March 2, 2004
Because of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, marksmanship is again a hot topic in the American armed forces. Not just in the army and marines, but also in the air force. The air force? Yes, as for the first time since Vietnam, air force personnel are in the line of fire. Air force drivers are behind the wheel of buses and trucks moving people and material up the MSR (Main Supply Route) from Kuwait to bases in Iraq. These Air force drivers got rudimentary training on M-16s in the basic, but not a lot thereafter. To reduce coalition casualties among drivers in Iraq, everyone driving up the MSR goes through a "combat shooting" course for drivers. A special shooting range was set up in Kuwait and army and air force personnel get to fire hundreds of rounds at targets. Lots of the shooting is done from the drivers seat, as the shooting range is set up to allow vehicles to come by and have the drivers return fire at the types of targets they would encounter (Iraqis firing at them from ambush positions.) Previously, few troops have ever been able to fire their weapon from inside a hummer or truck, so it's a new experience for everyone. But for those few troops who have later come under fire, the training has paid off.
Even standard marksmanship training for combat troops has been changed and intensified. One thing that has been learned in Iraq is that snipers, and accurate shooting in general, are key weapons in the kind of peacekeeping that goes on there. Snipers are essential because they can take down the bad guys with little risk of hitting nearby civilians. Each combat brigade has about three dozen snipers and works them hard. Snipers operate in two man teams (one to look around through binoculars for targets and the other guy to shoot) and often it takes hours of scouting and preparation to find the best spot from which to shoot (without being seen, and still having a good view of the surrounding area). The army's five week sniper school keeps expanding to supply the increasing number of trained snipers combat commanders are asking for. In addition to giving each infantry platoon at least one sniper team, brigade commanders like to have several other teams available for special missions (like staking out a large area at night for hostile Iraqis.)
M-16s for the infantry have increasingly been equipped with telescopic and night sights. Soldiers have gotten enough practice with these sights on realistic firing ranges to greatly increase their ability to hit targets day and night. In Iraq, the ability of soldiers to fire individual shots very accurately has led to a disillusioned Iraqi resistance and very few civilians hit by accident. While the troops who have gone through the sniper school learn a lot about finding a good shooting position and not being seen, many non-sniper troops are excellent shots with the new equipment and extensive live fire training. As a result, combat commanders can take their troops into situations that would have previously resulted in many casualties from enemy fire. Now, with many troops delivering rapid and accurate fire, the enemy rarely gets a chance to fire effectively. The combination of more rifle range time and better sights has produced a much more lethal infantry force. The marines, it should be said, always put a lot of emphasis on marksmanship, so the army is sort of catching up. The Iraqis resistance is increasingly reluctant to shoot it out with American troops. The word gets around that once the Americans start shooting back, they rarely miss.