Archive for the 'Snipers' Category

Snipers and Asymmetric Warfare in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 1 month ago

In January of 2008 The Captain’s Journal predicted that the so-called spring offensive by the Taliban would be more asymmetric than conventional and kinetic.  True, there have been stark reminders that the Taliban, in this case the Tehrik-i-Taliban, were capable of highly conventional and kinetic engagements, such as with the battle of Wanat.  But there have also been reminders of just how badly the Taliban lose when they choose to go head-to-head in kinetic engagements with U.S. forces, such as with recent Marine Corps operations with a kill ratio of 50:0.  True to our prediction, the Taliban has gone asymmetric.

Taliban fighters increasingly are deploying precision marksmen to fire on U.S. troops at greater distances throughout southern Afghanistan, military officials say.

It marks the latest Taliban shift to asymmetrical warfare and away from confronting U.S. troops in conventional fights, according to the top two commanders for the southern region.

Instead of gathering in company-sized units to take on foreign troops, Taliban forces also are resorting increasingly to explosives attacks and bombings, which require fewer people and pose less risk to themselves, the commanders said.

Explosives attacks rose by 33 percent last year, as did deaths of coalition troops, according to the International Security Assistance Force, which leads the coalition forces stationed here.

“They are reverting to tactics that tell us they are suffering heavy losses,” said U.S. Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander for the southern regional command.

The expanded use of precision marksmen comes as the fighting shifts from eastern Afghanistan to the south, where the Taliban are trying to protect opium production, which is reputed to be their economic base. The number of coalition troops killed in southern Afghanistan has increased sharply in the past two months.

So far, shooters have made use of long-barrel rifles, not specialized sniper weapons, and Nicholson said there was no indication that Taliban forces had trained snipers. Instead, they take advantage of the rough terrain to shoot at troops safely from afar, he said.

If the Taliban develop a corps of snipers, it would mark a major shift for U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan. When snipers began appearing in Iraq’s once-restive Anbar province in 2005, U.S. troops had a difficult time protecting themselves from attacks and began wearing more armor.

At one point, Iraqi insurgent groups began filming their sniper attacks, and the images of Marines falling to them became a rallying point for the insurgency.

Thus has the highly touted focus on high value targets and small footprint in Afghanistan come to ruin.  Satellite patrols don’t help in open terrain like they would in urban environs.  Body armor relies mainly on the SAPI plates for high power rounds, and the coverage area of the plates is fixed.

Combating snipers requires counterinsurgency practices, a larger footprint, and a true commitment to winning both the human and physical terrain.  The Taliban has learned from their conventional experiences, and while it is a sign of U.S. superiority that the Taliban has turned to sniping, it’s also a sign of Operation Enduring Freedom passing from one phase to another.  Counterinsurgency is necessary, and troops are required.

The Sniper Threat and USA Today Hit Piece

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 3 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.


TCJ, Snipers.

TCJ, Body Armor.

The End of Snipers

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 5 months ago

In Concerning Snipers, Rules of Engagement and General Kearney, we discussed sniping being mainly an offensive operation, a notion fairly well removed from the framework of rules for the use of force and rules of engagement which focus on force escalation and allowable responses for self defense and force protection.  The Washington Post published an article today that is sure to turn heads and educe the righteous indignation of the establishment.

A Pentagon group has encouraged some U.S. military snipers in Iraq to target suspected insurgents by scattering pieces of “bait,” such as detonation cords, plastic explosives and ammunition, and then killing Iraqis who pick up the items, according to military court documents.

The classified program was described in investigative documents related to recently filed murder charges against three snipers who are accused of planting evidence on Iraqis they killed.

“Baiting is putting an object out there that we know they will use, with the intention of destroying the enemy,” Capt. Matthew P. Didier, the leader of an elite sniper scout platoon attached to the 1st Battalion of the 501st Infantry Regiment, said in a sworn statement. “Basically, we would put an item out there and watch it. If someone found the item, picked it up and attempted to leave with the item, we would engage the individual as I saw this as a sign they would use the item against U.S. Forces.”

