The Sniper Threat and USA Today Hit Piece

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 10 months ago

IEDs have received their due attention, but with the exception of web sites like this one, sniper attacks have been somewhat overlooked in the press in terms of troop risk and force protection.  The Department of Defense knows about the risk, and has requested supplemental funding to decrease the risk for fiscal year 2008.

The dangers from enemy sniper attacks have increased steadily during the past year, with the number of attacks quadrupling. These attacks have not only caused numerous casualties, but have had an adverse psychological effect on both Coalition forces and the Iraqi civilian populace. Victims in sniper incidents have a fatality rate of over 70 percent. A shift in enemy tactics that increases the number of sniper attacks could potentially inflict even more casualties than IEDs. To guard against such a shift, the Amendment includes $1.4 billion for a full suite of counter-sniper capabilities designed to prevent, survive, and react to sniper attacks. This includes enhanced optics, soldier protection, active sniper defeat systems, sensors, concealment, and development of new tactics.

Tens of millions of people were walking to work a few days after this was released and glanced over at the newspaper stands seeing USA Today charge the Pentagon with falsification of data regarding the sniper threat in Iraq.

The Pentagon has asked Congress for $1.4 billion in emergency spending to combat a growing threat of sniper attacks in Iraq based on an overstated assessment of the extent of the attacks, its records show.

In last week’s spending request, the Pentagon said sniper attacks have quadrupled in the past year and, if unchecked, the attacks could eclipse roadside bombs as the top killer of U.S. troops. However, the rate of sniper attacks has dropped slightly in 2007 and fallen dramatically in the past four months, according to military records given to USA TODAY.

Pentagon officials acknowledged the mistake Monday after questions about the data were raised by USA TODAY.

“The term quadrupled will be removed from the justification because it is simply incorrect,” said Dave Patterson, deputy undersecretary of Defense.

In 2006, there were 386 sniper attacks on coalition forces, according to data from the Multi-National Force-Iraq headquarters in Iraq. Through Oct. 26 of this year, there were 269 sniper attacks, the figures show.

Noah Shachtman at Danger Room responded to his initial discussion of this with nevermind, and various left leaning blogs jumped on the opportunity to charge the Pentagon with dishonesty.  But should Noah have stuck to his guns, and do the left leaning blogs have something to crow about?  The answer is certainly not nevermind.

Spook at In From the Cold has an interesting analysis of the data given to USA Today.

First, let’s examine the so-called “rate of attacks” cited by the paper. In 2007, the military reported 386 sniper attacks against coalition forces in Iraq, an average of just over one per day. Through 26 October of this year, there have been 269 sniper attacks, an average of less than one a day. But the paper also acknowledges that there has been a dramatic drop over the last four months–without acknowledging the apparent reason for the decrease, i.e., the troop surge (emphasis mine). Mistake #1.

USA Today’s second error is failing to compute the surge’s impact on the decrease in sniper attacks. Without the drop that occurred between July and October, what would the numbers look like? While it’s highly unlikely that the difference would equal a four-fold increase, it is reasonable to assume that without the surge (and the recent drop in violence), the number of sniper attacks would be on pace with last year’s total–or perhaps slightly higher. That would provide additional justification for sniper mitigation programs.

This is true, and while it calls into question the USA Today model for understanding the data, and while it is tempting to go down this analysis rabbit trail, it neglects the fundamental flaws in the article.  Consider the number again: 269 sniper attacks.  So precisely what constitutes a sniper attack, according to the Multinational Force data?  Deaths of U.S. servicemen is routinely reported as something like “Multinational Force West forces attacked,” for example.  If attacks means deaths or casualties, then the data necessitates consideration of a host of things other than sniper risk, such as the success of the surge, overall success of Operation Iraqi Freedom, combat operations, both planned and intelligence-driven, etc.  Any Soldier or Marine in a hot spot in Iraq knows that the value of 269 doesn’t come close to representing the number of shots taken by an individual Platoon or Company during deployment, much less the entirety of the U.S. forces in Iraq.  This number is so low that even the USA Today reporter should have questioned the use of it to prove anything, much less the extent of the sniper threat in Iraq.

