Times At the limit: sniper training


At the limit: sniper training

Our correspondent trains with soldiers who will be sent as marksmen to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

Emma Smith

Crawling on his stomach through the swaying grass, the sniper edges imperceptibly towards his target. A few feet away the enemy is standing guard, scanning the open terrain, looking for movement. The sniper takes aim and fires. Still the enemy hasn’t spotted him. The sniper leaps to his feet, no more than 3ft from the enemy position. “Soldier, how did you get this close to me?” asks the enemy, in fact a United States army training officer. “By being a sneaky bastard,” is the rookie’s cocksure response.

It’s a fictional scene from Clear and Present Danger, a film starring Harrison Ford and based on a novel by Tom Clancy, but it could easily be taken from the training at the Infantry Battle School in Brecon, mid-Wales. Here 40 of the British Army’s sharpest, sneakiest soldiers enter the sniper training course three times a year.

The government has set a new target of having 16 trained snipers in each of the UK’s 36 infantry battalions – the highest number of trained snipers in the British Army since 1918. In the towns and mountain villages of Afghanistan, the sniper has undergone a renaissance and I’m here to join the ranks of trainee marksmen.

I hadn’t quite mastered the Tom Berenger swagger (honed in Sniper, Sniper 2 and Sniper 3) as I pulled on my combat trousers, shrugged on my ghillie suit (more of that later) and endured the application of 3in of slime-coloured camouflage cream to every bit of visible skin.

I was with 29 other trainees on the 90,000-acre Brecon Beacons training ground, all men – there are no women in the infantry – for the final week of the eight-week programme. Eleven soldiers had dropped out due to injury, illness or lack of ability or stamina. For the next week the remaining trainees would put their skills to the test, using expert navigational techniques, precision marksmanship, camouflage and cunning to approach a target, aim, shoot, then withdraw – without being detected.

Until recently the techniques of the sniper, honed in two world wars, were giving way to the remote laser-guided missiles of modern warfare. But the tactics used by small bands of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan mean snipers are back in demand. Tales of “crack shot” British marksmen, including one soldier who was said to have killed 39 Taliban fighters, have revived the sniper’s fearsome reputation.

“We are looking for the very determined men who can think for themselves,” says Major Marcus Braithwaite-Exley. “A good sniper needs a sort of sixth sense and the ability to filter a lot of complex information and to make a split-second decision, one which could mean the difference between life and death.” The few who complete the training, which is spread over three months, will then be left to their own devices. “Everything else, they learn on the ground,” says Braithwaite-Exley. “Half will be in Iraq or Afghanistan within six months.”

The new recruits applying “cam cream” alongside me will need to prove they can master keen observational skills, the ability to remain level-headed under extreme pressure and the sort of precision shooting that enables a sniper to hit a target more than 900 yards away, while taking into account wind speed, drag coefficient, air pressure and temperature, all of which will affect the bullet’s trajectory.

In the field most snipers work in groups of about six. During training, they must complete their stalk – approaching an enemy position and taking aim – alone. But with only two hours of weapon training under my man-sized belt, I need help. My partner for this afternoon’s stalk is Colour Sergeant Kevin Whitehouse, an experienced sniper, who spent six months commanding a sniper unit in Iraq.

“I think you have to be a better tactician than a normal soldier,” he says. “You can spend days approaching your position and then you have to remain concealed until it’s time to take your shot. Once I had to stay in position, barely moving, for two days – you certainly don’t sleep.

“When the time comes, to be safe, you need to hit your target with the first shot. If you haven’t hit home on the first shot, they’re looking around for your location. By the second shot they’re probably nailing you down and if you miss with the third you have to get out of there quick.” Has he ever missed twice? “No,” says Whitehouse, nonchalantly. “I’m a pretty good shot.”

