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Elite military units: snipers

Posted by John Reed on

Elite military units: snipers

My previous two elite unit articles—ranger and airborne—put the word “Elite” in quotes to indicate it was bullshit to an extent to call them elite. Or at least it was relative meaning rangers and airborne are somewhat better than average Army, but that’s not saying much.

Snipers appear to be another matter. I leave the quote marks off the word elite when I talk about military snipers.

Perhaps I have been fooled. Please let me know if I have. But here’s my impression.

I was airborne and ranger, but I was never a sniper. For one thing, it barely existed when I was in the Army as far as I know. For another it appears not to be an officer military occupational specialty.

I was an ‘expert’ rifleman, but not a sniper

The closest I came to being sniper was qualifying as an “expert” on the M-14 rifle. Expert is the highest score category. I believe most or the vast majority of West Point graduates qualify as experts.

At the time, I was impressed with how good we were at the end of the week of M-14 training. One of the things we had to do was spot a silhouette that popped up 300 meters away, drop down into a prone position, and shoot it before it went back down. I think it was only up for five seconds. I and my classmates could do that by the end of the week. I thought that was pretty cool. It involved aiming above the target because when the bullet goes that far, it falls. If there was wind, you had to also aim to the right or left.

I never had any marksmanship training before West Point.

Books, documentaries

The first contact I had with snipers was reading books—one about one Carlos Hathcock’s life as a sniper in Vietnam. I did a tour in Vietnam but never heard of any snipers there. I was impressed with Hathcock, but I must say I doubt his ultimate story of shooting a top North Vietnamese sniper through the scope of the enemy’s rifle a split second before the enemy was about to kill Hathcock. Sounds too Hollywood for me. I also read Marine Sniper. And I have seen a half dozen or more sniper documentaries on TV—including some on Nazi and Soviet snipers. As I write this, it is Sniper Month on the Military Channel.

Enemy trying to negotiate with us to stop using snipers

I am impressed with what I have read and seen. Perhaps the most convincing evidence was the Iraq enemy demanding that the snipers be called off in Iraq. When the enemy wants a particular tactic stopped to the point where they will negotiate about it, it must be an effective tactic.

True body of expertise

Step one in any so-called elite operation is there must be a true body of expertise that can be taught. It appears that the snipers have such a body of legitimate knowledge. They have advanced equipment. They know how to use it in various conditions. They also know how to camouflage themselves, move stealthily, hide, and scrutinize their target area for long periods, and get the hell out after they shoot. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If a sniper only knows how to shoot, they will not succeed. They must also know how to get in secretly, find the target, and get out safely afterwards.

No hazing; just teaching and learning

Their military schools seem to lack the idiotic hazing and physical conditioning rituals that prevent other “elite” military schools from efficiently making full use of their training time. At airborne and ranger school, the students are pointlessly starved, harassed, and forced to exercise to exhaustion. A little of that is sensible, as I said in my articles, but they overdo it. As far as I can tell, the sniper schools try to teach all the time and completely do without the stupid harassment and adolescent bravado.

No arbitrary flunking

Also, I did not get the impression that the sniper schools arbitrarily flunk out people who passed so they can brag about what a small percentage graduate from their oh-so-tough school. At sniper school, it looks like if you pass, you pass. At ranger, it appears that they have a quota they want to flunk out for bragging rights, but too many pass, so they lie and declare that people who actually passed, flunked—at various stages.

More mature, intelligent, and professional

The sniper instructors on TV seem significantly more mature and intelligent than the airborne and ranger instructors. So do the snipers themselves.

Both the instructors seem to be what the military call themselves for too often: professional.

Other U.S. units love them

I get the impression that the regular Army and Marine units love having snipers with them.

The SEAL snipers did a nice job of killing the three pirates who kidnapped a U.S. ship captain.

Realistic training with relevant high standards

The tests and competitions the sniper schools and units run seem quite realistic, truly competitive, and have high standards. Other elite units tend to stage scripted competitions. (Best Ranger seems to be mainly a sort of iron-man physical fitness competition, not a ranger military mission competition.)

Battle of Marjah, Afghanistan

One of the unpleasant surprises of the Battle of Marjah, Afghanistan for the NATO allies was that the enemy had accurate, effective snipers who killed a number of NATO soldiers or marines. A military with good snipers ought to also be good an sniper defense.

My baseball teams specialized in baserunning. Occasionally, we faced an opponent who decided that they were going to mimic our baserunning which they thought was just taking advantage of something that kids that age had no hope of defending. They were mistaken. To train my baserunners, I had our team members play defense the way football teams have reserves play the role of the upcoming opponent—called scout teams. Without realizing it at the time, in the process of lerning how to run the bases very expertly, we also learned the mirror image skill of defending baserunning.

One reason we did not realize it was initially, we were the only aggressive baserunners. When others tried to do it against us, without really mastering it—just being mindlessly aggressive—my defense simply reacted the way they had done dozens of times in baserunning practice. You could sort of see the thought process of the opposing coaches and players. “Oh! These guys are not only good at baserunning, they are also good at stopping baserunning.” A large part of it was defenders thinking like baserunners. My baserunners were taught to advance to second if they got to first and no one was covering second—even on a walk. But you could not do that against us because we were so conscious of it and would always cover second.

This is not automatic. U.S. sniper schools seem to have only snipers. That way, only snipers will learn anti-sniper tactics. Both sniper and regular soldiers should learn counter-sniper tactics and best practices.

John T. Reed

Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military

John T. Reed military home page


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