From a tactical standpoint, this would seem to be a fairly dubious approach, meaning that we cannot see a way to gauge success (perhaps an insurgent is picking up the weapons for the purpose of harm to U.S. forces, or perhaps rather than an insurgent, he is the head of a family picking up ammunition for the purpose of use with the single AK-47 he is allowed to have for self and home defense – how would we know?).  However, here at TCJ, we smell a rat.  Will enlisted men and lower level officers go down for programs born and nurtured way above their rank?

In documents obtained by The Washington Post from family members of the accused soldiers, Didier said members of the U.S. military’s Asymmetric Warfare Group visited his unit in January and later passed along ammunition boxes filled with the “drop items” to be used “to disrupt the AIF [Anti-Iraq Forces] attempts at harming Coalition Forces and give us the upper hand in a fight” …

Soldiers said that about a dozen platoon members were aware of the program, and that numerous others knew about the “drop items” but did not know their purpose. Two soldiers who had not been officially informed about the program came forward with allegations of wrongdoing after they learned they were going to be punished for falling asleep on a sniper mission, according to the documents.

Army officials declined to discuss the classified program, details of which appear in unclassified investigative documents and in transcripts of court testimony. Criminal investigators wrote that they found materials related to the program in a white cardboard box and an ammunition can at the sniper unit’s base.

“We don’t discuss specific methods targeting enemy combatants,” said Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman. “The accused are charged with murder and wrongfully placing weapons on the remains of Iraqi nationals. There are no classified programs that authorize the murder of local nationals and the use of ‘drop weapons’ to make killings appear legally justified.”

There is the rat that stunk so badly, served up to us from an “Army spokesman.”  Of course there are no programs authorizing the “murder” of local nationals.  Sniping the enemy is not murder.  The responsible low level officer explained exactly the purpose of the weapons, i.e., as “bait.”  Whether this is an effective approach can be debated (we called it dubious).  But the argument has been framed by the “Army spokesman” in a way that presupposes that no one in higher levels of leadership would have approved this and thus these men concocted the tactic all on their own.  It must be the fault of the lower ranking officers and enlisted men, the “spokesman” implies.

As for placing items near the bodies of alleged insurgents to justify kills, the story gets somewhat murky.

Spec. Jorge Sandoval and Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley are accused by the military of placing a spool of wire into the pocket of an Iraqi man Sandoval had shot on April 27 on Hensley’s order. The man had been cutting grass with a rusty sickle when he was shot, according to court documents.

The military alleges that the killing of the man carrying the sickle was inappropriate. Hensley and Sandoval have been charged with murder and with planting evidence.

As Sandoval and Hensley approached the corpse, according to testimony and court documents, they allegedly placed a spool of wire, often used by insurgents to detonate roadside bombs, into the man’s pocket in an attempt to make the case for the kill ironclad.

One soldier who came forward with the allegations, Pfc. David C. Petta, told the same court that he believed the classified items were for dropping on people the unit had killed, “to enforce if we killed somebody that we knew was a bad guy but we didn’t have the evidence to show for it.” Petta had not been officially briefed about the program.

In The Sniper of Tarmiyah, we advocated distributed operations and latitude for snipers to engage insurgents even if they were not brandishing a weapon or actively engaged in hostilities (this leaves a significant amount of latitude to the shooter and his NCOs who need to be trained to make these judgments).  So under our schema, the “evidence” would never have been necessary and thus would not have been “planted.”  To be clearer, while at TCJ we doubt the effectiveness of a plan that baits insurgents due to lack of certainty of who has been killed, we support the idea of snipers being given latitude to shoot outside of the strictures of self defense.

The Pentagon doesn’t buy into our schema, and so we are left with snipers feeling as though they need to “justify” kills in order to save themselves from prosecution.  In the end, who will pay for this program?

