FORT BRAGG, NC — Eyes are fixed in the near horizon, scanning and searching for strange activities or patterns in the scattered underbrush of the pine forest. Spotting scopes spin from one direction to another looking for a reflection from a barrel or an ill-advised movement of one of the students of the Special Forces Sniper Course at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Sgt. 1st Class Gabriel Kessay, the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the stalking exercise, calls out on a radio, “Freeze,” as he guides a fellow instructor to the location of the silent pursuer.
Today, this student has been caught; but the only thing he loses is some of his free time on Saturday for additional practice. If this had been the real thing, he could have lost his life.
The Army’s most advanced snipers perfect their abilities and refine their skills in the classrooms and ranges of the Special Forces Sniper Course. For eight weeks, students learn technical equipment use, fieldcraft, tactics and methods in order to become a sensor who can detect, verify and shoot. The instructors teach techniques used by the earliest marksmen, coupled with the newest technology to make the silent-but-deadly force more accurate, agile and effective on the battlefield.
“One of the oldest tactics of the sniper is stalking a target,” Kessay said.
Ghillie suits, infused with vegetation found in the sniper’s immediate area, help to break up the silhouette as he creeps forward to observe and potentially eliminate a target.
Kessay said he has seen a general decline in Soldiers’ fieldcraft skills due to the high tempo of operations overseas in desert terrain, but the skill set is of critical importance to a sniper.
“[Fieldcraft] is just as important as shooting, because if I can’t find and fix the enemy, I don’t get to take that shot,” Kessay said. “The stalk is a good way of teaching them to find those target indicators or locate the observation position. They also use those target indicators in a reverse effect to hide themselves or to better blend.”
Students practice the stalk both in wooded and urban environments to cover a broad range of conditions they may encounter in the field. The rules move them closer to a target than they would normally be, but success at this range makes them perfect their craft.
Not only does the training offer opportunities for the snipers to hone their skills, but equipment upgrades give today’s snipers a distinct advantage over snipers of the past.
Upgrades to the sniper’s kit in the past few years have enhanced their weapons, ammunition and communication. To perfect their marksmanship, the sniper has a new tool in his bag besides the old log book: a personal data assistant with an advanced ballistics software program.
“It has all the gun data, atmospherics, temperature, barometric pressure, humidity and the target information,” said Master Sgt. Kevin P. Owens, a senior instructor for SFSC. “From that, it gives them a shooting solution, and they dial it into the gun and shoot. It is really accurate.”
“We’re dialed in at 1,000 meters hitting a 4-inch clay pigeon,” said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Bode, a student at the SFSC. “You can’t do that without a whole lot of data collection on the old system. I can do in a split second what we used to have to collect data for years on a gun before we had that information. It really makes things a lot faster.”
While the speed of the new system helps to make corrections quickly, there is still information the sniper has to apply to the shooting formula before sending the round on target.
“The only thing the PDA does not do is account for wind,” Owens said. “The students do a wind formula in their head watching the grass or other factors in the scope. It is all very skillful, but reading the wind is the hardest part. If you do anything wrong, you are going to miss.”
Accurately putting rounds on the target with the first shot is the priority of a sniper, said Bode, and the skills he is learning with and without the technology will make him more effective downrange.
“Once we get the fundamentals of marksmanship down, they are teaching us wind culls, how to read the mirage and how to know which direction and velocity the wind is coming in,” Bode said. “This is all to see how it is going to play on the bullet. There is little on the battlefield more demoralizing than an effective sniper in an effective position.”
Mixing the tried and true techniques of snipers past with the newest technology in communications, weapon systems, ammunition and data analysis, makes today’s Special Forces sniper a revolutionary weapon in U.S. military operations. The training, skill and determination of the Soldiers who pass through the SFSC make the newest crop of snipers a lethal combination of new and old school anywhere in the world.