Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/28/sniper_feature/

Snipers - Cowardly assassins, or surgical soldiers?

DARPA takes aim at guided smart-slug

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 28th November 2008 16:58 GMT

Snipers are nasty, everyone knows that. They hunt people like animals, killing them without giving them a chance to fight or even to surrender. Few soldiers are more hated; even their own armies often seem less than pleased to have them around.

So why is the British Ministry of Defence happy to announce that it has just spent a large sum of money on new, supercool sniper rifles? Why are the British armed forces currently rushing to train as many new snipers as they can? Why is Blighty proud to claim that it makes some of the best sniper weapons in the world?

Why, indeed, are our old friends at DARPA - the Pentagon's one-stop-shop for the Q-branch and supervillain community - handing out money this week to develop a guided smart-bullet for use in sniper rifles?

Sgt Gerald Hooee Jr of the US Marines on the range

Reaching out and touching someone

It might be because there's another side to snipers and sniping after all. In particular, even though a sniper will often be personally responsible for huge numbers of deaths - body counts in the hundreds for an individual shooter are far from unheard of - as a class snipers kill relatively few people compared to the effects they achieve. Furthermore, when a sniper kills someone, it is almost always a person they meant to kill, not just someone standing around in the wrong place and time. These are not things that most branches of the military can say.

But, for a well-trained military sniper at least, "collateral damage" - the accidental killing and injuring of bystanders and unintended targets - is almost nonexistent. Mistakes do occur, but compared to a platoon of regular soldiers armed with automatic weapons, rockets, grenades etc a sniper is delicacy itself. Compared to crew-served and vehicle weapons, artillery, tanks, air support or missile strikes, a sniper is not just surgically precise but almost magically so. Yet he (or sometimes she) is reviled as the next thing to a murderer, while the mainstream mass slaughter people are seen as relatively normal.

Consider the team who put a strike jet into the air: a couple of aircrew, technicians, armourers, planners, their supporting cooks and medics and security and supply people. Perhaps fifty or sixty people, then, who together send up a plane which can deliver a huge load of bombs at least twice a day. Almost every week in Afghanistan and Iraq right now, such bombs are dropped. The nature of heavy ordnance being what it is, these bombs kill and maim not just their targets (assuming there is a correctly-located target) but everyone else around. Civilian deaths in air strikes are becoming a massive issue for NATO and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Those sixty people, in a busy week, could easily put hundreds of tons of munitions into a battlefield - an amount of destructive power approaching that of a small nuclear weapon. This kind of firepower can and will kill many times more people than sixty snipers could in the same time span - and many of the dead will typically be innocent bystanders, often including children and the elderly. Such things are happening, on longer timescales, as this article is written. Furthermore, all these bomber people - even the aircrew - run significantly less personal risk than snipers do.

But nobody thinks of a bomb armourer, or a "fighter" pilot", or a base cook as a cowardly assassin. Their efforts are at least as deadly per capita, they run less personal risks, but they're just doing their jobs. And let's not forget everyone else: artillerymen, tank crews, machine gunners. Nobody particularly loathes them, or considers them cowardly assassins.

In fact, the hated invisible sniper - remorseless, cold-hearted, often responsible for more deaths than the blackest-hearted serial murderer in civil life - has some of the cleanest hands on the battlefield. He is surely one of the most economical combatants, generally requiring fewer than five bullets (in well-trained militaries, fewer than two) to kill an enemy, where line troops will fire thousands of rounds to achieve the same effect. And the sniper's kills are often high-value enemies, too; officers or valuable specialists. Snipers on the whole tend to avoid mowing down hapless footsoldiers en masse, certainly when compared to the rest of the armed forces.

But the hate effect is real nonetheless. Consider this World War Two infantryman's account:

As we stood there talking over the battle so far, a sniper shot one of the Worcesters and I dragged him to safety, but his foot was still sticking out of the doorway where I got him to, and that bastard shot him through the foot. I had never really hated the Germans until that point, but there was something so nasty about that act that I decided never to give them the benefit of the doubt after that...

As we crossed the barbed wire fence I got caught, and I reckon it saved my life because by the time I got myself free the others were all dead. Killed by sniper fire ... I ran back and got a tank to fire at the trees where I thought the Germans were, then out they came, 30 odd Germans. I went among them, looking for the sniper badges, I don't know what I would have done had I found any.

A more modern example is the urban legend which has sprung up in the Russian forces regarding female mercenary snipers from the Baltic states, said to have fought for the Chechens and, more recently, for the Georgians during the recent Russian military incursion. Russians with overheated imaginations refer to these deadly fictional ladies as the "white tights," apparently, and believe in them strongly enough that women from the Baltic area often have passport problems getting into or out of central Asia via Russia.

It isn't just the snipers' enemies who don't seem to like them. Their own armies don't care for them much either. The default position in the British army, for instance, has generally been to encounter enemy snipers in a war, build up a good capability in response, then after the war let it wither away again. By the 1990s, while every infantry battalion still held sniper rifles as part of its standard kit, it was a rare battalion which had enough men trained to use them. Many battalions had no properly organised sniper section at all.

