The modern sniper team is a highly skilled and extremely valuable asset that offers a force commander a set of unique capabilities. These capabilities include being a reconnaissance asset and an offensive asset capable of long-range engagement and neutralisation of hostile targets. In the current operational environment these reconnaissance and target engagement capabilities have to be available both day and night, and in all weather conditions.
The United States Army Sniper Course (USASC) at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, notes that: “The Purpose of Sniper Training is to train individuals to perform Sniper missions in a combat environment to include: precision fires on enemy personnel and equipment, intelligence gathering, counter-sniper operations, infiltration and overwatch of NAIs (named area of interest), occupation of and operations in support by fire positions, ballistic interdiction of IEDs, and disruption of enemy operations.” The USASC course at Fort Benning is seven weeks long and is said to have an attrition rate for students of around 60%.
The USASC course description and the fact that only 40% of those who take the course pass it demonstrate the complexities of the art of the modern sniper. The sniper does not act alone though; the sniper is part of a team with the second member, often called the spotter, with the latter providing the shooter with the critical information such as range, wind direction and so on to allow effective engagement.
Of course sniper team organisation is not set in stone. Different forces have different methods of managing the sniping mission. For example, there is the role of the spotter. For some this is the junior member of the team who will, once experience is gained, become a sniper team leader in their own right at a later date. For other operators it is the spotter who is the experienced sniper and is in charge of the sniper team, planning entry into and exit from the operational area and the parameters of the mission. How you organise your sniper team impacts on your choice of weapons, sights, sensors and ancillary equipment.
The importance of the sniper team has grown tremendously over the past two decades, with combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrating how vital snipers are as a combat, reconnaissance and surveillance asset. Recognition of the importance of sniping capabilities has inevitably led to investment in technologies and equipment that improve sniper effectiveness. Hence major improvements in weapons, ammunition and sights. Another development that adds further context to the importance of the sniper team is a tendency for commanders to provide force protection elements to cover the insertion of the sniper team into the operational area and for some even that is not enough. Reaction elements are provided to extract the sniper team in case of emergency or forces to support/protect the sniper team are forward deployed into the area of operations.
Recent combat experience has also led to the broadening of the parameters of military sniping, hence the new emphasis on the Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR). There is nothing particularly new in having a “designated marksman”. For example, the Swedish Army had the Ak 5B variant of their standard Ak 5 (FN FNC) 5.56x45mm assault rifle. The principle difference between the Ak 5B and standard rifles was the installation of the British SUSAT L9A1 4x telescopic sight on the Ak 5B.
Arguably, it was Afghanistan that led to the arrival of the DMR as an essential capability. The requirement to engage targets beyond the 300 metre distances envisaged for standard small arms created a demand for a 7.62x51mm weapon that could accurately engage from 300 metres out to 800 metres and beyond, led to the DMR. Significantly, meeting the operational requirements of the DMR led to an investment in sighting systems that previously would have been associated with pure sniping solutions.
The British Army selected the Lewis Machine & Tool LM308MWS for their DMR which was then classified as the L129A1 rifle. In the DMR variant the selected day sight was the 6×48 Trijicon ACOG TA648 on a Picatinny rail; additionally, there is a Trijicon Rugged Miniature Reflex (RMR) red dot sight. The L129A1 also has another role as the Sniper Support Weapon (SSW) where it is used by the spotter in the sniper team, in this application it is fitted with the Schmidt & Bender 3-12×50 PM II daylight scope, with the FLIR AN/PVS-27 MUNS (Magnum Universal Night Sight).
France has recently selected its DMR system to meet the fusil de précision semi-automatique (FPSA) requirement. The weapon in question is the FN SCAR H-PR and this will be equipped with the Schmidt & Bender PMII ShortDot Dual CC day sight and the OIP Sensor Systems TIGRIS clip-on sights in two variants, image intensifier and infrared. Germany utilises the G28 as its DMR system. This weapon is based on the MR308 competition rifle and shares 75% parts commonality with the HK417 military rifle. The weapon is available in two variants, the G28 E2 (Standard) that features the Schmidt & Bender 3-20×50 G28 scope, while the lighter G28 E2 (Patrol) features the Schmidt & Bender 1-8×24 G28 scope. Both variants also feature Aimpoint red dot sights mounted over the scope.
The US Army adopted a variant of the G28E-110 to meet its M110A1 Squad Designated Marksman Rifle (SDMR) requirement, with between 5,000 and 6,000 weapons required. The weapon is equipped with SIG Optics TANGO 6 1-6×24 optic and it is to meet a requirement for precision engagement between 300 and 600 metres. Prior to the SDMR, the US Army had selected the G28 to form the basis for its Compact Semi-Automatic Sniper System (CSASS) requirement with engagement ranges out to 800 metres; here the sight is the Schmidt & Bender 3–20×50 PM II Ultra Short. The scope choice is significant. Previously, the US Army has opted for Leupold scopes. Indeed, the M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System (SASS) that will be replaced by the CSASS used the Leupold Mk 4 3.5-10×40 mm M2.
The Sniper Envelope
The image of sniping does not reflect the reality. The image of a single shooter with a highly accurate bolt-action rifle in a standard calibre, firing match grade or specialist ammunition and with a scope on top is still the dominant picture. In reality, it is much more complex than that. Current sniping systems and technology allow accurate engagements at extremely long ranges and have also allowed sniper systems to grow into effective anti-materiel weapons.
