Wow! This was likely the first reaction from many of you when the news broke a few weeks ago that the USMC was eliminating the long standing STA platoons from the infantry battalions. The headlines were difficult to take in, some saying it was the end of sniping in the corps, others saying they were just being reorganized. We wanted to wait and find out what the real news was and do some of our own background work before commenting on it here. Without a doubt, the USMC has been the driver of modern sniping in the US Armed forces, so we wanted to be sure we got the story right before adding our own comments.
The first thing that should be mentioned is that this is not a complete surprise. The USMC has been doing an extensive evaluation on their current force structure for a few years now under the title of ‘Marine Corps Force Design 2030’. The idea was to help reorganize the USMC into a more streamlined and flexible force in order to deal with an evolving and fluid battlefield with near power forces such as China and Russia. The idea was to look at what was needed to fill this role and then what would need to change with the current force structure to achieve those capabilities. One of the shortcomings that was identified with the current force structure that the study discovered was that there was a need for more and direct access to all weather recon capability for commanders from the company level on up.
The first mention of potential changes to the “Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA)” platoons (the more technical term for sniper platoons) seems to have emanated in the fall of 2022, but the talk back then was very different than what officially was decided. The initial talk in 2022 was that the STA platoons would be broken up and a sniper team would then be attached to each infantry company, giving the company commander their own scout sniper capability permanently assigned to the unit. This was actually interesting to me because when I was a sniper for the Army National Guard in the 1990’s, this was exactly the configuration we utilized for mechanized infantry units, which I was a part of. There are certain benefits, and drawbacks, to this organization structure…but it could work and likely achieve their ultimate goals.
Enter 2023 and the final force structure decision and what appears to be a fairly draconian approach. The decision has been made to convert all Battalion STA platoons to Scout Platoons and to eliminate the Scout Snipers from the infantry units. Their argument for this approach was that during test exercises it was determined that the single scout sniper team embedded into the company did not improve the scouting capability enough to satisfy their goals and that a dedicated scout platoon with increased head count would be the solution to their needs. A typical STA platoon has 18 scout snipers and the new Scout Platoons will have four teams of six scouts, for a total of 24, plus a NCO-IC and Platoon Leader (1st LT). The USMC basic sniper course, which has been around since the 1970’s in various configurations, will be disbanded and the Scout Sniper MOS (0317) will also go away.
In a feeble attempt to avert criticism, the leadership indicated that the long range precision rifle capability in the infantry company will be handled by the Squad Designated Marksman (DM) and that the USMC will maintain its sniping capability by the newly established Reconnaissance Snipers and the USMC Special Operations (Raider) snipers. While this is true as both of those units have their own advanced sniper schools and the Recon Snipers even have their own MOS (0322), the problem is that those units have their own important missions and tasking them to fulfill sniping requirements for the infantry units will likely not happen due to their own operational needs and functions.
So lets look at what this reorganization achieves for the USMC, and where it falls short. There technically should be an increased reconnaissance capability for the infantry battalion, this is achieved by the increased platoon size and especially by narrowing the focus of the platoon to scouting only. So they met their overall objective and checked the box. But what have they given up to do so? Yes, a DM has some extended range precision capability, but the lack of fieldcraft training and capability limits the use of the DM to engagements that directly effect the squad. If the DM were to be removed from the squad to provide overwatch capability, it dramatically reduces the manpower of the squad itself, and even then the DM does not typically have the training in concealment that is needed for proper overwatch. Yes, sometimes you want the enemy to know there are long guns providing overwatch and for the overwatch to be visible, but many times you do not. And what about the other many missions the sniper teams perform that a DM is not trained for? Counter-Sniper operations, hunter killer missions for enemy forward observers and crew served weapons, and perhaps most importantly the role they play in Counter Insurgency (COIN) operations in low intensity conflicts such as the sniper’s role in countering IEDs or precision strikes against armed insurgents with innocents nearby. All of that capability has now been lost to the infantry commander. And we will not get into the psychological effect the snipers have on enemy forces, the true force multiplier capability of sniper teams. Additionally, while the STA platoons only had 18 snipers formed into 9 two man teams. The new Scout platoons have only 4 teams of 6 scouts…that only allows them to be tasked out to 4 different operations. Having the 9-two man teams allowed for more flexibility of use when performing recon operations…that flexibility is now also lost.
When the news first was released, we were surprised like everyone else, but we thought that surely there must be some silver lining, the USMC would not have completely thrown out their prestigious history of sniping, right? As we researched it, the answer unfortunately was yes. It reminds us of the history of modern sniping. Snipers were rushed into service in World War I and played an integral part. Then the war ended and they were disbanded…obviously that was a unique circumstance and they will not be needed again. Then two decades later, World War II broke out and snipers were rushed into service again. Only to be disbanded once more, and then Korea, then Vietnam, the same story. Finally the USMC decided to get smart and make snipers a permanent part of the USMC infantry units after Vietnam and established perhaps the most prestigious sniper corps in the world. How ironic that it is the USMC who now thinks they are no longer needed…those that fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.