Vela’s father, Curtis Carnahan, said he thinks the military is rushing the cases and is holding the proceedings in a war zone to shield facts from the U.S. public.

“It’s an injustice that is being done to them,” Carnahan said. “I feel like you can’t prosecute our soldiers for acts of war and threaten them with years and years of confinement when this program, if it comes to the light of day, was clearly coming from higher levels. . . . All those people who said ‘go use this stuff’ just disappeared, like they never sanctioned it.”

Certainly not the brass.  Let’s be clear here about what is happening.  In Concerning Snipers, Rules of Engagement and General Kearney, we provided a link to the book White Feather, the authorized biography of Marine Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock who had 93 confirmed sniping kills in the Vietnam war, more than any other in military history, and who to this day serves as an inspiration from the grave for all new sniper trainees in the Army and Marines.

Carlos Hathcock is the shining example of distributed operations.  He was alone in the field for long periods of time, his decisions were tried and true, his investment in the kill extreme, and his knowledge of the enemy impeccable.  This is the model for sniping, and as a military tactic, it brings risk – and conversely, very high payoff.

While not all snipers will be equivalent to Carlos Hathcock (perhaps none will), the problem is that we are witnessing the end of sniping as a military tactic.  The rules of engagement prevent targeting the enemy in Iraq or Afghanistan if they do not fall within the precise stipulations (e.g., self defense, engaged in hostile acts, etc.).  Within the current framework, we may as well end the sniper schools and rely on standard service rifle training of infantry.  The number of sniping kills due to defensive operations doesn’t justify the expense of the schools.

The military establishment knows that many of the kills by past snipers such as Carlos Hathcock did not meet these stipulations.  They know that there has been a sea change in the cultural acceptability of these necessary military tactics, and use of them – or failure to punish people who use them – could be career-ending for top brass.  In this case, the top brass is running for cover and the lower ranks are left hanging out to dry, even when their plans were approved by top brass.  Carlos Hathcock may have been heroic and an interesting and admirable artifact of military history, but sadly, his day is coming to an end.

Concerning Snipers, Rules of Engagement and General Kearney

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 5 months ago

Problem Statement

From all appearances, two more soldiers will be in military court defending their actions in battle due to the current rules of engagement – or [mis]application of them.  From the New York Times:

FORT BRAGG, N.C., Sept. 17 — From his position about 100 yards away, Master Sgt. Troy Anderson had a clear shot at the Afghan man standing outside a residential compound in a village near the Pakistan border last October. When Capt. Dave Staffel, the Special Forces officer in charge, gave the order to shoot, Sergeant Anderson fired a bullet into the man’s head, killing him.

In June, Captain Staffel and Sergeant Anderson were charged with premeditated murder. On Tuesday, in a rare public examination of the rules that govern the actions of Special Operations troops in Afghanistan, a military hearing will convene at Fort Bragg to weigh the evidence against the two men, both Green Berets.

The case revolves around differing interpretations of the kind of force that the Special Forces team that hunted and killed the man, Nawab Buntangyar, were allowed to use once they found him, apparently unarmed.

To the Special Forces soldiers and their 12-man detachment, the shooting, near the village of Ster Kalay, was a textbook example of a classified mission completed in accordance with the American rules of engagement. They said those rules allowed the killing of Mr. Buntangyar, whom the American Special Operations Command here has called an “enemy combatant.?

Mr. Buntangyar had organized suicide and roadside bomb attacks, Captain Staffel’s lawyer said.

But to the two-star general in charge of the Special Operations forces in Afghanistan at the time, Frank H. Kearney, who has since become a three-star general, the episode appeared to be an unauthorized, illegal killing. In June, after two military investigations, General Kearney moved to have murder charges brought against Captain Staffel and Sergeant Anderson — respectively, the junior commissioned and senior noncommissioned officers of Operational Detachment Alpha 374, Third Battalion, Third Special Forces Group.