In the British Army the initial level of dedicated sniping systems is accounted for by the L115A3/A4 rifle from Accuracy International in .338 Lapua Magnum (8.59x70mm) calibre. This is characterised as a long-range precision rifle. Later, many elements of the L115A3 were utilised as the upgraded L115A4 was introduced. The L115A4 features the Schmidt & Bender 5-25×56mm PM II LP/MILITARY MKII 5-25×56, whereas the original L115A1 had the Schmidt & Bender 3-12×50mm PM II/MILITARY MKII 3-12×50. For night engagements the weapon is fitted with a clip-on night sight known as the Sniper Thermal Imaging Capability (STIC) produced by Qioptiq.
Operations in Afghanistan saw the British institute the Sniper System Improvement Programme (SSIP) and this led to the deployment of the L115A3. In November 2009, a British soldier using the L115A3 successfully engaged and neutralised two Taliban at a range of 2,475 metres in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Other systems acquired under the SSIP included night sights, spotting scopes, laser range finders and tripods. This has seen the acquisition of equipment from Pyser, Safran Vectronix, Qioptic and Kestrel Instruments. The British Army also uses larger calibre sniper systems in the long-range sniper/anti-materiel role. Again, these are sourced from Accuracy International and using the 0.50 BMG (12.7x99mm). There is also the L135A1(Barrett M82) in 0.50 BMG for long-range anti-structure missions.
The Canadian Forces also demonstrated that their sniper units were capable of long-range engagements in both Afghanistan and Iraq. They employ the PGW Defence Technologies C14 Timberwolf Medium Range Snipers Weapon System (MRSWS) in .338 Lapua. Initially, a Leupold scope was fitted and clip on night sights from FLIR. The C15 Long Range Sniper Weapon is the MacMillan TAC-50 in 0.50 BMG. Initially, a Leupold scope was used, but the weapon later received a Schmidt & Bender scope.
The C15 demonstrates the ranges that can be achieved with a high quality weapon/scope combination. In May 2017, a Canadian Forces sniper in Iraq neutralised a target at a range of 3,540 metres. Prior to that, in March 2002, Canadian Forces snipers had neutralised a target at a range of 2,475 metres and another at 2,430 metres. It should not be forgotten that Barrett, who pioneered long range 0.50 BMG sniping, have some extended range performances to their credit as well. In April 2012, an Australian sniper with a Barrett M82A1 in Afghanistan neutralised a target at 2,815 metres. Other Barrett users include the German Army whose G82/G82A1 (M107/M107A1) rifles use the Zeiss 6-24×72 scope.
There can be no doubt that Afghanistan and Iraq have created a renaissance in the world of sniping and also a tremendous expansion in the scope of the sniping mission. One aspect of this mission growth is the use of sniping in the counter-IED and EOD mission. The Danish Army Engineer Regiment uses 0.50 BMG weapons in the EOD role for example. However, larger calibre weapons also have great utility in the counter sniper role.
Beyond the military sector one should also note the increasing importance for law enforcement agencies of having a credible and capable sniping capability. Obvious applications here are hostage rescue and counter-terrorism, added to which is the increasing threat of criminal organisations with access to military grade weapons, such as the cartels in Mexico. It is often the case that law enforcement can find itself ‘out-gunned’ by criminal and terrorist groups. In these circumstances, an effective sniping capability can help to restore the balance in favour of law enforcement.
Certainly the requirements of the military and law enforcement communities are primary drivers in the development of sniping systems and equipment. Additionally, what should not be forgotten is the importance of the hunting and shooting sports sectors in stimulating developments in weapons, ammunition, sights and other areas. Admittedly some of these commercial developments are not built to full military specification. That accepted, the point is that the broader the market space is, the more space there is for innovation and for a diverse industrial space. Consequently, a company such as Meopta in the Czech Republic can supply binoculars, rifle scopes and spotting scopes to both military/law enforcement and civil customers, as part of a diverse defence/aerospace and commercial optics business. On the other side of the coin, you have a US company like Bushnell which is centred on hunting, shooting sports and outdoor activities, but can offer tactical products to military users. Another US company that successfully covers both the hunting/outdoor and military/law enforcement sectors for scopes and spotting solutions is Nightforce Optics.
Looking at matters in a European context, it becomes very clear that Europe is in a very fortunate situation as far as provision of equipment for snipers is concerned. Thus far, we have mentioned a number of European vendors in the sector, but there are more to consider, for example, Beretta Defense Technologies (BDT). Under the BDT umbrella you have Sako sniper rifles and ammunition, as well as Steiner providing rifle optics, binoculars, laser rangefinders and night vision systems. Another major player is Hensoldt, who offer both sighting and night vision solutions. Indeed, in terms of clip on sights and broader night vision solutions for the sniping community Europe is incredibly well served, with contractors ranging from SME operations up to major multinationals.
There can be no doubt that that sniping has moved from being a peripheral issue for ground forces into becoming one that is a key capability. It was the asymmetric conflicts of the past two decades that led to the increased emphasis on sniping, with confronting non-state actors and terrorism likely to remain a key future mission. Thus enhanced equipment for the military sniper is more than justified. One should also note that snipers have an important role to play in conventional conflicts as well. Sniping will also be a key law enforcement capability, essential for both counter-terror and hostage rescue situations. All of which indicates that industry will continue to provide state-of-the-art solutions to meet the needs of the sniper team.
David Saw is a specialist defence writer based in Paris, France. He has a long and comprehensive record of writing and managing defence magazines at the highest level, from the USA through Europe to Asia, and is now a regular contributor to ESD.