In our conclusion to this three part series on sniping in Vietnam and the lessons learned in unconventional warfare, we try to answer the age old question, now what? If you have not read parts one or two, we recommend that you do that now.

After the draw down and departure of US combat forces from Vietnam, the fear was that the snipers would once again disappear from the rosters of the military, and in the case of the Army, that is exactly what happened. The XM21/M21 rifles were mothballed, and the schools disbanded. But the value and success of the sniper within the USMC was heralded and finally recognized for what they offered. The separate organization of the sniper platoons within the USMC seemed to have played a heavy role in highlighting the capabilities of snipers as the statistics and accomplishments were easier to track. The various leaders who set up the programs during the war fought for the permanent creation of a sniper school, a permanent MOS, formal organized sniper units, and for a modernization of the weapons and equipment…and they got it all. In 1976 the sniper MOS was created and the permanent addition of the Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA) platoons to the Battalion and in 1977 the new USMC Scout Sniper school opened at Quantico Virginia. Snipers have been an official part of the USMC since.

The US Army was slower to acknowledge the need for a permanent sniper organization, not opening their school and revamping their sniper program until 1987 when they opened their US Army Sniper School at Ft. Benning Georgia. The Army was slow to introduce the official organization and doctrine for the permanent sniper organizations as they moved through a period of uncertainty regarding their identity and purpose after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the removal of the conventional near-peer threat they had been planning to fight for nearly half a century. They were still not quite sure where their snipers belonged as they still did not recognize that they may once again be fighting an unconventional war in the future, but at least they recognized they needed the snipers.

Then 9/11 happened and the US entered a dramatic phase of war that did include a brief phase of conventional war during the invasion of Iraq, but for the most part consisted of twenty years of irregular warfare that highlighted the dramatic capability of the US Special Operation Forces. These SOF units did indeed include a significant number of dedicated snipers who performed admirably, including the famous exploits of Chris Kyle as a member of SEAL Team 3.

The effective utilization of snipers as vital members of these SOF teams during the GWOT can be directly attributed to the development of tactics and employment methods during the Vietnam War, but the equipment and skills have improved and once again snipers had to adapt, this time to the extreme tempo of operations conducted by the SOF during this time. It is difficult to assess the results and utilization of snipers within these units during the GWOT as everything was so fluid and dynamic and that assessment lies outside the scope of this study, but it is easy to recognize the employment methods of snipers within SOF as similar in nature, and can trace their roots to, those developed during Vietnam.

When focusing on the use of snipers within conventional forces in the future, it is useful to examine the success and utilization of snipers during the Vietnam War where snipers were attached to, and integral within, the conventional units and gave those commanders the ability to counter the guerrilla tactics of the enemy. Similarly today, having snipers as an integral part of the conventional forces gives these commanders the ability to counter irregular warfare tactics that are growing increasingly common among the limited rules of engagement conflicts the US finds itself in. Such operations include counterterrorism, hostage situations, COIN, insurgency support, and many others. Having a specialized asset that can help with these operations directly attached to the conventional forces gives additional flexibility and capability to the unit commander.

Additional training for the Sniper Employment Officers within the small company level units can help enhance the knowledge of the conventional units to deploy and utilize these snipers more effectively. Continued efforts on these fronts would be beneficial long term, as no officers are allowed to attend sniper school and as such, there is no institutional knowledge within leadership of exactly what snipers can do for the units.

As was illustrated during the Vietnam War, snipers have a specialty that allows them to fight an irregular and unconventional war and it may be beneficial to build upon that capability in the future and provide additional training to the snipers to act not only as unconventional warriors, but to be the subject matter experts for the unit commanders of whom those snipers may be attached. Not only can snipers be used as direct combatants in these conflicts, but being able to provide additional knowledge and leadership to those unfamiliar with this type of warfare would be of value. Such specialized training to enable snipers to train the leadership may be best restricted to the senior NCOs within the sniper cells and this training does not currently exist and would need to be developed.

Now that the twenty-year long GWOT has come to an end and the US transitions once again to a large scale near-peer military doctrine, the discussion has again surfaced regarding the disbandment of snipers, and surprisingly, it has originated within the USMC. This thought will unfortunately lead to once again a USMC that finds itself lacking in capability when the next conflict inevitably begins. Russia has demonstrated in its war in Ukraine that even in a more conventional war, there still are unconventional warfare elements, further emphasizing a need among the conventional forces to fight unconventional warfare, likely utilizing snipers to lead these efforts.

Snipers are not superheroes or even super-soldiers, but they are specially trained using tactics and lessons learned during the Vietnam War on how to fight unconventional wars. Continuing to employee these soldiers using these lessons learned from Vietnam will help insure a capable and flexible fighting unit on all levels in all types of future combat arenas.

Mel E. – Editor in Chief, Sniper Central
with assistance from Stirling E. – Global Affairs Analyst, Sniper Central

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