ANAHEIM, CALIF. — “It has become a war of snipers,” Lt. Gen. James F. Amos, commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, told a room full of technologists.
While in no way downplaying the impact of improvised explosive devices on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, enemy sharpshooters are costing lives, he said at a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency conference.
“Two years ago, the enemy snipers weren’t very good. Today they’re very very good,” Amos said. “They have brought pros in. They’ve been trained.”
The so-called sniper war has played out during the past four and half years in Iraq out of the public’s consciousness. Roadside bombs have taken the most lives and generated the most headlines — 1,460 as of Aug. 19, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index. But gunshot fatalities are a close second at 1,160.
Sniper tactics, however, do not belong to the enemy alone. The United States has its own highly skilled teams that are trained to stalk, hide and “terminate” high-value targets.
While countering snipers has not received the funding and attention of the IED threat,
several programs are in various stages of development that researchers hope will make U.S. sniper teams more deadly, and allow other troops to both locate enemy gunmen, and possibly find them before they squeeze the trigger.
The Boomerang shooter detection system, built by BBN Technologies of Cambridge, Mass., reached Iraq in early 2004 and has been installed on tactical and armored vehicles. After a shot is fired, a computer generated voice tells soldiers the direction and distance of the bullet’s point of origin.
A third generation Boomerang system is in the late stages of development, and will be lighter, easier to install, compatible with IED jammers and have fewer components, said company spokeswoman Joyce Kuzmin. There will also be improvements to performance, but she could not provide further details.
BBN is among a handful of companies offering sensors that instantly locate the origin of a gunshot. Two Israeli firms, Elbit Systems and Rafael Armament Development Authority are marketing similar systems. Radiance Technologies of Huntsville, Ala., is selling the WeaponWatch system that detects where the bullet came from and the type of weapon fired, including larger weapons such as mortars and shoulder-fired missiles.
Law enforcement agencies are currently using such technologies. By placing sensors in high crime neighborhoods, for example, they can locate the point of origin for a gunshot and dispatch a cruiser there within seconds.
But these technologies aren’t good enough, Amos suggested.
“The problem I have with that is that the price of admission is pretty high,” he said. “The price of admission is a round that has already been shot. If the sniper is any good, he’s probably already killed a Marine or soldier.”
One expert noted that insurgent snipers are mobile. After firing a shot, he isn’t going to stay in one place. A widely circulated 2006 Internet video showed insurgents shooting from hidden compartments in car trunks.
Mike Tucker, a counterterrorism expert, former Marine, and the author of an upcoming book, “Ronin: A Marine Scout/Sniper Platoon in Iraq,” said trained enemy shooters will behave exactly as their U.S. counterparts. They will squeeze off one shot and flee regardless of whether the bullet hits its target. “Don’t get seen, caught or captured” is their axiom as well.
What’s needed are sensors that can locate snipers before they shoot, Amos said.
Deepak Varshneya, a DARPA program manager in the agency’s strategic technology office, said he is working on a system that will do just that. The goal is to locate the shooter whether he is looking through an optical sniper scope or regular sight found on more common firearms.
Like many, he watched the insurgent-produced video last year.
“Clearly their agenda was to strategically sap our morale and degrade our staying power in this war,” he said. Watching the video made his “blood boil,” he added.
“Can we protect our soldiers from being shot in this way? Can we protect them from this threat so they can accomplish their missions? Yes, if we can detect and neutralize these snipers ‘left of the boom,’ or before the shot is fired,” Varshneya said.
DARPA’s C-Sniper program will attempt to locate shooters’ guns in a “cluttered” urban environment from either stationary or moving vehicles, according to an agency announcement seeking proposals. The objective is to eventually integrate the system into another DARPA program, called Crosshairs, which is attempting to “detect enemy bullets, rocket propelled grenades and mortars fired at our vehicles and to prevent them from striking…” the announcement said.
Crosshairs’ goal is to locate the point of origin of incoming projectiles within .01 of a second and to employ non-lethal countermeasures such as rubber bullets or lasers, the DARPA website said.
