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Officer of Engineers
10 Jan 04,, 05:27
National Defense Magazine

January 2004

Canadian Army Snipers Gain From Afghanistan Experience (http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/article.cfm?Id=1309)

by Roxana Tiron


Drawing from their combat experience in Afghanistan, Canadian Army snipers are taking steps to improve their organization and equipment.

Canada has approximately 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization stabilization force. In support of the U.S.-led ground war, Canada deployed a 750-member infantry battalion from January to July 2002.

Canadian snipers unofficially were credited with killing 20 Al-Qaeda members during Operation Anaconda in the Shahi Kot Valley. Two sniper teams also were recommended for the U.S. Bronze Star.

The Canadian Army has a total of 317 qualified snipers, but not all of them are employed as such, Warrant Officer George Williams told National Defense. There are nine battalions in the Army, and each has eight snipers, he said. That number is poised to grow in the future, according to Williams.

The missions of the snipers depend on what the battalion does, explained Williams. “If our battalion is exercising a defensive role, then we employ our snipers in a defensive role, whether with an actual unit, forward or behind,” he said. “We may send them forward to secure a place in advance, [or] put them behind friendly troops to protect them.”

Before becoming snipers, Canadian soldiers have to score well on their annual weapons test, and also have to be physically fit, Williams said.

The biggest prerequisite, however, “is that you have to be a basic reconnaissance patrolman,” he said. It’s practically a guarantee that the candidates will be highly qualified, because reconnaissance troops already have received specialized training, he said. “The skills that they learn on the course also help them in the sniper course.”

In the past, however, the fact that snipers already were trained as reconnaissance patrolmen made sustaining their sniper skills problematic, because their battalion would employ them as scouts instead of sharpshooters.

In Afghanistan, “our snipers proved how they can influence the battlefield,” said Williams. For that reason, commanders now “look at it differently and allow the snipers to do their own thing.”

The basic sniper course lasts nine weeks, compared to the five-week U.S. Army course, said Williams.

“We cover conventional shooting. We cover field firing shooting, which is [based on] unknown distance, and the sniper has to judge the distance to the target,” said Williams. Students have to judge distance to a target within 5 percent—from 100 meters to 1,000 meters, he explained.

Another element of the course is tracking, which means the snipers have to find the clues that the enemy leaves behind. At a higher level, snipers learn to track the enemy over distances of 1,500 meters.

“We teach concealment. ... Then, we take that up to the next step, which is stalking,” said Williams.

“Stalking” requires a sniper to cover a certain area and shoot at an observation post undetected, hit the target within five meters, while remaining covert.

A key factor in training is observation. “We hide 12 objects in an area, and the snipers have to be able to locate the objects and identify what they are,” Williams said. “It is important for a sniper, when he is on the battlefield, to remember what he has seen, come back and accurately report [it],” he said.

Exercising the memory is part of the training regimen.

“We could have a scenario where you have an enemy soldier walk by and they have to tell what items he has,” he said. “We may not even tell them that they are going through this game.”

Once a soldier becomes a basic sniper, he goes through the six-week detachment planners’ course. “We will teach them how to instruct, how to advise commanders on the use of snipers,” said Williams. “We will get pretty heavy and thick into the shooting of our .50 caliber sniper rifle where we take into account factors like barometric pressure, shooting uphill, downhill, air temperature, ammo temperature.”

Next is the advanced course, where students learn how to be a sniper section commander. “Now, he has to be able to advise the commander of a battalion on how to employ his sniper section,” Williams said. “We also discuss conducting missions against material targets such as aircraft sitting on the ground, vehicle convoys.”

The Canadian sniper cells are introducing a new element to the advanced course, based on the soldiers’ experience in Afghanistan, said Williams. “We learned the value of calling in direct fire and close air support, which is something we have not done a lot of,” he said. “We are going to teach them how to call fire.”

Much like their Special Forces colleagues in the United States, the Canadian snipers now are reorganizing in four-men teams, instead of two-men teams. The main reason for the change is security, according to Williams.

“They need at least another person watching their back,” he said. Depending on the mission, they could choose to add either a third or fourth sniper to the team.

When operating in a three-or four-man team, snipers also may prefer a short-range rifle, said Williams. The Canadian Army is looking into procuring a 5.56 mm M-16 type rifle. The service also is testing a new version of the 7.62 mm sniper rifle, similar to the AR-10. Sharpshooters in Afghanistan are using that weapon, said Williams.

The Parker-Hale 7.62 mm sniper rifle has reached the end of its lifecycle, said Williams. The service is trying to replace it with a rifle than can fire .338 caliber rounds. “That rifle is pretty much the same weight [as the Parker-Hale]. The recoil is the same, but we have farther distances. We hope to get out to 1,200-1,500 meters with this new round,” said Williams. The main sniper weapon currently is the McMillan .50 caliber rifle.

Another factor determining the new team setup is the weight of the equipment.

In Afghanistan, the Canadian snipers each had to haul loads in excess of 160 pounds, said a sharp shooter who asked not to be identified by name. “We did not know how long we got to go,” he said. “One, time we went on a 38-hour mission, and we came 32 days later. It varies from mission to mission.”

OEF taught them the importance of carefully selecting every item that goes into the backpack, the sniper said. “We could have quite easily made our rucksacks so heavy that we could not have carried them,” he added.

Although their equipment in Afghanistan was adequate, it’s been reported in the Canadian press that the snipers resorted to the U.S. .50 caliber ammunition, because it performs better than the Canadian round.

According to Williams, “wind is the biggest problem we face.” The solution to that is an automatic ballistic computer that can calculate factors such as barometric pressure, air temperature, ammunition temperature, slant angle and spin drift. This computer has not yet been issued to all snipers, said Williams.

The Army is working on issuing a new sniper suit that would have padding and straps on both the elbows and knees, and special loops to tie in the camouflage material the snipers choose, depending on their missions. The suit is designed with pockets on the side and back, and has padding on the shoulder where the butt of the rifle usually lies.