The soldiers’ cases also highlight the level of scrutiny that General Kearney, who also ordered swift investigations into an elite Marine unit accused of killing Afghan civilians last March, has given to the actions of some of the most specialized and independent American troops fighting Taliban and insurgent forces along the border with Pakistan.

Mark Waple, a civilian lawyer representing Captain Staffel, said the charges against his client and Sergeant Anderson carry a whiff of “military politics.? In an interview, Mr. Waple said that General Kearney proceeded with murder charges against the two soldiers even after an investigation by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command concluded in April that the shooting had been “justifiable homicide? …

On Oct. 13, 2006, when Captain Staffel learned that Mr. Buntangyar could be found in a home near the village where his detachment was guarding a medical convoy, he ordered a seven-man team to investigate the tip.

Driving toward Ster Kalay in two government vans, the Americans called the Afghan national police and border patrol officers to assist them, Mr. Waple said. Mr. Buntangyar had already been “vetted as a target? by American commanders, as an enemy combatant who could be legally killed once he was positively identified, Mr. Waple said.

After the Afghan police called Mr. Buntangyar outside and twice asked him to identify himself, they signaled, using a prearranged hand gesture, to Sergeant Anderson, concealed with a rifle about 100 yards away, Mr. Waple said.

From a vehicle a few hundred yards farther away, Captain Staffel radioed Sergeant Anderson, Mr. Waple said. “If you have a clear shot,? he told the sergeant, “take it.?

Confirming the order, Sergeant Anderson fired once, killing Mr. Buntangyar. The American team drove to the village center to explain to the local residents, “This is who we are, this is what we just did and this is why we did it,? Mr. Waple said …

Also scheduled to testify is Sgt. First Class Scott R. Haarer, a paralegal on General Kearney’s staff last October who, as part of the military justice procedure, signed the forms that charged Captain Staffel and Sergeant Anderson with murder.

In a notarized statement, Sergeant Haarer told defense lawyers last week that he would not have accused the soldiers of any crime if he had known that the Criminal Investigation Command had determined that the shooting was justified.

Analysis & Commentary

We have only the facts before us with which to form judgments, but this case can be instructive irrespective of its final disposition because it wraps a number of elements together in a manner that forces us to face difficult questions on the nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and conflicts in which we will be engaged in the future.

In our extensive coverage of rules of engagement, the comments and discussion (and ensuing e-mail communications) usually focus first on how heavy-handed rules of engagement creates more insurgents than it kills, then moves on to our dutiful obedience to the Law of Armed Conflict and various international treaties, and then sometimes devolves into commenters asserting certain pejorative things about the intelligence level of either the article author or other commenters.  There are notable and shining exceptions.

Slab at OpFor (an active duty Marine Captain) and I concurred over an article I wrote entitled Recon by Fire, in which I linked YouTube video of combat action in the Anbar Province showing a tactic that was designed to kill known insurgents while also protecting the lives of Marines, while also causing at least one noncombatant casualty.  This video is highly recommended, and is important for understanding the issue of snipers simply for one reason: it involved an offensive rather than a defensive battle space posture.  I will return to this idea later.

It is important to get the origins of the issue correct, including consideration of the cultural milieu and legal backdrop.  In Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), the SCOTUS (White, Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell and Stevens, with O’Conner and Rehnquist dissenting) weighed the use of deadly force for the apprehension of criminals:

The intrusiveness of a seizure by means of deadly force is unmatched. The suspect’s fundamental interest in his own life need not be elaborated upon. The use of deadly force also frustrates the interest of the individual, and of society, in judicial determination of guilt and punishment. Against these interests are ranged governmental interests in effective law enforcement.  It is argued that overall violence will be reduced by encouraging the peaceful submission of suspects who know that they may be shot if they flee.

