Sniper Training
© 2011 FrontLine Defence (Vol 8, No 4)

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The sniper has added to the chaos of battle and fog of war since the Boer War. A single bullet has halted the advance of enemy troops, confused battle plans and injected an additional level of fear into an adversary’s troops. As a constant factor in modern warfare, snipers have been the army’s most economical force multiplier.

A true sniper rifle is a finely tuned, precisely accurate, long range firearm. Fluctuating variables come into play with every mission, such as wind speed and direction, trajectory, elevation, bullet grain, breath control – to name a few. As a result of these and other complicating factors, sniping has evolved into a very specialized science in military and law enforcement sectors.

The sniper, the solitary soldier who fires from a concealed position and over often incredible distances, is a recognized expert at camouflage, field craft, infiltration, surveillance, reconnaissance and observation. The title, “sniper,” was introduced in the British colony of India in 1824 for hunters who were skilled enough to kill a snipe, a camouflaged, erratically-flying bird. During the American Civil War, the sniper was known as “skirmisher,” deployed as an individual soldier to protect advancing soldiers to prevent the enemy from flanking and breaking up the formation.

The first military snipers were highlanders with the Scottish Yeomanry Regiment of the British Army’s Lovat Scouts, who fought in the Second Boer War, 1899 to 1902. British Chief of Scouts, Major Frederick Russell Burnham described them as “half wolf and half jackrabbit.” Lovat Scouts were the first to wear Ghillie suits, the camouflage largely made from jute and burlap. All sides employed sharpshooters during the First World War, but the German Army, was particularly effective as they were the only nation to provide their snipers with scoped rifles. The British Army began to train their own snipers when Major Hesketh Prichard founded the First Army School of Sniping, Observation and Scouting in Linghem, France, in 1916.

Snipers served all belligerents of the Second World War in both European and Pacific theatres. Allied forces used the well-placed and concealed sniper to halt a German advance for a significant time, often with a single, well-placed bullet.

The Canadian Army understands the operational value of snipers and has established an internationally- recognized centre of excellence for training and employment at CFB Gagetown’s Combat Training Centre, within the Infantry School.

Canadian doctrine defines the role for snipers as precision rifle firing at long range, and forward observation. It is this forward observation, calling in artillery missions and air strikes, that makes the Canadian sniper relevant in operations other than war, such as peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations.

It’s natural to assume that either the U.S. or Britain dominate the field, but that would be to disregard Canada’s work, which is both unique and among the most advanced in the world.

Agile and flexible, “Snipers are the cheapest troops to deploy but are the biggest force multipliers, and have a huge impact on the ground,” asserts Warrant Officer Patrice Girard, the chief master sniper of the Canadian Army. “Frequently we can have more of an impact with a single two dollar round than a CF-18.”

In their observation role, Canadian snipers are able to deliver all the military firepower – artillery, drones and CF-18 aircraft – against an enemy such as the Taliban, and all can be directed from the ground. “That’s where we are, undetected on the ground, and where we can inflict the greatest damage on the enemy,” says WO Girard. “It’s not by shooting a rifle, but by calling in accurate ordnance, even when the enemy is out of our range. It’s our sniper who makes the call.”

Each Canadian infantry battalion has an 18-member sniper group based on the structure of an infantry platoon. It is called a “group,” because there is no officer. Each has a warrant officer as the master sniper, and a storesman/driver, and two eight-member sections.

Normally, the unit master sniper (UMS) sits with the commanding officer in all intelligence briefings and battle planning, so the UMS can advise how the snipers can make a contribution. “Right away,” says WO Girard, “we can raise our hand and tell the CO ‘this is what we can do for you.’”
This unique, close working relationship makes the Canadian sniper profession very specific and very efficient. Each battalion has two sniper sections, each section has two detachments of snipers, and each detachment has two teams of snipers. Snipers deploy in pairs, one as the shooter and the other as the spotter. Normally, two are deployed together, but if it’s an individual he will always be within reach, or have a fellow sniper from his detachment covering him.

“In Afghanistan we can deploy four,” explains WO Girard, describing how they will sometimes deploy snipers in groups of four, two forward and two in support. “But it’s still dangerous, so we count on UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and other assets to protect our soldiers. Without those other assets it would not be safe being alone in what we call ‘the nowhere.’ That’s frequently where we are, far away from everybody and on our own, so we have to make sure that we have something to back up our snipers. If we have to deploy one of our guys we want to make sure he is within range of our weapons.”

