Infantry: April 30, 2003


Afghanistan and Iraq have seen increasing use of professional snipers. This is a trend that has been building for over a century. Since the introduction of smokeless powder rifles 120 years ago, sniping has been increasingly popular. During World War II, all armies tried to find their best shots and equip them with a rifle with a scope and send the "snipers" off to harass the enemy, and kill enemy snipers. After the war, however, it proved difficult to maintain a large force of snipers. Combat officers believed that up to ten percent of their infantry could be trained, and effectively used, as snipers. But that was in wartime, when the troops had plenty of opportunity to practice, and lots of incentive to get good at it. Sniper duels usually end with the loser dead. Peacetime soldiers were mostly draftees, not around long enough to develop useful skills. Professional snipers require lots of training. This was first seen during the American Civil War, when Union colonel Hiram Berdan recruited and trained 18 companies of men who had to pass a difficult marksmanship test just to get into his "Sharpshooter Regiment." Because troops were using black powder, you only got one shot. Your smoke make it pretty clear where you were after that. So Berdan's training emphasized the importance of finding the right firing position and carefully lining up a shot that would count. The sharpshooters were the only Union troops issued green uniforms, the better to conceal themselves. 

After World War II, the Army and Marines formed sniper schools, but it wasn't until the draft was dropped in 1972 that the military had troops in uniform long enough to train large numbers of snipers. Currently, each American infantry battalion has a sniper section (a sergeant and two three-man teams) and each infantry company has one three-man sniper team. Special Forces and commando units have even more snipers. In addition, company commanders try to identify the best shot in each squad and designate him as "squad sharpshooter." Many special training courses are available for snipers, including the Army Sniper School, which imparts an enormous amount of sniper skills. 

You don't hear a lot about snipers in action. There work is generally solitary, and often at night. The teams (of 2-3 men) may spend hours, or days, selecting a good position to operate from. The team usually moves into position at night, and then stays for hours, or even days, until they get a shot at their target. In Afghanistan, this has eliminated many enemy snipers or infiltrators, as well as making many areas a lot more dangerous for Taliban and al Qaeda members to enter. In Iraq, the city fighting has been a lot less bloody because of the heavy use of American and British sniper teams. Sometimes the snipers are deployed defensively, in anticipation of some hostile operations. But more often, snipers are sent in when you have some hostile Iraqis regularly taking shots at American troops. The snipers like to operate at night because they now have long range night vision equipment, and sometimes an assist from the growing number of UAV (unmanned aircraft) found over the battlefield. Once the sniper team spots their target, it rarely takes more than one shot to take it out. While regular infantry typically fire thousands of bullets for every casualty they inflict, snipers get ten hits for every 13 bullets fired. In Afghanistan and Baghdad, the word quickly get around that American snipers are operating. The enemy becomes a lot more cautious after that, and that is also a kind of battlefield victory.


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