Way Off Target?

Indian paramilitary soldier guards against Maoist rebel attacks as he patrols a forest in Midnapore District in West Bengal.

They are, he declares, incrementally finding acceptance amongst COIN planners as is the operational reality that a lone marksman, under particular circumstances, can be the most effective weapon or decisive smart-bomb on the battlefield.  He can, further adds the officer, be equally valuable in a law enforcement role as a sniper is frugal in his logistics and precise in ways that many in the Indian military and security circles are unable to comprehend.

“The sub-conventional warfare that India faces mandates acquiring certain specialist skills,” former Lt. Gen. V. K. Kapur says, adding that snipers should constitute an essential part of this unconventional response.  It is high time that the Indian Army awoke to this reality, the officer declared.

Accordingly, to augment its precision strike capacity, the Army is in the process of importing 900-1,000 sniper rifles for its SF and other specialized, clandestine units via the Fast Track Procedure (FTP).

A high level team from Army Headquarters including sharpshooters led by a two-star officer is to visit Israel, Finland and the U.S. in late October to evaluate three competing sniper rifles for outright purchase for an estimated $10-12 million.  The procurement deadline for these weapons was December 2010, but frequent postponements that underscore all Indian defense purchases are expected to considerably delay the procurement.

The contending sniper rifles include Finland’s bolt action SAKO TRG-22/24, Israel Weapon Industries (IWIs) semiautomatic Galil 7.62x54mm sniper model and SIG Sauer of USA’s SSG 3000 bolt action, magazine-fed rifle.

Of these three rival models, the SF and the SFF – also known as Establishment 22 – the Army’s shadowy paramilitary commando unit based at Chakrata near Dehra Dun and presently under the operational supervision of the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing who employ them for ‘special’ missions – have imported 130 Galil sniping rifles and some 450,000 rounds of ammunition in 2005 for around $1.4 million.

Security experts, however, lament that the growing realization of sniper efficacy is in inverse proportion to awareness with regard to their management, immediate tactical advantage that they are capable of providing and their larger strategic significance.  This is further compounded by near total ignorance regarding the mass of specialized weapons and associated equipment available worldwide to render sniping efficient.

As a result, framing qualitative requirements (QRs) for sniper rifles and correlated apparatus poses a grave problem for the Army.  It is a lesser handicap for the paramilitaries and newly raised State Police commando units for which the NSG, with its relatively wider sniping experience, is the designated QR initiator and, in many instances, also the weapons tester.

The Army’s QRs, drawn up in support of its current sniper rifle requirement, appears to have been by framed by ill-informed and tenderfoot infantry officers with seemingly no field experience.

Budget Debate
Surprisingly, the QR mandates no accuracy standard for sniper rifles at a minimum strike range of 800 m – the fundamental requirement for such a weapon system – but absurdly requires them to be fitted with a bayonet.

It is incomprehensible as to why the QR, which requires the rifle for employment at a distance of over 800 m, needs a bayonet, which is a close quarter combat weapon.  Does the Infantry Directorate really anticipate a comic situation in which a sniper actually bayonet-charges the enemy?

Professional shooters contend that the need for a bayonet will normally be found only on a self-loading sniper rifle like the Galil, which has been accurized or improved for better accuracy, thereby raising serious doubts over the QR’s objectivity.

It is also possible that in framing the QR a conflict has been generated, doubtless by ignorance, over the difference between a sniper rifle and a designated marksman rifle.  The latter is less specialized than a military sniper rifle, largely intended to extend the strike range of a group of soldiers.

Target practice by Indian Army snipers using 7.62x54R caliber SVD Dragunov rifles.

Officials privately concede the complete ludicrousness of the bayonet requirement, but grumble that shoddy planning has precluded the inclusion of a host of available sniper weapons like H&K’s PSG1A1 and MSG90, UK Accuracy International’s AS50, McMillan of USA’s Tac-50, Barett’s various M82 models also from the U.S. and FR F1/F2 of MAS France to name just a few of the leading weapons employed by the world’s armies in conflict situations.