The green and brown cam cream is slapped on in diagonal stripes to break up the outline of the face. Our camouflage trousers and jackets are in traditional khaki, dashed with brown and black, but there are also cam suits designed to blend into the desert, grassland and different urban settings. Over this we wear a ghillie suit: a sort of jacket made from netting and shreds of hessian, to which various bits of vegetation are attached so the soldier can blend in with any background. Each sniper carries a compass, GPS locator, monocular or binoculars, communications equipment, hand grenades, bullets, water, rations and a rifle. The L96 rifles I used in training have been in service since 1986 and are now gradually being replaced by upgraded L115A3 rifles, with a longer range, night sights and better optics. All told, a sniper is lugging more than 44lb of kit around, often while crawling over rough terrain.

The next challenge is to read the map, observe the terrain and figure out the best direction from which to approach the target, using higher ground, vegetation, or maybe a river bed to keep out of the enemy’s line of sight. “Sometimes what looks like the best approach is not actually the one to choose because this is the one the enemy will be watching,” says Whitehouse. The problems for a lot of new recruits begin with simple map reading. “Boys used to join the Scouts, go fishing, hunting or orienteering but the Xbox generation don’t know about map reading or reading a landscape,” he says.

We plan our route towards the enemy observation post, using a small wood and a river bed. At the edge of the wood, we must make a short but potentially dangerous dash for the river. Whitehouse tells me to keep low and run quickly but steadily. This is not the direction the enemy will be looking in, he assures me.

Once by the river we stop, backs pressed against a tree, and catch our breath. Our khakis are now too green to match the browns of our backdrop, so we set about ripping up chunks of dead bracken and attaching them to our ghillie suits, rifles and helmets.

“This is nothing,” says Whitehouse. “In Iraq I spent 24 hours hiding out in a landfill site, surrounded by rubbish, rats and scavenging dogs. It was a good place to be because no one else wanted to be there. The camp was getting mortared quite heavily at the time.”

In the safe surroundings of rural Wales, it’s a simple matter of keeping close to the valley’s edge.

My shoulders ache from carrying the rifle but we’re getting into firing range. Our cover is sparse and I have to crawl quickly behind a large tree to get into position. From here even a ray of sun glinting off my rifle might give us away. I must be careful not to make sudden movements. I’m pressed down in the mud, feet in the stream, cold water soaking through my combats, rifle poking out from behind the tree’s roots.

I can see the observation post magnified through the telescopic sight and take aim. It’s not easy. Whitehouse assesses the conditions and helps me to line up the target. I fire twice but by the second shot the enemy has spotted our position. It’s still a pass, for the purposes of today’s test, but in the real world my survival prospects would not be good. And for the real new recruits, mistakes will soon have consequences beyond a few points deducted on a score sheet.

So far 175 British troops have been killed in Iraq since the conflict began in 2003. In Afghanistan, where Britain’s commitment is likely to continue for much longer, the figure is 89 since operations began in 2001. The swagger of the movie snipers is a childish delusion.

“It can be exhausting, tense work,” confides Whitehouse. “You’re pitting yourself against the enemy and if you come out better there has to be some enjoyment in that. But it’s not like the films. Gone are the days when people went off on their own for a two-week operation in the jungle. Communication and working together are the key. There are no Tom Berengers.”

- The helmet and rifle can be covered in vegetation to blur their sharp edges

- The ghillie suit is a covering made out of netting and hessian strips, to which grass, leaves or other plants can be attached

- Conventional camouflage kit helps to blend into the countryside but other uniforms are designed for deserts and cities The L96 sniper rifle is now being replaced by the new L115A3, which has a range of 1,500 metres and a night sight

- Brown and green camouflage cream is applied in uneven diagonal stripes across the face to break up the outline

- Binoculars, grenades, maps, GPS locator, communications equipment, ammunition, water and rations are part of essential sniper kit
The problems for a lot of new recruits begin with simple map reading. “Boys used to join the Scouts, go fishing, hunting or orienteering but the Xbox generation don’t know about map reading or reading a landscape,” he says.

Something the Government could address by starting up a Civilian Marksmanship Programme, similar to that running in the States...

Shooting not only teaches marksmanship but self-discipline, self-reliance...

...Oh, no, silly me. I forgot; self-discipline and self-reliance are the last things this Government wants in the voting public... :roll:
cmp fines 275 quid for an m1 yes please :D but unfortunatly they flogged all the cheap slrs no 4 to the west side boys :(

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