The decision would change the face of law enforcement across the nation (even for those police departments who had already implemented something like the SCOTUS decision into policy):

Without in any way disparaging the importance of these goals, we are not convinced that the use of deadly force is a sufficiently productive means of accomplishing them to justify the killing of nonviolent suspects. Cf. Delaware v. Prouse, supra, at 659. The use of deadly force is a self-defeating way of apprehending a suspect and so setting the criminal justice mechanism in motion. If successful, it guarantees that that mechanism will not be set in motion. And while the meaningful threat of deadly force might be thought to lead to the arrest of more live suspects by discouraging escape attempts, the presently available evidence does not support this thesis.

This legal framework, among other things, has made its way into rules for the use of force for not only the military involved in so-called peacetime operations such as border security, but for federally-employed border guards as well (this is one reason that the border with Mexico will likely never be securred).  The notions contained in the legal framework and rules that this framework has propagated all revolve around two important faces of the same coin: force protection and self defense.  There is little consideration of offensive combat operations.

When Ramadi was particularly problematic the sniper problem was at its zenith.  The two went hand-in-hand.  In Snipers Having Tragic Success Against U.S. Troops, I covered the sniper problem in Ramadi along with potential solutions (also in the comments section): better body armor coverage (i.e., side SAPI plates that hug the body better), satellite patrols, etc.  But body armor can only weigh so much and still be carried by the Marine or Soldier, and the sniper problem must be met head on.  Therefore, I recommended distributed operations and Marine countersnipers in Unleash the Snipers!  But a problem immediately became apparent, restricting the success of Marine snipers.

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.

There are other conditions in which snipers will be left unmolested.  Michael Totten notes an instance of a sniper domicile being left in place due to its being located on top of a Mosque.  This is not dissimilar from the example Michael Fumento brought back to the states after his embed, in which sinpers were shooting from minarets and left unmolested because it was a Mosque.

Make no mistake about it, snipers are still a problem.  While the Anbar Province is all but pacified, Noah Shachtman of Danger Room was recently in Tarmiyah, where 4-9th infantry is stationed.

We’re in an ugly, overgrown village called Tarmiyah, about 25 kilometers north of Baghdad.  It is an extremely bad place.  A professional-grade sniper has been terrorizing the town, killing two members of the 4-9th Infantry Regiment stationed here, and wounding seven more.  4-9’s Comanche company, primarily responsible for holding the town, has handed out 25 Purple Hearts in just five months.  That’s about a fifth of the men in the company.  To keep from handing out more Purple Hearts, the soldiers here go out as little as possible during the day.  They do their work at night.  And they sometimes take over local houses to crash out, in between missions.

And here we have touched on the root[s] of the problem.  First, countersniper operations are offensive, having nothing to do with immediate self defense, and second, even if self defense is involved, religious locales are avoided and thus are free movement zones for the insurgents.  The rules of engagement focus on self defense and rules for the escalation of force.  And like we have seen with the Soldiers of 4-9th, failure to kill the snipers results in U.S. fatalities.

Assuming the accuracy of the story above from the two soldiers under investigation, i.e., an enemy was positively identified and a U.S. sniper went into action to get the kill, the prosecution of the soldiers involved shows that the rules of engagement – and their specific application by officers sometimes fearful of career-ending prosecution – are a reflection of the conflicted society that created them.

Society believes in the rehabilitative powers of imprisonment, and thus the prisons are overflowing in Iraq, with some prisoners released every day to make room for new detainees.  Society also believes that we are engaged in a gigantic policing operation, where Soldiers and Marines are equivalent to the local police in Anywheretown, U.S.A.  Capturing or detaining the enemy is preferred to killing him, and every chance is afforded him to surrender, many times at the expense of announcing the location and presence of U.S. troops (while Carlos Hathcock rolls over in his grave).

American society does not yet believe in the global war in which we are currently engaged, and the rules and their application mirror this uncertainty.  To some extent this is to be expected from society at large.  But when a General pushes forward with murder charges for U.S. snipers who removed an enemy from the battle space, we have reached a critical point where the enlisted men no longer trust in either their leadership or the system.  However much civilian society may be conflicted over the duties of military personnel, there is no excuse for military leadership to be conflicted.  They are supposed to be above that.


