|Air Force Countersnipers|
|Eyeing the Sights|
In places like Bosnia, North Korea and Macedonia, hot spots where unconventional warfare rules, they wait.
Peering through scopes atop rifles that can hit a target from better than a mile away, these silent hunters stare at you and your aircraft, which look more like ducks on a pond than million-dollar war machines.
As they watch, one of them slips a .50 caliber bullet into the chamber of a long-barreled rifle pointed at the side of the E-3 Sentry aircraft 500 meters away. In jest, the sniper positions his sights just over the shoulder of the 19-year-old baby-faced security policeman standing watch, an M-16 slung over his shoulder.
The snipers spotter makes the calls for the range and wind, and, when he feels comfortable enough, the shooter slides his finger onto the trigger of the weapon. He leans into his scope to ensure the crosshairs are directly over the area where expensive avionics equipment rests. Satisfied, he exhales a deep breath and squeezes the trigger.
The fire from the muzzle ignites the evening air as the projectile whistles down range. It punches through the side of the aircraft, ripping through delicate components onboard the plane. A second sniper 100 yards away fires, as does a third, launching rounds into the cockpit and the wing fuel tanks. As the white-hot bullets hit, the wing tanks explode, ripping the plane apart, as other rounds tear through the secretive avionics equipment, rendering it useless.
The attack is finished without engaging one human adversary, and a $300 million aircraft is ruined. This sort of attack destroyed 393 U.S. and allied aircraft in Vietnam, and damaged another 1,185, according to the Rand Corp, an organization that advises the U.S. government on matters of policy through research and analysis.
Today, air base flight lines are even more vulnerable, with sensitive aircraft like the E-3, the $270 million E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System and equally costly RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance planes without hardened bunkers.
Enter Air Force countersnipers, the cat to an enemy snipers mouse, to a mission that led late Marine Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock II, the militarys best known sniper a man with a confirmed kill from a distance greater than 22 football fields to say, The most deadly thing on the battlefield is one well-aimed shot.
More than two-dozen Guard and active duty security forces airmen have graduated from the Air Force Countersniper School at Camp Joseph T. Robinson in Arkansas. (As of December 2001). The 15-day course, taught at the National Guard Marksmanship Center, gives security forces a boot camp on countersniper tactics and procedures. It also introduces them to the life of one of their key adversaries the military sniper.
The instructor cadre is diverse. Former Marines, Army snipers and Rangers with experience in Vietnam, Panama, the Persian Gulf and other hot spots too clandestine to discuss compose this group of motivated, salty Guard veterans.
Each student is issued about 50 pounds of equipment. This includes the $5,000 single-shot, 15-pound M-24 rifle, a variation of the
Remington 700, firing a NATO 7.62 mm round. Students also receive a handbook for writing targets and sketching scenery when memorizing target locations, and a bevy of other gear.
While shooting, this rifle is seen as the carrot that will draw potential countersnipers to the course, the instructors emphasized the need to pay attention to the other points of instruction.
A lot of times theyll come into this school, and theyll think well, its a National Guard School, and they hang around for a couple of weeks, pass, get their coin and go home. It just aint that way, said Army 1st Sgt. Jim Green, one of the schools lead instructors. Were lucky to graduate 75 to 80 percent of the students.
What was that again?
The instruction includes memory tests, where students must recall the locations of objects large and small from great distances. Using binoculars, students pencil sketch objects like coins, cans, rocks and other items. Instructors will later change the setting, and students must figure out whats been altered from what theyve drawn.
To keep their brains hungry, students are subjected almost daily to something on a smaller scale called the keep in memory game. Instructors gather students in a circle to look at a similar set of objects on the ground. Hours later, they must remember all of the objects as well as other variables instructors throw their way.
Theres also target range estimation. Using a complex mathematical formula, binoculars and pencils, students figure the distance to the target. Initially, students are given a 500-meter target to calibrate and test their skills. After that, theyre on their own, having to range targets from 300 to 1,000 meters away.
Students like Senior Airman Todd Tomlinson from Hurlburt Field, Fla., find this the most difficult part of the course.
You dont know how far away the target is, he said. Its tough.
A team effort
Students are also tested in target detection just what are they seeing in their scope, and should they shoot it? This is a craft for
the spotter, usually the most experienced member of the countersniper team, who watches the shots go down range and offers adjustments to the shooter.
As Chief Master Sgt. Mark Hughes, countersniper school instructor, notes, nothing is done unless the spotter says so.
Its the spotters job to make sure the shooter is set up, said Hughes, a former Marine and a 16-year Air Force veteran. You want to make sure when you spin the dials and get set up, you dont lose something.
For the shooter, Hughes said focus becomes paramount. You have to get in the bubble, get everything out of your head and concentrate on the sight picture. The great ones have the fundamentals down right off the bat and stick with them so they dont miss.
Missing, hanging around and shooting again is not an option in this one-shot, one-kill mindset. As Sgt. James Davidson, an Army Ranger and battle-tested sniper during Operations Just Cause and Desert Storm, said, If youre lucky enough to get off two shots, youd better be hauling a-- pretty quickly after that.