During the long decades of neglect, however, a few units kept up their sniping skills. Marines worldwide have something of a tradition of sniping, and the Royal Marine Commandos maintained their expertise. So did the special forces, the SAS and SBS, and some infantry units such as the Paratroops.

But the Balkan wars of the late 1990s rekindled interest in sniping. The sniper's traditional advantages were part of this, but there was also a new factor in play - that of modern Rules of Engagement (ROE). Ordinary modern infantry rifles shoot intermediate-power ammunition and are seldom intended to be used at ranges greater than a few hundred metres. In the Cold War mindset, this didn't matter - targets further off could be more quickly and surely wiped out by heavy weapons of one kind or another.

But under tight ROE of the sort often in place during modern wars, massive firepower can't be used. If an enemy is shooting at you - perhaps with a machine gun from a rooftop in a town - you often can't advance until the gun is knocked out. The machine-gunner will chop up your infantrymen before they can get close enough to hurt him. But you can't take him out because your normal means of doing so would flatten at least one building, quite likely killing bystanders unnecessarily and certainly upsetting the local population.

This is where the sniper comes into his own. The right high-powered rifle, in skilled hands, can match some machine guns for range. If not, snipers are experts at creeping up on people without being seen; this forms at least as much of their training as shooting does. A sneaky sniper team can very often clear away other obstacles too - ordinary troops with rifles or rockets in defensive positions, enemy snipers, pickup-truck mounted heavy weapons and so on. In a good position they can cover a large area with their long-ranging rifles, effectively dominating it and making it safe for friendly troops to move about in. As soon as an enemy shows himself, he is taken out - and no buildings get blown up, no bystanders get mown down.

Indeed, so useful has this sort of capability been in recent wars that demand for snipers has exceeded supply. The typical battalion sniper section, only able to furnish a handful of two-man teams, is insufficient.

This has led to widespread adoption in the US and British forces of the so-called "designated marksman" concept. These soldiers aren't full-on snipers, able to creep invisibly through miles of hostile country to within killing range of an enemy general or whatever. But they are good shots, and they have weapons with more range than a normal combat rifle.

In the US forces, the tendency is for designated marksmen to use old M-14 battle rifles with updated sights; British units mainly use the "Light Support Weapon" variant of their upgraded SA80s. In its intended role as a light machine gun the LSW was hugely unpopular, lacking the ammo capacity necessary to deliver the required firepower. However it does have the virtue of being very accurate when used in single-shot mode, as one would expect of the last product ever to come out of the old Enfield factory, and it makes a good marksman's weapon.

Meanwhile the snipers proper have moved on. In the early '90s there were two main options: an ordinary full-poke rifle cartridge on the lines of NATO 7.62x51 or Soviet 7.62x54R*, or the enormously more powerful and longer-ranging .50-inch/12.7mm calibre rounds originally developed for use in heavy machine guns.

At first there had been no rifles designed to shoot heavy cal-fifty ammo. One of the first snipers to use it, the legendary Carlos Hathcock of the US Marines**, made several very long-range kills in Vietnam using a specially modified heavy machine gun firing single shots and equipped with a telescopic sight.

Subsequently, somewhat more portable rifles have been designed to fire .50-cal rounds. Examples include the well-known Barrett, favoured for a time by the US special forces and the Provisional IRA. Some snipers prefer to use these weapons mainly for "anti-materiel" work - for instance, stopping vehicles by smashing the engine block.

Others, however, have employed the enormous potential range of the .50 in a normal anti-personnel role. The current distance sniping record is generally credited to Corporal Rob Furlong of the 3rd battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry sniper section. In 2002, working in support of US soldiers in Afghanistan's Shah-i-Kot Valley, Furlong hit and killed an al-Qaeda machine gunner at a range of 2,430m - beating Carlos Hathcock's record by nearly 200m. Furlong used a MacMillan Tac-50 bolt action rifle.

Normal British snipers don't use .50-cal weapons, though the special forces are known to have such rifles in their armoury. Blighty's snipers consider that cal-fifty rifles are on the whole too heavy and cumbersome for normal use. On the other hand the power of normal, oldschool 7.62mm is seen as a bit limited.

Royal Marine snipers practicing with AI .338 rifles

Sometimes British troops get exactly the kit they want - if it's British made

The trendy round among UK snipers for the last few years has been .338 Lapua Magnum, a cartridge specifically designed for military sniping as opposed to machine guns or battle rifles. The special forces and Marines set the fashion as usual around the turn of the century, with the .338 "arctic warfare" model from Accuracy International - aka "Long Range Rifle" or L115A3 - which has since become the must-have sniper weapon in the British military. (Arctic conditions are the toughest ones for a sniper rifle to be designed for - the AW rifles can be used in any environment.)

At the same time, in the last few years British battalion commanders have no longer been allowed to rub along without a sniper section. Every battalion is now expected to have a "master sniper", usually of colour-sergeant rank, who selects and trains the best soldiers in the unit for his section.

