I'd be curious to hear/read your impressions of the modifications that have been made to sniper employment doctrine based on operations in OIF, i.e. the use of larger elements with organic security for sniper teams, and the employment of multiple snipers in the same hide site. From your standpoint, what has that done to the future of the sniper role, and how does that correlate to the actual role of the SDM (packing an accurized M14 or an SR25), versus the doctrinal role of the SDM, packing the same M4/M16 platform as the rest of the squad?Unfortunately a simple question often gets a complicated answer fairly quickly, such as "How do magnets work?" Or in this case, "what the hell is Big Army thinking about SDM and Sniper Ops?" To sum up how complicated the answer to that simple question is, this is only the first of two posts trying to scratch the surface of a thoughtful and complete answer.
As an aside, sometimes I think the Army has doctrine just so it can be ignored. "Doctrine is just guidelines" is something I hear often.
The missions for snipers in a Counter Insurgency (COIN) environment are much more fluid than in a traditional high intensity conflict. Comparing the roles of Marine Snipers in the second battle of Fallujah (very effective at killing enemy insurgents) to stability and support operations conducted by Army snipers in Baghdad and you see very different aspects of the same job. In one you gave your snipers a "free hand" to engage targets of opportunity in support of an infantry assault and clear operation. In the other you have a "soldier as a sensor" who may or may not have a "Be On the Look Out" list (BOLO) of targets that he is cleared to engage. Different tactics dictated by different circumstances, operational goals, and even different commanders.
So how did we get there? Well modern Army/USMC sniping began in the jungles of Vietnam. The modern Marine Corps and Army sniping programs trace their roots back to that conflict, and the tactics that worked there are still the fundamental basis for sniper operations and training. This is the traditional two man team, ghillie suited up, crawling into position to take a shot. No matter the environment, these principles apply, even if the tactics and equipment changes.
In an urban desert environment a ghillie suit doesn't help you much, so your camouflage has to be different. A man-dress, a head scarf, a rifle that doesn't look like a sniper rifle.
In the jungle a two man team was the right mix of capability and security, two men, three rifles, two pistols. In the urban desert environment, it became clear that three men was the new bare minimum, and that third man needed to carry an m249 SAW for firepower. Three men, three rifles, one machine gun, one grenade launcher. Often a fourth man was added for more security, and more batteries for communication.
In the jungle there was no need for a Squad Designated Marksman as most engagements were close, the VC hugged American units to deny them use of artillery and air support. In the urban desert engagements got a lot longer, as the enemy hid amongst the civilian population and conducted complex ambushes and attacks on coalition forces. It became clear that having two SAW gunners per squad who were trained to shoot out to 600 meters was insufficient to deal with the "no mans land" between 300 meters and 600 meters.
Arming the SDMs became a heated issue. Everyone wants an M14 because it is cool. The actual ballistic requirement is easily satisfied by a rack grade M4 shooting ball ammunition. However, multiple SDM courses were stood up (the best by the AMU) and many SDM's were trained. Snipers traditionally took the SDM's under their wing during home station training and taught them such things as spotting, range estimation, so that if needs be the SDMs could augment the Sniper teams. This worked out really well, as now you could split up the B4 (sniper qualified) snipers into separate teams with two SDMs apiece and increase your tactical options. Normally the SR25/M110 is reserved for actual snipers as there aren't enough to go around the Army just yet.
All of this "sniper" training generally pulled the best qualified SDMs away from the squads and into the BN (or Company) Sniper teams, leaving the Squads with the same problem of not having a precise shooter to engage small targets at long range. The best answer isn't to get rid of SDM "sniper" training, but to train more riflemen to actually shoot their damn rifle.
Now, arming all those SDM is still a contentious issue, I gave mine an M14 when I could in Iraq, but an M4 was the only thing I could get them to train on at home station. The M4 with an ACOG is perfectly adequate for an SDM, and even many of our B4 snipers chose that combination when conducting urban operations (infiltration, don't look like a sniper).
In the end the SDM ended up to the Regular Army much like the 75th Ranger Regiment ended up to SOCOM, all things to all people. SDM training is very much unit specific answer despite an official Infantry School course that spits out fairly competent marksmen for a unit to use as they see fit. The overall trend in usage is as "baby snipers" instead of "dedicated marksmen" in terms of training (this is because the B4 qualified Snipers are usually tasked with SDM training at the BN level). Doctrinally this is wrong, but tactically it is right as it forces commanders to utilize snipers in normal operations as a combat multiplier (integration of enablers is the big enduring lesson to officers who are veterans of OIF/OEF).
Unfortunately the real reason for this trend is that new Lieutenants are NOT taught how to properly train, equip, and sustain SDMs at the platoon level. Even Captains who graduate the Career Course are not given an official block of instruction on how to manage that (because doctrinally much of the training is left up to the unit, so no need to teach it right?). That is why the B4 Snipers at BN level (or Company level in a Stryker unit) are passed that torch.
So where does all this point to? SDM's are often best used to augment real snipers to increase the number of Sniper teams available to the commander. Snipers who are actually snipers choose a rifle that is suitable for the task they are given (the Barrett is cool, but no one needs it to do anything but stop a vehicle or punch through a wall), which often includes a standard issue rifle with an optic. SDM's get their training on an M4 with an ACOG, but are often handed an M14 and told to "figure it out" in combat. Would I like to see enough M110s in the inventory to give one to every Infantry Squad? Yes, but would that actually increase the effectiveness of that Infantry Squad? No, not without additional training.