds, since the article at the NYT makes no sense in that case. Why would the snipers spoken of by the Marines in the article be aiming for the gaps in body armor if they all had been shooting API that could go through Humvee doors?

    At any rate, I do not doubt the viability of the suggestion you make in the first paragraph, but concerning manpower, there are plenty of places to get the troops from. U.S. policy has to recognize the need and make the changes. Take the troops from Europe, and from Japan. Let Japan defend itself and it will rearm. Europe is not in danger and we have no business spending the capital to defend those countries.

  • anonymous

    Sorry for the anon comments, but I’m active duty (grunt), have only my AKO email and am going back to iraq in a couple of months, so with all this bull about chain of command looking at what you publish online and DoD reading websites looking for military postings, I’d rather not.
    As for API, I didn’t mean all use it. In our area, this may was when we started seeing them. Those SAPI plates were mixed successes against the rounds, depending on the angle and speed of the round. As for going through Humvee doors, sorry, I meant penetrate them, I’ve seen at least 1/2″ penetration, and one stopped by the last kevlar layer in the doors. I did see a round cut clean through a humvee turret though.
    Why the Marines don’t have the rounds used against them I don’t know. Maybe they’re not widely available or more expensive, or maybe they’re shooting at a closer distance than they did with as (as a rule, 250-350 meters), so they can aim more precisely. We had a lot of head level shots.
    And by troops, of course we technically have the numbers, but I meant that at this point, the kind of re-organization neccessary to get them into the fight just isn’t going to happen.

  • http://www.fumento.com Michael Fumento

    Snipers are bad news, to be sure. 1/506th in Camp Corregidor, Ramadi lost two journalists to snipers (wounded, not dead), which is all the more startling considering how few journalists go to Ramadi much less any given FOB like Corregidor. My physical training for my last trip comprised primarily running in full body armor, because armor and speed are your best protection against snipers. All that said, consider this: True guerrillas need some sort of support from the people, even if it’s gained through fear rather than similar ideology or family relations or whatever. The sniper needs only a decent rifle and his own abilities. The perceived need for an increase in snipers could well represent a concession that the guerrillas are having increased difficulties. I have an upcoming article on Ramadi that indicates that at least in that city, this is indeed the case.

  • murf

    Inside the Ring
    By Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough
    November 17, 2006

    Sniper threat
    Military officials often say the insurgents in Iraq are a “learning enemy” — able to adapt to tactics and defenses used by U.S. and allied troops.
    As defenses against improvised explosive devices improve, insurgents are turning to sniper attacks.
    One technique they apparently learned from the United States is the method used by murderers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who terrorized the Washington, D.C., area in 2002. Muhammad and Malvo killed 10 persons and wounded several others by firing rifle shots through a hole in the trunk of their 1990 Chevrolet Caprice.
    Now the insurgents in Baghdad are using the same technique. Military officials recently discovered 40 vehicles modified for sniper attacks. The vehicles had holes drilled through the sockets for two taillight bulbs. “One hole was for the scope and one was for the barrel,” a defense official tells us, who noted that they appear to have picked up the technique from the D.C. snipers.

  • Sabre Ghost

    Why send More people to the slaughter, Retrain the snipers in extensive Counter-Sniper Techniques, and let the snipers take them out. After all the Most effective way to get a sniper, is with another. that or u just bomb the whole city….

  • Ashley

    I am the gf of sgt leach & i came across this just browsing….i have to say i have learned more about the whol NYT article and its purpose — I know jes will be sure to have alook at this when he comes back

    semper fi,
    ash

  • OEF Vet

    Hersh,

    Using API is not all that important when most of the shots are taking place under 200M and they are aiming for the exposed parts of the body.

    I’m a “school trained” sniper and I’ve reviewed all of the insurgent sniper videos I can find on the internet and all the successful ones are aiming for the neck, face and exposed head or for the sides and armpit.

    Why would the snipers spoken of by the Marines in the article be aiming for the gaps in body armor if they all had been shooting API that could go through Humvee doors?

    I’d never shoot at a vehicle… just the people.
    (Unless using a .50 cal or larger – then its a different scenario and tactics.)

