Unleash the Snipers!

BY Herschel Smith
8 years ago

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 – Herschel Smith, November 9, 2006

U.S. Sniper Nest

U.S. Sniper Nest in Karma, Iraq, Courtesy of the New York Times

I have long been a follower of the use of snipers, Carlos Hathcock probably being the premier shooter in the history of snipers.  It was with great chagrin that I wrote Snipers Having Tragic Success Against U.S. Troops.  This post followed the tragic tale of insurgent snipers and their work in Iraq, primarily in Sunni controlled areas (although also present in Baghdad and beyond).

The insurgents lose every stand-up fight in which they engage U.S. troops, so they have transitioned to asymmeteric warfare, shooting from positions of concealment, and learning the weaknesses of the body armor worn by the U.S.  More particularly, the insurgents have learned to aim for unprotected parts of Marines and Soldiers, specifically, the head, neck and armpits (the later due to the fact that there are definite gaps in the SAPI plates, or Small Arms Protective Inserts, along the lateral torso, an issue I covered in Snipers and Body Armor).

This post took on a life of its own, and comments ranged from the hint to “destroy everything” to the implication that “there isn’t anything we can do about it because all of your suggestions will fail.”  So it might be helpful to rehearse the core of my recommendations for dealing with the insurgent snipers.

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 … 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.

I ended the post with the admonition that if my suggestions seemed amateurish, the reader could suggest his own, because no answer was forthcoming from the military strategists.  I didn’t say so in this post, but I have elsewhere argued that the ROE hampers U.S. troops, and that the ROE are in need of revision to adopt a more robust approach to the conflict.

I do not retract, alter, or otherwise modify my recommendations, especially in light of the most recent article on U.S. Snipers and ROE in Iraq, from the New York Times, Perfect Killing Method, but Clear Targets are Few for Marines in Iraq.

The sniper team left friendly lines hours ahead of the sun. They were a group of marines walking through the chill, hoping to be in hiding before the mullahs’ predawn call to prayer would urge this city awake.

They reached an abandoned building. Two marines stepped inside, swept the ground floor and signaled to the others to follow them to the flat roof, where they crawled to spots along its walls in which they had previously chiseled out small viewing holes.

Out came their gear: a map, spotting scopes, binoculars, two-way radios and stools. The snipers took their places, peering through the holes, watching an Iraqi neighborhood from which insurgents often fire. They were hoping an insurgent would try to fire on this day. The waiting began.

If the recent pattern was any indication, the waiting could last a long time. This was this sniper team’s 30th mission in Anbar Province since early August. They had yet to fire a shot.

More than three years after the insurgency erupted across much of Iraq, sniping — one of the methods that the military thought would be essential in its counterinsurgency operations — is proving less successful in many areas of Iraq than had been hoped, Marine officers, trainers and snipers say.

In theory, Western snipers are a nearly perfect method of killing Iraq’s insurgents and thwarting their attacks, all with little risk of damaging property or endangering passers-by. But in practice, the snipers say, they are seeing fewer clear targets than previously, and are shooting fewer insurgents than expected.

In 2003, one Marine sniper killed 32 combatants in 12 days, the snipers say, and many others had double-digit kill totals during tours in Iraq. By this summer, sniper platoons with several teams had typically been killing about a dozen insurgents in seven-month tours, with totals per platoon ranging from 3 to as high as 26.

The gap between the expectations and the results has many causes, but is in part a reflection of the insurgency’s duration. With the war in its fourth year, many of the best sniping positions are already well known to the insurgents, and veteran insurgents have become more savvy and harder to kill.

In some areas of Iraq, where the insurgents are less experienced or still fight frontally, snipers have had better rates of success, including the platoon with 26 kills. But many areas, the snipers say, have become maddening places in which to hide and hunt.

“A lot of Marine battalions have rotated through these same areas for six or seven months at a time,? said Staff Sgt. Christopher D. Jones, the platoon sergeant of the Scout Sniper Platoon in the Second Battalion, Eighth Marines. “But the insurgents live here. They know almost all the best places that have been used. Before we even get here, they know where we are going to go.?

Why the failure of the countersnipers?  If a sniper is the perfect answer to another sniper, and if the U.S. has the best in the world, then what is causing the difficulty?

… some snipers now worry that the difficulties they face have been compounded by rules and conditions placed on them by senior military leaders.

Marine snipers have customarily trained to work in two-man teams who hide and stalk for days, seeking targets a half-mile or more away. Often an area might be saturated with snipers, so they can support and protect one another while confusing an enemy force with different angles of fire.

This way, according to their thinking, they can kill more enemy combatants, and sow more fear.

Those two-man teams are not allowed in Iraq, in part because of the killings of two groups of snipers earlier in the war.

In the first episode, in 2004 in Ramadi, four Marine snipers were killed without firing a shot, apparently after being surprised in a shooting position in an urban area, known in sniper jargon as a hide. An investigation suggested that they had been overwhelmed and executed.

In 2005, a six-man sniper team from a Marine reserve unit was killed in Haditha. The insurgents videotaped a display of the slain team’s equipment, including a marine’s dog tags, and circulated the spectacle on the Internet.

The losses have made commanders hesitant to send out small teams, Marine officers said, a decision that many snipers said inhibits their work.

Snipers argue a counterintuitive point, saying that even though two-man teams have less firepower and fewer men, they are safer because they can hide more effectively.

Sgt. Joseph W. Chamblin, the leader of the battalion’s First Sniper Team, said the sniper community was suffering from an overreaction. “It’s sad that they got killed, but when you think about it, we’ve been here three years, going on four, and we’ve only had two teams killed,? he said. “That’s not that dramatic.?

Sergeant Chamblin killed for the first time on Nov. 10, shooting an insurgent who was putting a makeshift bomb beside a bridge near Saqlawiya, near Falluja, a spot where a similar bomb killed three marines and a translator this summer.

He said snipers were willing to assume the risk of traveling in pairs. “It’s a war,? he said. “People are going to die, and the American public needs to get over that. They need to get over that and let us do our job.?

Note well the recommendations from my earlier post: ” … significant latitude given to small teams of fighters.”  And note that the ROE inhibits the implementation of this recommendation – and also note the Marines’ objection to it.  Finally:

The military has also tightened rules of engagement as the war has progressed, toughening the requirements before a sniper may shoot an Iraqi. Potential targets must be engaged in a hostile act, or show clear hostile intent.

The marines say insurgents know the rules, and now rarely carry weapons in the open. Instead, they pose as civilians and keep their weapons concealed in cars or buildings until just before they need them. Later, when they are done shooting, they put them swiftly out of sight and mingle with civilians.

In a thematic objection to the broad strategic thinking that has led to the prolongment of this war (or lack of thinking), we will win only if we are willing to engage the enemy.  The things that makes the military comfortable – rank, lines of authority, constant reporting to superiors, minimum latitude given to lower ranks – these things must be jettisoned.  In some instances, they are merely baggage that holds the U.S. forces back.




You are currently reading "Unleash the Snipers!", entry #393 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,Snipers and was published November 23rd, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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