  1. The Swing of the Pendulum
  2. Warfare and Lawfare: An Unstable Alchemy
  3. Mosques, Snipers and Rules of Engagement
  4. ROE Experiences in Iraq
  5. Recon by Fire
  6. More Confusion on Rules of Engagement
  7. Rules of Engagement and Pre-Theoretical Commitments
  8. Proceduralized Rules of Engagement Prevent Engagement
  9. More Evidence Against the Rules of Engagement
  10. The NCOs Speak on Rules of Engagement
  11. Politically Correct Rules of Engagement Endanger Troops

Mosques, Snipers and Rules of Engagement

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 7 months ago

Michael Totten is in Baghdad, and while his (most recent) entire report is both interesting and highly worth reading, I want to focus in on the following words:

“They have a little bunker up there,? he continued. “You can’t see it from here, but it has sand bags and sniper netting around it.?

“What are you going to do?? I said.

“Nothing,? he said. “It’s a mosque.?

“They’re violating curfew,? I said, “and stalking us in the dark from a militarized mosque. And you aren’t going to do anything??

“Our rules of engagement say we can’t interfere in any way with a mosque unless they are shooting at us,? he said.

We left our stalker with his “co-workers? and walked away.

As interesting as this little experience is, it really is more of the same (we have reported on ROE problems for more than a year).  But the appended discussion in the comments section is equally interesting and worth thinking about.  Says someone named “Gifted” who refuses to use his real name:

I agree with the “no attacks on mosques policy.”

We have to win the civilian population over. Nothing would wreck this more than assaulting their mosques. Besides, soldiers can still shoot back if they are under attack.

This is a myth.  Quite simply, I do not believe it.  First of all, the distinction between having a sniper nest at a Mosque and actually using it to fire upon U.S. troops (so that they can then presume to return fire) is artificial and absurd.  There is no other function or purpose to a sniper nest than to be a domicile for sniper activities.  Allowing the domicile to remain is allowing the sniper to plan his kill.

Second, we have fired on Mosques more than year ago, and indeed, with tank rounds in Ramadi.  Anbar is pacified, and Baghdad is not, and this proves the point in question.  If taking out the insurgent activity in the Ramadi Mosque only served to recruit more insurgents, then pacification of Anbar could not have happened.  Also see our article Continuing Operations in Fallujah and the YouTube video linked up showing extensive and robust combat action against a minaret.  Again, Anbar is pacified, and Baghdad is not.

Finally, the writer presumes that it takes U.S. activity inside of a Mosque to recruit insurgents.  But consider what the message is when a cleric allows the sniper nest to remain atop the Mosque to begin with, i.e., “you can support killing and destabilization of our nation and still be warmly received at this Mosque.”  In other words, the message is already being given.  It needs no additional substantiation from U.S. troops.  If the snipers are not warmly received, but rather are feared for their threats, then U.S. forces should take action anyway in order to protect the clerics and citizens.

Lastly, even if “Gifted” was right about U.S. troops and combat action inside of a Mosque, this still doesn’t prevent the use of militia, police or Iraqi security forces from removing the sniper domicile.  To leave it in place is contrary to clear thinking and good sense, and is dangerous for U.S. troops (and Iraqi citizens).

The Anbar Province Reconsidered

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 2 months ago

In Where is Anbar Headed? Where are the Marines Headed?, I cited the ABC News Report that claimed that the Pentagon officials were considering a major pullback of Marines from the Anbar Province, due in part to the most recent Devlin intelligence report covered by the Washington Post.  Michael Fumento notes that the Post article stands in stark contrast to his recent experiences as an embedded reporter in Ramadi.  I said in “Where is Anbar Headed” that it looked like the U.S. was either getting out of Anbar or getting serious about Anbar.