    The shooter waits for the people to get out in the open, shoot one, and then displace to another position or lay low until the targets think you are gone then fire again.

    The posters suggestion is a good one but I’ve been in the miltiary for over 16 years and he is right.

    We are short handed and running on a thin margin with little true and sustainable “reserve”.

    “…but concerning manpower, there are plenty of places to get the troops from…Europe…Japan…”

    I know of no signifigant #’s of troops in Japan or Europe that we could pull.

    Most troops that are in europe are deploying as much and often as the stateside troops.

    And as far as japan.. what are you talking about? Do you mean Korea? We have #’s of troops in korea but not Japan. I think we should reduce our committment there.

    My feeling is that to catch a sniper, you need a company sized element with aerial support on stanby. One patrol element goes into a neighborhood to bait the sniper, while the other elements are a few, maybe 2-3 minutes away, perhaps concealed, ready to lock down the neighborhood and then sweep through it, looking for weapons and doing the hand wipe tests on all males.

    Good idea – workable and what a sniper would fear. Lock ‘em down and sweep the area. Check every MAM for gunshot residue that we come across.

    However, this is incredibly man power intensive and we just don’t have the numbers.

    Unfortunately this administration didnt have the brains, foresight or balls to push for an increase of the Army and Marines back right after 9/11 like they should have when they still had the support of the Congress and the US voters.

    U.S. policy has to recognize the need and make the changes.

    It’s not the policy so much as this administration.
    Their is as new COIN manual out. This damn thing should have been worked on back in the spring of 2002.

    The “leaders” need to start paying attention… this is a neck deep COIN war. And whether we want to admit it or not, it is.

    Europe is not in danger and we have no business spending the capital to defend those countries.

    We are not defending them, we are continuing to use the bases we paid huge sums of money to build and maintain as forward staging areas which are useful.

    You apparently do not grasp how huge the log train is for OEF and OIF, especially the airlift aspect.

    Aircraft, C17s and C5s and such coming out of Dover and other points CONUS fly over to Europe (UK and Germany) and stop to refuel, repair, change crews, upload/download cargo and such… if we didn’t have those places it’d be incredibly difficult to get all the supplies and troops to theater.

    When we lost K2 in ’05 it made keeping the boys in Afghanistan much, much harder (but not impossible) to keep supplied.

    Their is a new COIN manual out – check it out – its far past due.

  • Herschel Smith

    OEF Vet,

    I would like to get a valid e-mail address from you. The one you left is bouncing.

  • http://www.op-for.com Charlie B.

    First of all, stop the madness with the body armor. Last deployment our combat load was well past the point where it began to have a negative impact on our combat effectiveness. I think OEF Vet would agree, the best defenses for conventional troops against snipers are TTPs such as “cutting squares” and satellite patrolling. However, the physical exhaustion caused by patrolling with excessive weight makes soldiers and Marines tired and complacent. That in turn makes them easier targets, and enables muj snipers to sight in on gaps in armor coverage. Wise words from LtCol Bright, CO of 2d Recon Bn, “Soldiers load has gone beyond the realm of sanity.”

    There have been conferences held by the services to disseminate successful tactics. The Marine Corps had one recently. 3/5′s sniper platoon had a very successful tour this year, and those lessons learned are being distributed to other battalions. The sniper threat can never be completely eliminated, but the military is working to reduce it. However, I think we are going the wrong direction with body armor. The focus needs to on developing and disseminating tactical solutions.

  • slappy

    After reviewing other suggestions about how to curtail enemy sniper success, Ive come to the conclusion that a major cause is the prohibition of indirect fire support in urban settings. If we were allowed to lob more 81′s 60′s and howitzers into suspected sniper hides I bet wed take out some spotters and snipers and would demoralize the ones that escape the bombardment of mortars and artillary. Another suggestion would be to make it mandatory to board up all upper level windows like crack houses in areas commonly patrolled by US troops.


You are currently reading "Snipers Having Tragic Success Against U.S. Troops", entry #372 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,Small Wars,Snipers,Weapons and Tactics and was published November 9th, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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