As modern conflicts have showcased new and formidable technologies, it has become tempting to think that the role of snipers will shortly be replaced or negated by new innovations. This has become part of the rationale for an ongoing trend away from snipers, most evident in the USMC’s recent decision to abandon them altogether.1 Drones in particular are being evaluated both as the replacement for snipers and as their counter when combined with advanced sensors. These considerations constitute major challenges and demand adaptation, but a human sniper will always have a unique and critical role to play in war.

The war in Ukraine has already demonstrated how technology and drones have begun to diminish and alter the use of snipers.2 Cheap drones weaponized with explosives seemingly offer a quicker and less risky alternative for seeing the enemy and eliminating key targets, the service that snipers have traditionally been trained for. Additionally, the aerial perspective of drones and the use of thermal and other advanced sensors can compromise a sniper’s concealment and thus their greatest defense. For these reasons and others, the training and use of traditional two-man teams has not yet been a priority in the most modern conflicts.

It now lies with the sniping community and the leaders that utilize them to adapt the field appropriately and imagine how it will fit into the warfare of the future. This will likely take the form of adjustments to sniper doctrine that play to relative strengths and work closely with other components of armed forces.

For example, snipers might begin to take advantage of the fact that most drones are still dependent on good weather. Long range observation and shooting can be complicated by bad weather, but a trained marksman would not be severely impeded by them like a drone is. Another advantage of snipers is that they are able to avoid detection much easier than a flying drone, leaving open the possibility of observing an enemy without their knowledge. The high speed, immediate applications of unmanned aircraft also contrast with a less obvious advantage of people on the ground: the ability to wait. Concealed snipers weaponize patience as they await approaching enemies, conduct extended reconnaissance, or allow the optimum opportunity to arise before acting. Energy limitations and a greater chance of detection shorten the window that drones have to employ any of those tactics.

Successfully deploying snipers to capitalize on these advantages will require adaptations to stay protected from enemy drones. Most anti-drone weaponry will be too cumbersome for a sniper team, meaning that their advantage will, as always, lie in their ability to remain undetected. This will include a greater emphasis on communication with intel components of the military to increase awareness of enemy drone presence and avoid dangerous areas. Operating through areas with friendly ‘drone’ air superiority will also limit danger, but when those options are not sufficient, hiding from aerial drones is still possible with training and care. Utilizing hills, buildings, and tree cover to stay concealed remains as important as ever, and employing space blankets and constructing hides can help diminish the effectiveness of drones with advanced imagery such as thermal. Focusing military research on discovering additional ways to avoid detection would surely be a worthwhile investment for many aspects of warfare, including sniping. Snipers trained with a focus on new technologies and supported by their fellow soldiers will undoubtedly prove just as effective as their predecessors.

The challenges facing modern snipers are significant and must be considered, but they are far from insurmountable. Just as marksmen from each prior war have been very distinct from one another, so to will the snipers of the future look different than the ones we know now.

Stirling E.
Sniper Central Global Affairs Analyst

2 Comments

Uri

True, but:
1. drones will only improve their detection capabilities;
2. Speed with which an enemy drive can enter an area that was “drone-free” and combination of multiple surveillance mechanisms works imperil hides even more;
3. Human endurance and ability to wait isn’t limitless – it’s feasible that drones will eventually if not soon be able to outlast a human “waiting” for targets.

Add long as humans will participate in the battlefield, there will be a need for sharpshooters, but how much of the scouting role will remain for the future snipers, remains to be seen.

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mele-02

Yes, drone battery life is improving, but I do not foresee them reaching 24-48 hours of on-station capability for a good number of years still, until there is a revolutionary battery technology break through, the added weight from added batteries for added duration flights, actually fights against the capability of added duration. Now, the sensor enhancements is indeed a growing concern and will continue to be. Something to remember is also the counter-drone technology also continues to evolve and also comes into play here.

An additional thought of which we are exploring doing another article on is actually using snipers for counter drone operations. There are some compelling reasons why this would be effective that should be explored.

Thanks for your comments and contributing to this needed discussion!

MEL

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