And just for once, the weapon of choice - the one the troops actually want more than any other, the one the special forces use - is British made. Accuracy International (AI), based in Portsmouth, is one of the best sniper-rifle firms in the world.

The firm isn't very chatty, owing to its close relationship with the special forces, but a catalogue can be got hold of quite easily. One option that probably caught the SAS' eye, we're guessing, is the suppressed job designed to shoot subsonic ammo. This means that not only are the rifle's blast and flash eliminated, but also the supersonic crack made by a normal high-velocity bullet - in other words the weapon is totally silent, ideal for quietly knocking off sentries or whatever. Sadly, the slow subsonic rounds only offer a measly 180m effective range, according to the company.

Anyway, the fact of AI being British has meant that the MoD has been quite willing to buy lots of nifty .338 AW rifles for ordinary army snipers, and indeed was proud to announce that as of last week it had now received all of them.

Meanwhile, America - as ever - seems determined to push the technology further, specifically in the matter of range.

Some snipers would argue in favour of cal-fifty as the ultimate long-range cartridge; others would be in favour of .338 Lapua. But almost all of them would agree that sniping beyond 1500m or thereabouts is strongly affected by matters such as the wind and how accurately it can be estimated, which may not be within the control of the sniper. Rob Furlong's astonishing 2002 shot in the Shah-i-Kot, for instance, may have been assisted by the thin air of the high Afghan mountains reducing atmospheric effects on the slug.

Beyond a certain point, not the best sniper in the world can accurately allow for the wind, changes in air temperature and other variables so as to aim off the right amount and score a hit. And yet, if this problem could be dealt with, ultra-high-power bullets have the momentum to reach targets a lot further off.

DARPA, the Pentagon boffins, reckon they have the answer - a smart bullet which adjusts course in flight, steering itself onto target. Like a smart bomb, the EXtreme ACcuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) slug will fly ballistically, without any propulsion of its own: but it will have steering.

According to DARPA:

The EXACTO Program is an advanced technology development and demonstration program to create a guided, actively controlled 50-caliber sniper rifle system with significantly improved range and accuracy over the current systems. Specific system performance objectives (e.g. range, accuracy, and target speed) are classified.

Technologies of interest may include: fin-stabilized projectiles, spin-stabilized projectiles, internal and/or external aero-actuation control methods, projectile guidance technologies, tamper proofing, small stable power supplies, and advanced sighting and optical resolution technologies.

The use of an actively controlled bullet will make it possible to counter environmental effects such as crosswinds and air density, and prosecute both stationary and moving targets while enhancing shooter covertness. This capability would have the further benefit of providing increased accuracy and range while reducing training requirements.

DARPA won't let anyone but those with security clearance know what range it's after, but does specify that the energy and momentum of the EXACTO slug must be equal to current .50 bullets. Given a working smartslug, there seems no reason why the full ballistic potential of cal-fifty rounds couldn't be achieved. Heavy .50 machine guns can pepper an area randomly with bullets from as far off as 7400m - three times as far as even Rob Furlong could shoot.

DARPA announced the EXACTO requirement in March, and this week has inked a $12m deal with US weapons giant Lockheed and another for nearly $10m with California firm Teledyne Scientific & Imaging, indicating that credible proposals have been received. (Of course, this is "credible" in the DARPA sense, meaning - in this case absolutely literally - "it's a hell of a long shot, but it just might work".)

It would seem, then, that the snipers of tomorrow might lurk four or five miles from their targets, illuminating them with targeting lasers and then squeezing off a casually-aimed smartslug to home in inevitably on the pointer dot. From DARPA's talk of "target speed" requirements, it seems certain that even if the victim moved away there might be no escape - as the dot moved, so the guided bullet would curve its flight path to follow.

Whether that means the end of the true sniper or just a logical progression is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

One thing's for sure. In an era where Western forces need to move about safely in hostile territory while causing the minimum amount of destruction and without killing people by mistake, better tools for snipers could be an excellent idea. ®

*The first figure is the calibre, or bullet diameter. The one after the "x" is the length of the cartridge, giving you some idea how powerful the powder charge is. It's included here to avoid confusion with other, less powerful cartridges of the same calibre. (The R on the Russian sniper round signified "rimfire" rather than the more common centre-fire round with the cap in the middle of the case base.) These figures are in millimetres.

**Hathcock remains probably the most famous sniper ever, certainly to other snipers. He logged 93 kills confirmed by independent witnesses, but most accounts agree that the majority of his tally were not confirmed and he probably surpassed two hundred in reality. He was said to have been dubbed "white feather" by the Viet Cong and People's Army of Vietnam, after a signature feather he wore in the band of his bush hat. It has also been said that the PAVN set a special bounty of $30,000 on his head, and that Hathcock killed many enemy snipers intent on collecting this prize. In one incident, shooting at one of these men, Hathcock's bullet flew down the other sniper's scope and killed him. When the enemy rifle was later recovered, Hathcock theorised that for this to happen the other man must have been zeroing in on him when hit - and had surely been just about to shoot. This incident was recycled in the Tom Berenger movie, Sniper.