(Story written Augusta 2001 by me; official Air Force photo of me going 8 for 8 from 400 and 800 meters with M24 rifle)
In places like Bosnia, North Korea and Macedonia, hot spots where unconventional warfare rules, they wait. Peering through scopes atop rifles that could hit a target from better than 2,000 meters, these silent hunters stare at you and your aircraft, which look more like ducks on a pond than million-dollar war machines, and salivate.
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 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 over the plane, his M16 slung over his shoulder.
The sniper’s 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 in to his scope to ensure his crosshairs are directly over the area where expensive avionics equipment rests. Satisfied, he takes 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 the other rounds tear through the secretive avionics equipment onboard, 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. Today, the air base flight line is even more vulnerable, with sensitive aircraft like the AWACS, the $270 million E-8 Joint STARS and equally costly RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance planes without hardened bunkers to hide in.
Enter Air Force countersnipers, the cat to an enemy sniper’s mouse, in a mission that led the late Marine Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock II, the military’s most well-known sniper and 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 personnel have graduated from the Air Force Countersniper School at Camp Joseph T. Robinson in Arkansas. The 15-day course taught at the National Guard Marksmanship Center here gives security forces troops a boot camp on countersniper tactics, procedures and work, as well as introducing 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 to clandestine to discuss compose this group of motivated, salty Guard veterans.
Each student is issued about 50 pounds worth of equipment. This includes the $5,000 single-shot, 15-pound M24 rifle, a variation of the Remington 700. 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 fine points of instruction.
“A lot of times they’ll come into this school and they’ll think ‘well, it’s a National Guard School’ and they hang around for a couple of weeks, pass, get their coin, and go home. It just ain’t that way,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Jim Green, the official Gary Cooper presence and NCO in charge of the school. “We’re lucky to graduate 75 to 80 percent of the students.”
What was that again?
Those finer points include memory tests, where students must remember the locations of objects large and small from great distances. Using binoculars, students pencil sketch objects like coins, cans, rocks and whatever else the teachers place out. They’ll later change the setting, and students must figure out what’s been altered from what they’ve drawn.
To keep their brains hungry, students get 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 variable the instructors throw their way.
There’s also target range estimation. Using a complex mathematical formula, some binoculars and pencil, students figure out how the target is from their location. Initially, students are given a 500-meter objective to calibrate and test their skills. After that, they are 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 don’t know how far away the target is,” he said. “It’s tough.”
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 for the shooter.
As Chief Master Sgt. Mark Hughes notes, nothing is done unless the spotter says so.
“It’s the spotter’s job to make sure that 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 don’t 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 don’t miss.”
And missing, hanging around and shooting again is not an option in this “one shot, one kill” mindset. As one instructor here, an Army Ranger and battle-tested sniper during Operations Just Cause and Desert Storm, said, “If you’re lucky enough to get off two shots, you’d better be hauling ass quickly after that.”
Shooting and intelligence gathering are at the heart of the countersniper’s role. 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 BDU top in the dirt, with his rucksack in front of him. He 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 M24 barrel atop the shooter’s ruck. With the right hand, the shooter 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 he’s 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 away from the ground. The bullet zings down range and, moments later, the “ding!” carried from the round smashing 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.
He calls out the number of “minutes” to reposition the M24. A minute at 500 meters accounts for about 5 inches of movement down range. At 1,000 meters, it’s 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 endeavor
Students will tell you, however, it’s 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 passed. Another student got slashed when the M24 recoiled and the metal scope whacked him on the eyebrow.
While mastering all the traits of the countersniper, all students must complete the Army physical fitness test, including a run (with and without the gear), push-ups and sit-ups. During the August class, two students left for medical reasons, one gave up and another failed.
Regardless of the cut, bruise, or sniffle, students must be ready to perform their mission and pass the course in a very “no whiners” manner, said instructor Sgt. 1st Class Bob Weibler.
“You have to have a good attitude and be prepared to handle anything,” he commented, “or you’re going home early.”
The business of countersniping
As instructors beat the countersniper mantra into the students’ heads, the Air Force Security Forces corporate brain trust watches and waits. The course isn’t officially funded or mandated – yet. Capt. Victor Marcelle, who oversees the course, said that day is coming soon.
“The Air Force realizes there’s a need for an increase in perimeter defense,” said Marcelle, himself a well-decorated marksman. “We’re just looking for the blessing.”
Marcelle said the Guard school’s history of training with the Air Force goes back to almost a decade, teaching combat controllers, pararescuemen and others sniper duties. Right now, Marcelle said the Air Force is examining the countersniper’s 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 the branch chief for Air Force installation security, is overseeing this program for blue-suiters.
Marcelle, Beckwith and others are bringing lessons from allied counterparts and other service sniper schools at Fort Benning, Ga., and Marine Corps Base Quantico. The Camp Robinson schoolhouse, the Air Force’s center of excellence for this mission, is accredited with the Army (for training its snipers), and is looking for accreditation from the Community College of the Air Force.
Marcelle and others want to make clear 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 Clancy’s Ding Chavez or Tom Berenger’s 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 assets.
Hughes and others agree, however, once trained, the sky’s the limit.
“We tell commanders to use their imagination,” the chief said. “You can use these folks for just about anything.”
Beckwith and two others will write the report for Air Force Director of Security Forces Brig. Gen. James Shamess. Already, however, Beckwith noted, the 820th Security Forces Squadron, the Air Force’s 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.
As the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit organization that advises the U.S. government on matters of policy through research and analysis pointed out in a recent study, “the Air Force and other services depend on these special assets to perform complex, interwoven operations. An attack that disabled only a few special assets could have a catastrophic effect on an air campaign.
Green, who made it through the countersniper course at age 51, said that sort of catastrophic failure is not an option for commanders who have vital aircraft sitting in 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.”