The Desert Sniper
ABOVE: A sniper uses a Kestrel 5700 Elite Weather Meter with Applied Ballistics to gauge the wind prior to taking a shot.
The sun rises over the white sun-bleached plains of La Mancha, Spain. Without casting a silhouette on the orange sky, a pair of snipers crawl, unhurried, on hands and knees to the crest of a hilltop. In the distance a faint humming emerges overhead in the cloudless Spanish sky.
“Stay still,” the American says.
“Si, il silenzio,” the Italian whispers.
The drone hovers over the sunburned hilltop scanning the ground beneath it—a minute passes and it ascends, continuing its flight into the valley below. The American and the Italian nod at each other and continue their crawl on the crest. Resting behind some low brush, the American rolls to his side, tugs at the buttons of his pants pocket and pulls out his SIG SAUER Kilo2400ABS Rangefinder.
“Look north of the road,” the Italian says.
“At the bend, I see it” the American says.
“Si. How far?”
“Wait one.” The American holds the Rangefinder steady.
“Six hundred and twenty-three meters.”
“Let us move closer—the shrubs to our right. We can shoot from there,” says the Italian as he gestures to the American.
In July 2017, 24 snipers from across the globe participated in the desert sniper course at the International Special Training Centre in Chinchilla, Spain. The best of the best from NATO attend; everything is on the line and failure is not an option.
The Centre is the only common training center used by NATO. Nine nations comprise ISTC: Germany, Belgium, Greece, the U.S., Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and Turkey. The Center began from the mind of German officer Maj. Konrad Rittmeyer and his acknowledgment of the German Army’s absence of a dedicated long-range reconnaissance unit. Rittmeyer passionately studied the Finnish army’s long-range patrol teams from World War II; teams which carried out reconnaissance and sabotage missions deep into Soviet territory. Maj. Rittmeyer also relied on the exceptional skills of the German Gebirgsjäger (mountain infantry), Fallschirmjäger (parachute infantry) and NATO allies.
Rittmeyer’s concept proved popular enough to allow the creation of a Fernspäher school in Weingarten, South Germany. This institution would reflag as the International Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol School and later move to Pfullendorf.
In May 2001, the ILRRPS became known as ISTC. Under the direction of the Joint Multinational Training Command, ISTC sets the example of NATO military training and collaboration with its ability to blend the tactics, techniques and procedures of multiple countries. ISTC creates a collective frame of reference among these nations. The result is improved interoperability during combat as observed in Desert Storm, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
The tactical branch of ISTC has four sniper courses: Basic, Urban, High Angle/Urban and the Desert Sniper Course. The desert sniper course is at the National Training Centers east of Albacete, Spain, in the neighboring town of Chinchilla de Montearagón.
That course teaches the skills necessary to deliver precision fire from concealment in a desert environment. The course has two phases—the first phase concentrates on long-range marksmanship, and the second phase focuses on the planning and execution of sniper missions in harsh desert conditions.
During the first week, the cadre of ISTC choose ranges that offered 180-degree firing points with targets at distances of up to 2,000 meters. Wind poses the greatest challenge to the snipers. The cadre instructs the snipers on how wind is affected by terrain by using smoke canisters to demonstrate prevailing winds. Instructors go into great detail on how the topography, or large vertical displacements of the ground surface, has a significant effect on wind speed. Wind flow in a realistic environment is not just over a single ground feature, such as ridges and hills, but over a combination of such terrain features. The sniper must envision the wind as water flowing over and across the terrain to be successful in hitting the target.
For the second week of the course, the sniper teams have to execute a 12-hour and 48-hour FTX (field training exercise) that consists of intensive planning, analysis and execution. The snipers break down into groups and are given an operations order that simulates a real-life mission, with OPFOR (opposing forces) roaming the backcountry of Chinchilla ready to act out their part. Equipped with weapons, radios and clothed in role-playing attire, the OPFOR replicate what these seasoned men have seen before in wars in Afghanistan, Africa and Iraq. But with rising threats materializing throughout the world, and the emergence of sensor technology used in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, the cadre employ night vision, thermals and drones to add to the intensity of the training, and mimic the dangers that these men will face in the foreseeable future.
Like leaves rustling in the wind, the American and the Italian blend into the desert landscape with their ghillie suits—constructed of netting and jute, and with bits of shrub and long grass tied on—inconspicuous to those who hunt them.
“Pass me the shears,” the American says.
“Si,” the Italian replies.
The American hollows out a small shrub with the pruning shears, meticulously shaping a small hole in the brush that he and the Italian will shoot through.
“The tripod, let me see it,” the American says.
“Here,” the Italian says.
Slowly extending the legs of the Manfrotto tripod, leaving the brush undisturbed around them, the American sets each leg of the tripod to a sitting height. A hog saddle sits atop the tripod. The Italian pulls the Remington XM2010 from his drag bag and slides the front of his rifle over the saddle. The Italian scoots up to the tripod with the butt of the rifle pressed firmly in the pocket of his shoulder. He reaches up with his left hand, feeling for the knobs on his Leupold riflescope.
“Can you see the target?” the American asks.
“Si,” the Italian says. “But cut more; it’s still obscured.”
The American leans slightly forward and snips at two small branches in the hole.
“Now?” the American asks.
“Si,” the Italian says. “Better. I can see all of it.”
Through the riflescope, on the far side of the road bending through the valley below, the Italian sees a white, steel human-shaped figure hanging from a target stand. The American moves behind the Italian with his spotting scope.
“We’re at 602 meters,” the American says. “Put 3.4 millimeters on the gun.”
“Si,” the Italian says.
“Hold .6 millimeters right for the wind.”
The Italian faintly shifts the rifle, takes a deep breath and exhales. “Sniper up,” he says.
“Send it,” the American says.
The ringing of steel echoes in the valley.
No matter the environment or weather conditions, the sniper supports his unit with keen observation and reporting, and if presented with the opportunity, delivers a high percentage shot on target—without fail.