Today General Peter Pace denied reports that the Pentagon was considering a movement of Marines out of the Anbar province.  Asked specifically whether serious consideration is being given to the idea of abandoning Al-Anbar to put more U.S. forces in Baghdad, Pace bluntly replied “no.”  “You gave me a very straight question. I gave you a very straight answer. No. Why would we want to forfeit any part of Iraq to the enemy? We don’t,” he told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.

I believe that it is important to keep balance with respect to our understanding of the Anbar Province.  Assuming that Pace is correct and that conditions and intentions don’t change, the U.S. will not abandon Anbar.  I have discussed the alignment of some of the tribes in the Anbar Province with the Iraqi government and against al Qaeda, but it is also clear that these tribes cannot secure Anbar without the help of Iraqi security forces and more particularly U.S. forces.

In Coalition, Al Qaeda and Tribes Battle in Anbar and Diyala, I covered the recent battles against al Qaeda in which tribal elements participated.

On November 25, insurgents linked to al Qaeda attacked an Anbar tribe in an alliance of twenty five tribes who have vowed to fight al Qaeda.  The insurgents attacked the Abu Soda tribe in Sofiya, near the provincial capital of Ramadi, with mortars and small arms, burning homes, in apparent revenge for their support of the Iraqi government.  “Al Qaeda has decided to attack the tribes due to their support,? said Sheikh Abdel Sittar Baziya, head of the Abu Risha tribe and a founder of the movement. “The terrorists have gone to a neighboring tribe and have brought fighters to attack the Abu Soda.?

Al Qaeda attacked through a tribal area checkpoint, and burned homes and killed tribal members using small arms and mortar fire.  Coalition forces assisted the Abu Soda tribe with air strikes and artillery fire at al Qaeda.  There is no report of coalition casualties, but fifty al Qaeda linked insurgents and nine tribesmen were killed in the battle (Reuters is reporting fifty five al Qaeda killed).  Four Iraqi civilians were evacuated to Camp Taqqadum for medical treatment for inujuries sustained during this battle.

Take note of the determinative aspect of the battle: “Coalition forces assisted the Abu Soda tribe with air strikes and artillery fire at al Qaeda.”  Without the presence of U.S. forces, I believe that the tribes would lose heart and nerve, disperse, flee to Syria (like so many of them already have), and desist offensive operations within several weeks.  Al Qaeda would own Ramadi within one month and all of Anbar within two months.

Col. Peter Devlin wrote “Although it is likely that attack levels have peaked, the steady rise in attacks from mid-2003 to 2006 indicates a clear failure to defeat the insurgency in al-Anbar.”  The Post misinterpreted this and other aspects of the report as meaning that “The U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter al-Qaeda’s rising popularity there, according to newly disclosed details from a classified Marine Corps intelligence report that set off debate in recent months about the military’s mission in Anbar province.”

This is a preposterous statement by the Post.  Regardless of what the intelligence report said or didn’t say, to assert that it is no longer possible for the most powerful nation on earth to defeat an insurgency makes the authors of the article look like rodeo clowns.  No one alive believes that it is “impossible,” not even the authors of the article.

But just as we should not overreact to the Devlin report, we should listen to it and heed its advice.  I concur with Devlin’s remarks.  The trend line for casualties in Iraq has a positive slope line (see Statistical Evaluation of Casualties in Iraq).  I have commented here in The Consequences of Inadequate Force Projection that lack of force projection, along with rules of engagement that cause our troops to be hamstrung (with Marines reporting that “A lot of us feel like we have our hands tied behind our back“), are the two most serious impediments to victory in Anbar, and in fact, all of Iraq.  With the current force projection and rules of engagement, the U.S. will not win.

As before, I say that the U.S. is getting out, or getting serious.  Getting serious requires robust rules of engagement and proper force projection.