How far can our snipers engage an enemy? There have been occasions when a sniper has hit his intended target over more than two kilometers. In fact, in 2002, Cpl Rob Furlong, a member of 3PPCLI, broke the world record for a kill-shot at 2430 metres. That record held until 2009.

Sniper Training
Infantry School is responsible for two courses, the Sniper Detachment Commander Course (SDCC) and the Advanced Sniper Course.

Infantry School’s Sniper Cell is an internationally recognized centre of excellence for the Basic Sniper Course, where new developments in sniping are quickly reflected. The course is decentralized so each battalion or brigade runs its own basic sniper course. The Sniper Cell’s responsibility is the courseware – the manual and the lesson plan – while the course content is taught at the unit level.

The Sniper Cell is the Army’s central agency to receive all input, recommendations and observations from across Canada, Afghanistan and any other operation or source of input. The Sniper Cell evaluates the input and implements change to ensure that the sniper has the highest standard to deploy in any war scenario.

The School provides professional leadership for the Canadian Army’s cadre of snipers. The courses are standardized across Canada – there is no freelance instruction. New material is assessed by the Infantry School’s Sniper Cell, and only then is it passed to the units.

This standardized training is critical to ensure a standardized skillset throughout the Army, says Major Sean Dwyer, Officer Commanding B Company at the Infantry School. The Cell evaluates all new developments to determine the best options to maintain the Army’s high standard.

Doctrinal changes are mandated by new technologies and tactics – ours and the enemy’s. Each course is reviewed every several years, and occasionally significant changes are necessary, but smaller changes are communicated to the UMS on a monthly basis. For instance, if a sniper reports that an element of doctrine isn’t clear, changes are immediate. Similarly, observation of a change in Taliban tactics is reported and receives expedited attention.

Members of the battle group’s sniper team study the ground at their firing position for an exercise in high-altitude shooting in the mountains of this training area.

Sniper Detachment Commander Course
The 33-day Sniper Detachment Commander Course (SDCC) has two modules, usually conducted back-to-back. The first is to produce a sniper instructor, to learn how to run the unit’s sniper range and teach other snipers. The second module focuses on tactics. The Army’s high operational tempo requires focused and effective training within the SDCC. The material covered includes:

  • Tactical exercises without troops (TEWT) and Virtual Battle Space (VBS) exercises. VBS is not for sniper training, per se, but develops leadership skills for the master sniper. The simulation technology used here is extremely beneficial for a leader learning to deploy a sniper team.
  • Use of force and rules of engagement. Candidates are exposed to the full spectrum of war, such as in Afghanistan, and operations other than war, such as in the former Yugoslavia.
  • Surveillance and counter-surveillance exercises. This expertise separates ­Canadian Army snipers from their colleagues of other nations. Snipers are trained to provide forward observation require extreme stealth. Surveillance and counter-surveillance are integral in all phases of operations, including operations other than war, peacekeeping and mis­cellaneous operations.
  • Forward observation. Train for indirect fire missions from simulated artillery and air strikes. Later, they send actual fire missions to “the guns” and direct live fire.
  • Advise on sniper employment at the combat team level. A corporal or master corporal learns to efficiently brief a commanding officer about a sniper employment plan. For example, when the UMS tasks a sniper to support an infantry company, the sniper attends the company commander’s orders group (O-group) to advise how the sniper group can support that mission. This is unique to snipers; normally a junior non-commissioned officer doesn’t attend O-groups, but the sniper’s unique skills require this. “He may only have 30 seconds,” notes WO Girard, “so he has to make them count.”
  • Lead a sniper mission, where the candidate is given tasks to prepare and brief the chain of command. These missions cover the full spectrum of operations.
  • Sniper-specific urban operations. Modern conflict is frequently conducted in urban environments and is very different from field operations. Snipers are trained in all aspects of operations to expose them to everything that can possibly happen. They, in turn, can provide those skills to their fellow snipers.

The Canadian sniper is trained to understand the battle plan, assess where the group can have its most effective contribution, and brief it. When mission leaders receive a fire mission from “Callsign 66,” the sniper callsign, they know the qualifications, quality, training and experience of Canadian snipers, so when they respond to calls for a fire mission or an air strike, they are confident in the skills and professionalism of the sniper with eyes on the target.