However, to change these QRs will further delay the sniper rifle purchase interminably as it necessitates the Defense Minister’s intervention, which always takes time.  Conversely, under hidebound Defense Procurement Procedure regulations, not fitting a bayonet onto whichever rifle emerges as the best option can and in all probability will result in its rejection for failing to comply with mandated specifications.

“Ironically, the FTP route has the option to delete or modify compliance to some extent, but the Army’s weapons directorate has paid little heed to bidding for competitive systems, severely compromising the snipers’ operational efficiency,” a mid-ranking SF officer says.

The August 2009 sniper rifles’ Request for Proposal (RfP) also does not differentiate between a bolt action or semiautomatic model.  Instead, it demands a nebulous capability requiring the rifle to fire either one or five rounds, a facility open to interpretation by vendors producing either of the two versions to suit their individual commercial interests.

With around 180 H&K PSG1A1 sniper rifles inducted soon after their raising in 1986, the NSG are the most proficient Indian sharpshooters and ones who regularly practice their marksmanship and related disciplines.  However, they too are aiming to replace their entire sniping weapons stock by acquiring new PSG1A1’s for Rs 8-10 core.

Alongside, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is to re-tender its requirement for 807 sniper rifles – 433 bolt action and 374 semiautomatic models – as at least four vendors like Switzerland’s Brugger & Thomett, Russia’s Rosoboron export, H&K and South Africa’s Truvelo were summarily rejected for specious reasons as the QRs were yet again amateurish.

The NSG has now been tasked by the Home Ministry with drawing up for the CRPF a fresh sniper rifle QR and a tender in support of this is expected to be dispatched soon.  The Border Security Force and Indo-Tibetan Border Police, for their part, have a cache of 100-150 Steyr Manlicher SSG69s, which they utilize sparingly and could soon be seeking replacements.

Bolt Action vs. the Rest
Meanwhile, police forces in the border States of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra and those in Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Orissa engaged in battling Maoists too are acquiring sniper rifles, albeit in smaller numbers but in a frenzied hurry.  So far they are placing scant emphasis on either sniper training or developing tactical doctrines of resourcefully employing them gainfully, in turn, in urban, jungle and even arid desert scenarios.

In professional sniping circles, the rivalry between a bolt action and a semiautomatic recoil or gas operated-sniper rifle has never been satisfactorily resolved and it is unlikely that it ever will.  Experts maintain that both types have operational advantages and disadvantages and that large numbers of each kind have been inducted for military and law enforcement tasks around the world.  However, one frequently repeated teaser surrounding this debate is that the bolt action sniper rifle gets more kills per shot than a semi-auto sniper rifle, but the semi-auto gets more total kills.  Or, as an anonymous shooter quips, “If you don’t have time to do it [snipe] right, will you have time to do it again?”

Users claim that the bolt action sniper rifle, considered by many shooters as the purists’ weapon, is easier to maintain, more reliable, accurate and lighter and having few moving parts in its mechanism, is easy to assemble.  While firing, its only moving parts are the pin and spring greatly mitigating any chance of either a malfunction or any of its rounds being thrown off target.

Military snipers are often required to carry their rifles for long distances across difficult terrain and to become operational speedily, thus making lightness and ease of assembly important.  The absence of an external magazine in a bolt action model too allows for relatively versatile positioning whilst firing and the absence of uncontrolled cartridge case ejection, like in a semiautomatic equivalent, helps conceal the shooter.  In many instances, this can mean his very survival.

Typically, Indian Army snipers lack training and adequate equipment. Here, an instructor from the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division (Tropic Lightning) helps familiarize Indian snipers with the US 5.56x45mm M4A1 Carbine.

Most semi-automatic sniping rifles on the other hand have gas tubes that redirect some of the propellant gases upwards and rear-wards to retract the bolt and feed a new cartridge into the breech from the magazine.  Experts say that this not only reduces muzzle velocity, but the expulsion of propellant gases can contribute towards the element of ‘muzzle rise’ resulting, possibly in a miss.  Pinpoint precision is vital to sniping where even a 1/10mm variation at the time of firing at a quarry 800-1,000 m distant can result in the round missing its target by a wide margin.