If researchers can successfully integrate these two systems, it will create a protective bubble around soldiers who are sitting in or standing near their vehicles, Varshneya said.
Detecting scopes amid the clutter found in urban environments will be a key challenge, he added. Such esoteric technologies as optical augmentation, polarization retention and time and spatial discrimination may provide the answers, Varshneya suggested. He did not offer publicly what sensor could pick up a regular gun sight in an urban environment that is presumably populated with thousands of metal objects.
Tucker, who embedded with a Marine sniper unit to research his book, said the best way to take out sniper cells is not through high-concept, expensive technologies, but rather by using old-fashioned human intelligence. He also observed and advised Iraqi special forces in Fallujah during the winter of 2004 to 2005. The Iraqis used their contacts and knowledge of the local landscape to locate and eliminate nine sniper cells in a two-month period. They accomplished this without U.S. forces sharing information with them.
“They worked it strictly from a human intelligence angle from the get go, and that’s how they took down the cells,” Tucker said.
Meanwhile, the other side of the so-called sniper war is being worked on, officials said. All the branches of the armed services have snipers, and researchers are working on programs to make them more lethal.
The most recent upgrade to reach the field is the 7.62 mm XM-3 sniper rifle. Amos said it is more accurate, lighter weight and more reliable. The Marines have taken delivery of 60 and are field testing them in Iraq, he added. The feedback so far has been positive.
The DARPA-funded program uses titanium to lighten the weight to 16 pounds in daytime use, and has an improved sight to boost accuracy. The XM-3 has a maximum effective range of 1,000 yards, according to its manufacturer, Iron Brigade Armory of Jacksonville, N.C.
Varshneya said DARPA is also looking for further improvements for scopes. The strategic technology office would like to create a universal scope that will incorporate visible, infrared and night vision technologies. Such a system may employ flexible membranes or adaptable polymers to change lenses, he suggested. Sharpshooters must currently carry all three scopes and their batteries with them in the field. A universal scope would reduce their load by eight pounds, he said.
The “crosswind sensor system for snipers” program seeks a weapon mounted laser correction system that will allow users to correct for wind direction and speeds downrange. A small wind gust between a shooter and a target can send a bullet off course by more than one meter, Varshneya, said.
“If the program is successful, the shot will not miss due to crosswinds,” he added.
Tucker said the means to effectively transmit intelligence in real-time, such as recent photos of high-profile targets, would be a more valuable technology for researchers to pursue.
In the short term, combatant commanders are not using their corps of highly trained snipers effectively, he said. Strict rules of engagement and the need to clear shots with commanding officers are hamstringing the specialists from doing what they have been trained to do, which is stalk high-profile targets, hide themselves and patiently wait for the opportunity to kill, he added.
In one case documented in Tucker’s book, a Marine sniper team had the leader of a notorious Sunni insurgent group in its sights, but the commanding officer radioed orders for them to stand down and wait for a unit to come capture the target. Despite the team’s pleas to let them take out the target, the rest of the unit arrived late, and the insurgent leader slipped away.
As enemy snipers cut down Marines during the Battle of Fallujah in late 2004, U.S. snipers were ordered to take static positions near their base. They were turned into “glorified gate guards,” as one Marine put it.
Tucker knew of one case where a sniper team caught insurgents burying an IED with AK-47s slung over their shoulders, but still the order to shoot didn’t come.
“You can use snipers creatively, but there you need leadership,” Tucker said. “You need to take the gloves off.”
If unleashed, snipers can be an effective means to not only counter enemy sharpshooters, but IED cells as well, he said. Combined with human intelligence that is gathered by Iraqi partners, they can help shut down the networks that are building and planting roadside bombs.
They could even be used to take out the IED financiers who may be sipping tea at an outdoor restaurant in a nearby Middle Eastern country, although he acknowledged that deploying them in other countries would violate not only U.S. law, but international accords as well.
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