When Marine Sgt. Jonathan Charles’ unit arrived in Afghanistan, the American troops faced an entrenched enemy that picked a fight with the Marines almost every time they stepped off base.
“They couldn’t get outside the wire more than 50 meters before it was a barrage of fire,” said Charles, a scout sniper.
The Marine battalion quickly dispersed well-camouflaged scout sniper teams throughout the Musa Qala area in southern Afghanistan, the former Taliban heartland. The teams would hide for days, holed up in crevices, among boulders or in mud-walled homes, and wait for unsuspecting militants to walk into a trap.
The result: Dozens of militants were killed by an enemy they never saw. Word of unseen killers began to spread among the “few who got away,” Charles said. Within weeks, the tide had begun to turn and by the end of the unit’s seven-month deployment in March 2011, the battalion’s 33-man sniper platoon had 185 enemy kills.
“They quit altogether,” Charles, 26, said of the Taliban. More important, with the enemy largely neutralized, the battalion could focus on building local security and developing Afghan security forces. This approach is the bedrock of counterinsurgency warfare, which is designed to allow the United States to remove most combat troops by the end of 2014.
Snipers have quietly emerged as one of the most effective but least understood weapons in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Advancements in technology and training have made them deadlier than in any previous generation. Their ability to deliver accurate shots minimizes collateral damage — a key factor in counterinsurgency — and they are often more effective than much ballyhooed drones at secretly collecting intelligence.
The number of slots at the Army’s sniper school at Fort Benning, Ga., increased to 570 last year, up from 163 in 2003, when the Iraq War started. The Marine Corps operates several sniper schools, too.
A precision weapon
U.S. commanders typically describe counterinsurgency as improving government and the economy and protecting the population. But killing hard-core elements of the insurgency helps persuade the population to join the winning side, military analysts say.
Snipers are ideally suited for that. “It’s a lot easier to win hearts and minds when you’re doing surgical operations (instead of) taking out entire villages,” said LeRoy Brink, a civilian instructor at the Fort Benning school.
Snipers have another advantage. They wear on the enemy’s psyche, producing an impact disproportionate to their size. “It takes the fight out of them,” Marine Col. Tim Armstrong, commander of the Weapons Training Battalion at Quantico, said of the impact on the enemy.
Snipers will play a prominent role as the military reshapes itself into a more agile force after Iraq and Afghanistan. In a new strategy unveiled in January, the Pentagon said it planned on building a smaller, more expeditionary military force and would expand America’s capabilities to train indigenous forces over the next several years.
Snipers fit well into that concept, said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “They’ve proven to … have had substantial payoff in terms of military effectiveness. They will continue to be valued.”
Refinements in training and advancements in technology have proved a deadly combination for snipers.
“It’s much more of a science now,” said Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Eggers, a leader at the Army’s sniper course at Fort Benning. “Understanding the technology, better understanding of ballistics — that is what has really changed the game.”
In recent years, snipers have been armed with handheld ballistic computers that calculate the effects of air pressure and other atmospherics on a bullet’s trajectory. Optics and rifles have also improved accuracy. The Marine Corps assembles its own bolt-action sniper rifles to exacting standards here at Quantico.
Typically, a well-equipped sniper in World War II could be expected to hit a human target with a single shot at about 600 yards in favorable conditions and during daylight. Today, snipers can typically hit targets at twice that range — from more than half a mile away —and at night, said Bryan Litz, a ballistics expert at Berger Bullets who has done military contract work.