Harassing Fire: Thoughts on Snipers

The war on terror put snipers, and the art of precision marksmanship, well into the public consciousness. From self promoting Chris Kyle to the mythical “Juba” the war on terror has given rise to some famous and infamous snipers. I’ve been thinking about why this is, and how quite a bit of the mythology in the public consciousness is a bit simplistic.

So this post is going to cut through some of the bullshit and explain exactly why snipers have not been a decisive, “silver bullet” force for any of the sides involved.

First, snipers can only be as good as the unit they are working with. Snipers are a force multiplier, and whatever unit and mission they are supporting is only going to be as good as they’ve trained to accomplish the mission they are given. We know of “Juba” because the terrorists wanted to create a myth, and so the only point behind Juba was to make terrorist snuff porn films for the purpose of creating propaganda.

Second, confirmed kill body count is meaningless. It isn’t how many you kill, but who you kill. This means that for every terrorist who got their grape peeled (or pealed if you want to go with a bell ringing metaphor) by an American bullet, and all of the service members (and civilians) shot by the terrorists, no one killed anyone of enough importance to turn the tide of war.

Third, despite all this, snipers are indispensable to a talented commander. The intelligence gathering capabilities, ability to integrate air and indirect fires, even the ability to provide security on a given sector of an objective for a very small troop footprint are all things that no other small team can provide.

Forth, regular forces are looking to technology to mitigate the threat of snipers. From muzzle flash detectors to acoustic detectors to “backscatter laser technology to identify sniper scope lenses” the battlefields are getting packed more densely with sensors designed to identify a sniper by position before, during, and after a shot is taken. What was multi-million dollar DARPA level technology fifteen years ago can be cheaply replicated in Taiwan for dollars in hardware and pennies in code.

Fifth, snipers cannot become decisively engaged and be successful. This means that their rate of “effects delivery” on the battlefield is dictated by how quickly they can displace from one area to set up in another area. For a mission such as “harassing fire” this can be done fairly quickly in a dense urban area, which is where we saw all the “Juba” videos come from. For snipers that require more specific mission planning guidance, the rate of “effects delivery” is significantly slower.

With all those realities, I’m a huge fan of our snipers. But like our tankers, artillerymen, fighter jocks, and strategic bomber crewmembers, they are part of the “right mix” of military capabilities, and not a “silver bullet” solution to any given problem.

For the terrorists, that is a different story. The snipers for the terrorists were at any given time their most effective direct action force to create propaganda. Wars like Vietnam (US experience) and Afghanistan (Soviet experience) are stark reminders that a political victory does not always come from military might. Giving people hope, so that they can continue to resist, was the biggest single contribution of the terrorist snipers, although most of them were little better than point blank level marksmen.

A good mental experiment is to ask yourself about the outcomes you would want to see from a successful employment of snipers, and then whether or not it is reasonable to expect success. A lot of the time we make assumptions about the level of intelligence available to snipers that could make them more effective than they have been in the past. The reason “Juba” shot random Americans on patrol is because he didn’t have better intelligence to shoot someone actually important, and that propaganda was simply designed to tear down the aura of invincibility surrounding US service members. In the end, “Juba” died really when the propaganda cell he was working with were killed.

From the terrorist point of view, sniper type operations are what you do when you can’t really do anything else. Inside of the ISIS controlled territory they had no need to use snipers to maintain their dominance, if they wanted to shoot someone they just did it and justified their actions through some breaking of their strict version of Sharia law. The “lone wolf” snipers who provide harassing fire against uniformed troops haven’t done much from a military objectives standpoint. Yes they’ve raised the cost of war for the other side, but there have never been enough “lone wolves” to do anything but prolong the conflict. Whether that conflict be in the Balkans, Iraq, or Afghanistan. From the terrorist point of view, prolonging the conflict is a required condition for continuing in the fight to eventually outlast a super power.

The truth is that our snipers are good people who care about the men and women they protect. But neither are they invincible warriors who commute from Valhalla, no matter which side of the conflict they fight on.

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