When I was in the US Army back in the 1990s and went through the US Army Sniper School at Fort Benning, things were quite different than they are now. Back then, the sniper role was more traditional where we were trained to operate as a two man team acting as scouts and snipers targeting targets of opportunity and key select targets. We were either part of a scout platoon if we were light infantry or tied directly to the company commander if we were mechanized infantry. That organization has changed some since then as well as the training and employment of snipers, these changes were based on things learned from the global war on terror.
While we spent a fair amount of time on the perishable skill of long range marksmanship with our M24s, there was actually far more time and effort dedicated to the art of fieldcraft as a sniper team. Stalking, target detection, sketching, patrol logs, FFP construction, KIMS skills, and many other every day skills were a huge focus of our routine training protocol. I would estimate that 90% of our training was in fieldcraft and not marksmanship. Then the GWOT got underway in 2001, and in some areas it is still going, and things changed dramatically after snipers found themselves in high intensity urban warfare battles in Iraq. These were battles where the traditional role of the sniper was thrown out the window as well as sound sniper fieldcraft rules, such as not firing multiple shots from the same location, or engaging a target at ranges closer than our ballistic advantage would dictate. This was out of necessity, not by choice, the snipers did what they had to do to be effective. This caused the sniper to find himself in a role that was more like a designated marksman than the traditional sniper.
At the same time, in Afghanistan, there were wide open areas where combat consisted of engaging small bands of terrorist style tribes at ranges that grew further and further. From mountain tops, edges of towns and villages, or rolling hills. Ranges that went beyond 1500 meters and even on occasion exceeded 2000 meters. This then drove the need for more extreme range capable rifles. Such as the newly adopted Mk13Mod7 rifle by the USMC, or the XM2010 rifle by the US Army. Not to mention the big 338 Lapua and .50 BMG rifles used by special operations and other countries. The emphasis was being placed on extreme range engagements versus the traditional role of snipers using fieldcraft to perform their traditional mission of sneak, peak, and then shoot if the opportunity presented itself.
Is fieldcraft dead? Is there any need to take the time to train snipers how to stalk with a ghillie suit? How to setup a hide or long range antenna to use with radios? How about target detection now that video camera technology and drones provide 24/7 surveillance? These are all valid questions and as the role of the sniper continues to evolve, they are questions we have to evaluate and determine if they are important.
I would say that while the traditional use of fieldcraft as I was trained in the 1990s may not be dead, it has certainly changed. We trained primarily to operate as a lone 2-man team ahead of the main body to provide eyes on target at least 24 hours in advance of our main body. We would insert as a sniper team, or be given an area of operation if we were sent out on disruptive operations such as hunter killer missions. The whole time we would be providing eyes and ears to the CO as well as taking out targets of opportunity, doing what we could to disrupt the enemy, crushing morale and acting as a force multiplier. The main thing here is that we were training to fight a traditional war against a fixed opponent. The mission was to defend western Europe or provide aide to embattled countries. With the War on Terror, this changed. The enemy is not fixed, but very flexible, and not holding a defensive position. Because of this, the tactics changed for the sniper, especially when it comes to fighting an enemy that blends and hides among the population of a town or city. The modern means of waging warfare in this type of war has dictated that the military as a whole change their tactics, which then necessitated that snipers change their tactics.
So, traditional sniper fieldcraft has died to some extent, but the theories still apply. Stalking in a city or in the desert is different than a stalk through the forests in Europe, but the concepts are the same. Using dead space, blending into the environment, using shadows, etc. are all still just as important, just applied differently. For conducting sniper training today, those fieldcraft theories need to be taught, but not in such a rigid fashion. Instead of every practice stalk happening in the same type of terrain, be sure to include desert, city, open fields, mountains, and any other areas your team may operate in. Target detection is likely even more important, even a predator drone cannot properly identify all targets correctly especially in city-scape areas. Be sure to evolve as the situation evolves, make it real.
The same can be said for building and finding final firing positions, which obviously needs to incorporate urban training. The fieldcraft capability of the sniper team is still there, though some training and instruction for the Sniper Employment Officer might be needed so they know how to best use the teams capabilities. The team also needs to be imaginative and creative in how they pull off operations. If they fail to use proper fieldcraft and have to be emergency extracted from a location, they may lose the faith of their CO or SEO in what they can do. So don’t kill fieldcraft, just evolve it as needed and keep devoting about 90% of your training time to it…you will be glad you did.
One final note that concerns modern news. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the traditional European defensive doctrine is now back on the table. Once again a large armada of tanks and traditional fighting units is taking center stage as the Russian mass of troops has pushed deep into Ukraine. All of a sudden, what was old, is now current and new again. All of the traditional fieldcraft that we were taught now is back to being current and important. Ukraine has shown that a determined and desperate fighting force can pose a significant problem to a vastly superior, in terms of size, opposing force. This type of war is very favorable to the specialized skills and capabilities of snipers. It is amazing how much a single well place shot can slow an advancing army. The amount of time it takes to react to a sniper is quite phenomenal and there is no doubt these tactics are being used in this war.
So again, fieldcraft is showing just how important it really is.