But some Western, particularly U.S. Army snipers, aver that semiautomatic sniping rifles have a definite tactical advantage over the bolt action model.  They reason that fundamentally with a semiautomatic rifle the shooter can keep his eye on the target through his telescope if a second shot is needed which he can immediately take.

And, though the snipers one-shot, one kill code has a certain appealingly boastful resonance to it in many situations, it is frequently the second or subsequent rounds that count. Innumerable atmospheric, environmental and topographical variables come into play at the time of firing that can, and often do, adversely impinge on the first bullet’s flight.  Successive rounds with changes effected following feedback from the first shot can, more often than not, be more effective.

In contrast, the bolt action shooter can do one of two things when he misses: chamber a new round into the breech taking his eye off his objective thus temporarily losing sight of it; or alternately, continue to observe his target and then cycle the bolt later, but once again crucially losing sight of it.  Either way, the bolt action rifle marksman is unable to take a follow-up shot instantly with the necessary sight correction by which time his quarry – in all probability, alerted to the danger – shifts or worse, takes cover.

Specialists claim that because of this drawback many militaries and law enforcement agencies worldwide have switched to semiautomatic sniper rifles due largely to the rapidity of firing additional, follow- up rounds without reloading. A police semiautomatic sniper rifle, for instance, can be used in situations requiring a single shooter to engage multiple targets in quick succession; his military equivalent can be equally effective using this model in a target-rich environment.

Another indicator of the Army’s consciousness regarding snipers and their functional employability is its endeavor to acquire simulators to improve its sharpshooter’s skills in varying terrain and situations on the battlefield and for COIN and urban terrorist operations.

In a global RfP, dispatched in February 2010, the Infantry School requires the simulator to be capable of projecting different terrain including high altitude regions with heights ranging from 9,000-19,000 feet, urban and rural areas including deserts and jungles in which trainee snipers can hone their kills under day and night conditions and bad weather including rain, fog and snow.

The ruggedized, all-weather simulators should also be able to provide snipers a realistic feel whilst engaging stationary and moving targets at ranges between 100-1,300 m.  It must be able to train the sniper to operate in actual tactical and combat situations with simultaneous multiple-target depiction to enable him to prioritize and effectively appoint his quarry.

The Infantry School is also conducting trials for Combat Training Simulator Systems of which it plans on acquiring 7, followed by an additional 20, to conduct live tactical exercises collectively involving around 1,500 troops, including snipers in an actual battlefield milieu.

Also under consideration is the eventual procurement of nearly 700 Infantry Weapon Training Simulator to facilitate marksmanship training and to exercise battle handling of various weapons by individuals and groups in conventional and unconventional tactical operations.

In conclusion, the mission of the shoot-and-scoot military sniper, who looks for targets of opportunity is different from that of his paramilitary or police equivalent tasked largely with neutralizing specific objectives.  Operating in less than ideal conditions, at the mercy of the environment, taking shadows, wind speed, light patterns into account and highly dependent on improvisation and imagination, the military sniper takes his shot from a distance of 800 m or more.

A riveting 1944 German Army snipers training black-and-white film stresses how the sharpshooter must evaluate the minutest details in his environment, developing primeval instincts of the hunter in the fatal battle of nerves with his victim.  He needs to be precise: for once he reveals his firing position, he is vulnerable and needs to either make a getaway or shift location swiftly as the enemy will be seeking him.  In multiple-target situations, however, snipers can use relocation effectively not only to spawn chaos and confusion in enemy ranks, but also to eliminate the wind factor which may be more advantageous elsewhere.

The police or paramilitary sniper, on the other hand operating in a controlled environment tries to get as close to his quarry as is possible and fires normally from a comfortable or flat surface.  However, unlike the military sniper, the inherent disadvantage he operates under is that a miss can mean hostage deaths whereas a miss by a military sniper can go unnoticed, resulting in no immediate crisis except to the shooter.  In short, one man’s fate comes from another man’s wait.

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