Moreover, while it is easy to define an IED, we may ask the question “how do we define a sniper attack?”  Would the definition of “fire received from a position of concealment with U.S. forces lacking positive identification (PID) of the enemy” suffice?  If so, then the vast majority of small arms fire in Iraq is sniper fire, at least initially, given the military operations on urban terrain (MOUT).

Semantics cloud the issue and precise definitions elude us.  It is simple enough to parse U.S. risk into two cause categories: IEDs and small arms fire (whether they immediately redound to casualties or not).  The Department of Defense, although lethargic to respond, now has a robust program of MRAPs and other equipment to address the IED problem.  While there are various gadgets that the DoD is investigating, the solution to the sniper problem seems to have three avenues of approach: time, distance and shielding.  Distance is a difficult tactic to leverage to our advantage, since urban terrain presents the closest combat operations anywhere on earth.  The two remaining avenues are time and shielding.

Time may be dealt with at the tactical level by maneuvers such as satellite patrols, modifications and variations on satellite patrols, rapid movement, concealment, etc.  But regardless of how small a Soldier or Marine makes himself, small arms fire is a difficult problem, and as we have covered here, shooters have learned to aim for areas not covered by ceramic ballistic plates (head, neck, and armpits just above the side ESAPI plate, especially if it is sagging because of being hung with Molle straps).  Terry Nickelson, previously embedded with Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, reported recently from Fallujah.

Movement – and staying behind cover — is the best defense against snipers.  They dash across intersections and run across fields and vacant lots filled with rubble all the while zigging and zagging, bobbing and weaving, and turning and pivoting to make themselves as difficult targets as possible.  With all the extra movement – and weight – crossing a 100 meter vacant lot can become a 200 meter broken field lung-burster …

It was during a similar patrol a week or so earlier that a Marine from Golf Company was on the roof of a similar house and — with a sudden,  small spark as a bullet flew through the back of his kevlar helmet –  was killed.  According to his friends, he was what he wanted to be – a Marine …

One insurgent sniper has a signature shot: the bullet piercing both the neck and the mouth of his targets.  He is credited with several kills.  Intelligence officers believe that a rogue American has trained him and other insurgents.

Body armor is heavy, and an Australian soldier was recently killed in Afghanistan because the mission stipulated quick maneuverability.  Shielding requires that the warrior wear the armor, and it requires maneuverability, something suffering under the weight of 32 pounds of armor with the current system.  Moreover, ballistic plate coverage needs to be larger, but this requires investment and research in order to keep the weight down so that the warrior can physically move in the battlespace.

And thus we are back to where we started.  In order to formulate an article on funding for countersniper measures, USA Today likely threatened to complete the paperwork for a freedom of information act request.  They summed a few numbers supplied by Multinational Force command, and proceeded to craft a hit piece to put in front of millions of people.  Yet the definitions are imprecise, the data close to meaningless, and the article is without research.  The author of the article has likely never worn body armor, or taken fire from a concealed location, or stepped into a street filled with fire to run for the next domicile, or stood on the roof of a house firing a squad automatic weapon to provide suppressing fire for his fire team or squad to escape danger.

The article’s author – Tom Vanden Brook – knows nothing of being in the line of fire.  It would be appropriate for him to grab a camera, put on some body armor, and report from the field before he implies that U.S. warriors are not suffering from a “sniper” problem or that funds are not needed.  Even if the Pentagon goofed on the data (which we have stated to be irrelevant to the case in point), fire from concealment will be a problem into the future not only in Iraq, but in the forgotten war, Afghanistan.  In the mean time, the USA Today article is worthless until Tom goes into the field to get his facts straight.

Prior:

TCJ, Snipers.

TCJ, Body Armor.




You are currently reading "The Sniper Threat and USA Today Hit Piece", entry #753 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Body Armor,Iraq,Snipers and was published November 1st, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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