  1. Where is Anbar Headed? Where are the Marines Headed?
  2. Coalition, Al Qaeda and Tribes Battle in Anbar and Diyala
  3. Racoon Hunting and the Battle for Anbar
  4. The Reasons the U.S. Won’t “Clear? Ramadi
  5. Demonstrations, Violence and Preparations in al Anbar Province
  6. Combat Operation Posts
  7. Regression in al Anbar Province
  8. Ramadi is Still a Troubled City
  9. Al Anbar Tribes Gives Coalition Three Divisions of Recruits
  10. Ramadi: Marines Own the Night, 3.5 Years Into Iraq War
  11. Will we Lose the Anbar Province?
  12. Haditha Sequence of Events
  13. Update on Ramadi
  14. Ramadi: Don’t Expect More Fallujah

Where is Anbar Headed? Where are the Marines Headed?

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 3 months ago

John Little has given us a tip to a breaking story about potential movement of the Marines out of Anbar altogether.  This is major … major … news.  ABC News is reporting the following (I will copy and paste at length, and then offer up [I hope] some interesting … and unique … observations):

ABC News has learned that Pentagon officials are considering a major strategic shift in Iraq, to move U.S. forces out of the dangerous Sunni-dominated al-Anbar province and join the fight to secure Baghdad.

The news comes as President Bush prepares to meet with Iraq’s president to discuss the growing sectarian violence.

There are now 30,000 U.S. troops in al-Anbar, mainly Marines, braving some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq. At least 1,055 Americans have been killed in this region, making al-Anbar the deadliest province for American troops.

The region is a Sunni stronghold and the main base of operations for al Qaeda in Iraq and has been a place of increasing frustration to U.S. commanders.

In a recent intelligence assessment, top Marine in al-Anbar, Col. Peter Devlin, concluded that without a massive infusement of more troops, the battle in al-Anbar is unwinnable.

In the memo, first reported by the Washington Post, Devlin writes, “Despite the success of the December elections, nearly all government institutions from the village to provincial levels have disintegrated or have been thoroughly corrupted and infiltrated by al Qaeda in Iraq.”

Faced with that situation in al-Anbar, and the desperate need to control Iraq’s capital, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace is considering turning al-Anbar over to Iraqi security forces and moving U.S. troops from there into Baghdad.

“If we are not going to do a better job doing what we are doing out [in al-Anbar], what’s the point of having them out there?” said a senior military official.

Another option under consideration is to increase the overall U.S. troop level in Iraq by two to five brigades (that’s about 7,000 to 18,000 troops).

Generals Casey and Abizaid, however, have both weighed in against this idea. And such an increase would only be sustainable for six to eight months. Far more likely, the official says, will be a repositioning of forces currently in Iraq. “There is a push for a change of footprint, not more combat power.”

In Racoon Hunting and the Battle for Anbar, after the Marines had said that Fallujah held iconic status to them, and losing it would be like losing Iwo Jima, I asked the question, “Will we lose this hallowed soil, this soil on which so much U.S. blood has been shed?”

Perhaps.  And then perhaps not.  There are two possibilities that I see.  Either we have ceded power to al Qaeda and asked the Iraqi security forces to take them out, or we are cordoning off the area, only to go in later to “clear” it.  On October 24, I said that we would not “clear” Ramadi Fallujah-style, and at the time I had what I thought were good reasons to take this position.

I believe that there is some possibility, however remote it may seem to the reader (and to me), that we are cordoning off the Anbar Province (and in particular Ramadi), in order to prepare an assault later “Fallujah-style.”  More Marine patrols where they are getting sniper attacks is not adding to security.  We are either getting out, or we’re getting serious.

I confess, I am at a point of indecision on this, because I think the military brass may be.  It might be left to the incoming SECDEF to make the decision.  More force projection, or do we turn it over to the Iraqis?

The war turns on this decision.

Unleash the Snipers!

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 3 months 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.

Snipers Having Tragic Success Against U.S. Troops

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 3 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.


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.


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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