In an era of unmanned drones and stealth super fighters, a centuries-old combat role has proven itself to be a critical aspect of 21st century warfare: snipers.
From the vast deserts of Anbar province in Iraq to the treacherous mountain passes of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, U.S. military snipers have been striking fear into the hearts of the enemy and saving the lives of their fellow American and allied soldiers.
USA Today gave an account of snipers' effectiveness yesterday in a piece that described the evolving role of the sniper. The story began by describing a Marine platoon in Afghanistan that at the start of its tour "couldn't get outside the wire more than 50 meters before it was a barrage of fire," according to a scout sniper. But the Marines didn't rely on M1 Abrams tanks or AC-130 Spectre gunships to clear out the area. Instead, the Marines deployed scout sniper teams, clad in ghillie suits, to take the fight to the enemy. And the immediate impact was remarkable, according to USA Today:
"Dozens of militants were killed by an enemy they never saw. Word of unseen killers began to spread among the 'few who got away.' 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."
The story illustrates a trend that has come to light in the post-9/11 era wars against Al Qaeda and terrorist supporters. The most elite U.S. marksmen are using their rifles as precision instruments in the counterinsurgencies and special ops missions that have defined U.S. conflict for over a decade.
But just how have elite U.S. snipers improved their effectiveness? And how is their role integrated into the fabric of an increasingly technology-heavy U.S. armed forces?
To get an insider's view of the modern sniper, I spoke to Brandon Webb, former Navy SEAL Sniper, author of the recently released autobiography "The Red Circle" and editor of SOFREP.com to get his take on the USA Today piece and find out how U.S. snipers have become a an indispensable asset on the 21st century battlefield:
Brandon, you read this USA Today piece on the utility of snipers in 21st century warfare. Did it accurately portray the role of elite snipers in the U.S. Armed Forces?
"Today's sniper is one of the most effective tools on the battlefield. The precision of the sniper ensures that enemy forces are neutralized without the collateral damage that is inherent with drone or manned air strikes (though both have their place)."
U.S. snipers are hitting targets at incredible distances now-- further downrange than any shots in history. Has technology played a marked role in this progression?
" Yes, but it still comes down to the guy on the other end of the gun. The area where technology has been really influential is the long distance shots. There used to be a mysticism shooting out past 1000 meters. You had to deal with the coriolis effect (the spin of the earth), counter the wind... but now we measure each rifle's signature muzzle velocity in feet per second. That gets plugged into the software, and you also plug in temperature, barometric pressure, etc. You press calculate and it gives you a firing solution. Dial that into your scope, and take your shot."
The USA Today article highlights the psychological impact of sniper operations on the enemy-- do sniper kills play a major psy-ops role?
"Definitely. The 21st Century Sniper is an intelligent and mature shooter who leverages technology to increase accuracy and devastate the enemy's psyche. Bad guys who are up to no good start seeing their friends disappearing. As a result of this fear, Seal Snipers- not just Chris Kyle-- have had bounties put on their heads by the enemy. "
What are the best programs currently in our military for sniper training?
"There are only a few DOD sniper courses doing it right. The US Army 5 week course is more of a precision marksman school. Army SOTIC, USMC sniper and NSWC sniper produce true snipers that are highly capable where the 5 week Army course is lacking in the fundamentals that make a true sniper. You need two months minimum (the SEAL course is over three months of 7 days a week) to truly train a candidate. The latter courses are some of the top in the world with the SEAL course leading the pack in comprehensive curriculum."
It seems that the idea of the sniper as "lone wolf" out in the field has been transitioning into a more integrated role with other military elements. Has there been a shift in sniper integration with other units?
"The Main difference we have in the SEAL course is our guys can integrate with anybody. What spearates the SEAL snipers from other groups is that traditionally you are trained as a pair where one guy is a spotter. Typically one guy gets better on the spotting scope because he has a better understanding of ballistics. As a SEAL, we say 'stop, now you guys are each on your own.' Now each SEAL sniper will have a better understanding of ballistics. Most of the sniper courses today will test them as a pair, whereas the SEAL course teaches individuals separately. And of course we can also get an aircraft on the radio and start dropping bombs on the bad guys. They look over, see a big explosion a few clicks away, then out of nowhere a JDAM drops on their head. That's integration."
As a former SEAL operator and sniper instructor, Brandon could go on much further to share his knowledge about marksmanship, combat, and a variety of other martial subjects.
If you want to read more from Brandon, his book "The Red Circle" is certainly an excellent start.