Students must hit 14 targets from 300 to 1,000 meters in day and night settings to qualify and pass the class. Tomlinson hit 20 of 20 at night and 19 of 20 during the day.
When shooting, a student sets up, usually laying his battle dress uniform blouse in the dirt, with his rucksack in front of him. Tomlinson uses Air Force-issue black socks filled with popcorn seed, or whatever he can find, to position the weapon.
One sock sits beneath the stock of the weapon. The other sits underneath the M-24 barrel atop the shooters ruck. With the right hand, he squeezes the stock sock, raising and lowering the weapon. His cheek, pressed firmly against the butt of the gun, moves it left and right until the crosshairs come center.
The spotter calls the range and the windage, or how much wind is blowing and which way. Once dialed in, the shooter says hes ready, and the spotter leans in to monitor the shot.
Send it, the spotter says.
The blast from the weapon could wake the dead as dust flies and grass is ripped from the ground. The bullet zings down range, and, moments later, the ding! from the metal target echoes back. An instructor perched behind the twosome watches through a monocular sight. He sees the heated vapor trail of the round as it arcs and impacts the target. He then gives advice on positioning for the next shot.
The instructor calls out the number of minutes to reposition the M-24. A minute is a measurement of how far, in inches, to realign the scope. At 500 meters, it accounts for about 5 inches of movement down range. At 1,000 meters, its 10 inches and so on. The shooter redials the distance. Without moving his head from the stock, he reloads his weapon with another 7.62 mm round, ensuring the shell from the last round goes back into the ammo box.
A physical and mental job
Students will tell you, however, its not as easy as aiming and firing. Staff Sgt. Brian Gilliland wears the scars of his training. He developed a series of sores and abrasions on his stomach, as well as back spasms late in the course, but he passed. Another student got slashed when the M-24 recoiled, and the metal scope whacked him on the eyebrow.
While mastering all the traits of the countersniper, students must complete the Army physical fitness test, including a run (with and without gear), push-ups and sit-ups. During the August class, two students left for medical reasons, one gave up and another failed.
Regardless of a cut, bruise or sniffle, students must be ready to perform their mission and pass the course in a very no whiners manner, instructor Army Sgt. 1st Class Bob Weibler said.
You have to have a good attitude and be prepared to handle anything, he commented, or youre going home early.
The business of countersniping
As instructors beat the countersniper mantra into the students heads, the security forces corporate brain trust watches and waits. The course isnt officially funded or mandated yet. Capt. Victor Marcelle, who oversees the course, said that day is coming soon.
The Air Force realizes theres a need for an increase in perimeter defense, said Marcelle, himself a well-decorated marksman. Were just looking for the blessing.
Marcelle said the Guard schools history of training with the Air Force goes back almost a decade, teaching combat controllers, pararescuemen and others sniper duties. Right now, Marcelle said the Air Force is examining the countersnipers potential from all angles.
Since British forces already use countersnipers for air base defense, Wing Commander David Beckwith, a Royal Air Force exchange officer and branch chief for Air Force installation security, is overseeing this program for bluesuiters.
Marcelle, Beckwith and others are bringing lessons learned from allied counterparts and other service sniper schools at Fort Benning, Ga., and Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. The Camp Robinson schoolhouse is accredited with the Army (for training its snipers) and is seeking accreditation from the Community College of the Air Force.
Marcelle and others want to make clear that airmen are not being trained as traditional snipers. That is, they will not be moving around terrain hunting targets covered in tangle and brush, like Tom Clancys Ding Chavez or Tom Berengers portrayal of Hathcock in the movie Sniper. Trained airmen will be grounded in air base defense roles, taking perimeter positions hunting those who might target Air Force aircraft and equipment.
Hughes and others agree, however, once trained, the skys the limit.
We tell commanders to use their imaginations, the chief said. You can use these folks for just about anything.
Beckwith noted the 820th Security Forces Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., the Air Forces first-line, specially equipped cop unit, is reorganizing for the countersniping mission.
Snipers have the capability to observe things about enemy forces that most troops are not able to detect. We have used them extremely effectively in a reconnaissance role in Bosnia, Beckwith, a former RAF squadron commander in the Balkans, recalled.
The Rand Corp., pointed out in a recent study that the Air Force and other services depend on trained snipers to perform complex, interwoven operations. An attack that disabled only a few special assets [aircraft, etc.] could have a catastrophic effect on an air campaign, the study stated.
Green, who made it through the Army National Guard sniper training at age 51, said that sort of situation is not an option for commanders who have vital aircraft sitting on the ground.
The best defense you have for a sniper is another sniper, the Army veteran emphasized. If you have planes sitting out there and one sniper way off in the distance, he could keep the planes on the ground and keep the people away from the planes and stop the whole mission.
Enter the countersniper.
Article by Staff Sgt. Jason Tudor, Published in Airman's Magazine