Advanced Sniper Course
The 25-day Advanced Sniper Course produces soldiers capable of leading a sniper section or a sniper group. A sniper section comprises two four-member detachments and the group includes two sections and a master sniper (warrant officer), and a storeman/driver.

On completion, the advanced sniper can do the templating and miscellaneous administration to run a range. At the strategic level, he will advise the commander about measures that can address a problem or affect the battle. The master sniper is responsible for his group, and a key element of the Advanced Sniper Course is to train and prepare a sniper to advise his commander about sniper group training, budget and equipment.

Advanced ballistic lessons and specialized operational ranges enable candidates understand the effects of Canadian sniper weapons. Not only does the master sniper know the impact of the weapons, but is also familiar with the enemy’s weaponry and capacity so he can develop plans to counter these aspects and can advise the commander how to protect the unit.

TEWTs, Joint Conflict and Tactical Simulation (JCATS) and VBS are used as with the Sniper Detachment Commander Course, but at a higher level so that leadership skills are better developed. In the advanced course, they are not in front of the computer screens, but at the headquarters with their maps, following the progress of the battle and making responses when necessary. “The advanced sniper’s job is planning,” says WO Girard. “When planning is done properly, everything flows well. When there is significant change, it can be communicated to the commander.”

Brigade Planning
Planning a Material Neutralization Mission is a special tactic that takes the sniper behind enemy lines to use the rifle that delivers the biggest payload. This involves more planning than other missions and requires special consideration of factors which have to be planned by the UMS, such as air coverage, and consideration about collateral damage.

But it would be a mistake to think that each time a sniper targets an adversary through his scope there is a shot fired. There are times when it is better to pinpoint the leader and report the information so this person can be tracked to allow identification of leaders, planners and belligerents. This can lead to identification of adversaries who manufacture and place improvised explosive devices, or other leaders, and locations where enemy fighters meet.

A UMS must be able to develop innovative ranges, such as for mountainous areas, develop the ­necessary background knowledge, and train his subordinates for the specific ­environment.

Canadian International Sniper Concentration
The Canadian International Sniper Concentration (CISC) was inaugurated in 1997 with 11 teams from the Canadian Army, other national military forces, Canadian police forces, and observers from various nations. This event allows snipers to develop their skills and maintain proficiency levels within the Canadian Army, allied forces and police units through the medium of an international concentration. Because it is a concentration and not a competition, there is more sharing of information and experiences among participants.

The CISC provides realistic and relevant operational training; challenges the sniper’s skills through creative ranges; provides opportunities to share knowledge and experiences; and demonstrates current and future technologies.

All unit snipers participate in the CISC to assess their level of training. Sometimes a sniper discovers that his level of proficiency has deteriorated. “But at least that tool is there to tell them that they have missed the boat,” notes WO Girard.

The Canadian sniper cadre appreciates this annual challenge, so if they find their skills are below expectation, they can take steps to upgrade their abilities.

Other allied forces also demonstrate their skills and sometimes bring different operational experiences, such as those the U.S. forces encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both are different operations, and if the U.S. team attending CISC has Iraqi experience, they will bring a completely different set of skills than if they were in Afghanistan. Iraq involves more urban and insurrectionist experience. While Canada doesn’t have sniper experience in Iraq, they can assimilate their American colleagues’ lessons learned into Canadian practice.

How do Cdn Snipers Rate?
“Normally we are at the top,” says WO Girard with pride. The Canadian Army’s sniper profession has been continuously maintained, when other nations’ are used only when they become engaged in conflict. “It’s not because we’re necessarily better,” explains WO Girard.” It’s because we are continuously exposed to the specialty.” Canada can employ snipers at the tactical and strategic levels. There is no “tooth-to-tail” ratio with snipers. All Canadian snipers are teeth, meaning each one is a warrior.

Canadian snipers work as part of a small team. These soldiers are exceptionally fit, resilient and persistent – and ­normally very secretive about what they do; their operations and activities are shrouded in security. They are taught to lead and to plan; all contingencies are identified and incorporated into the planning process – whether it’s success, failure, victory or defeat, and everything in-between. If it can happen, it has to be included in the plan. The Canadian sniper always has to get away to fight another day. It works. Canada has never lost a sniper in action.
Tim Dunne served 37 years as a public affairs officer at DND and is now a military affairs analyst and writer living in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
© FrontLine Defence 2011