The U.S. military has a problem: when it comes to long-range precision fires, infantry forces are outgunned by Russia at every turn.
For years, U.S. forces enjoyed sniper dominance in the Middle East and North Africa; now, pitted against so-called “great power” adversaries, the Pentagon finds itself outgunned and outmatched when it comes to precision fires on the squad level. Indeed, a 2016 Army report warned that Russian snipers have become “far more advanced than the precision shooters U.S. formations have encountered over the last 15 years” in the aftermath of the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea.
So what, exactly, is the Pentagon supposed to do about it?
The first challenge for this is a matter of equipment. The U.S. arsenal of precision firearms — the M40 sniper rifle, M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System, the M2010 Enhanced Battle Rifle, and the M107 sniper rifle, among other weapons — has for years possessed a significant distance and precision advantage over the Soviet-era Dragunov rifle that, with an effective firing range of just over 800 yards, the Russian military has fielded for decades. But in recent years, the Russian military has adopted several rifles — the Dragunov replacement Chukavin sniper rifle and Orsis T-5000 Tochnost rifle — as part of a military-wide modernization push to allow snipers to reach out beyond 1,600 and 1,800 yards, respectively.
"The Russians are right there with the U.S. materially, in terms of technology and ammo,” Chief Warrant Officer 5 Christian Wade (Ret.), a former sniper and 2nd Marine Division Gunner, told Task & Purpose. “The Russians either bought our technology or Western European technology or they just duplicated it.”
On the tech side, the Pentagon is fighting back. As part of its embrace of lethality amid a pivot to “great power” competition, the Army and Marine Corps have both fielded new designated marksman rifles (M110A1 Squad Designated Marksman Rifle and M38 variant of the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, respectively) and new sniper rifles (the M110A1 Compact Semi-Automatic Sniper System that the Army’s new SDMR is based on and the Mk 13 Mod 7, respectively) to help enhance the range and accuracy of both squad designated marksmen and snipers.
More importantly, both the Army and Marine Corps, as well as U.S. Special Operations Command, plan to adopt the Multi-Role Adaptive Design (MRAD) bolt-action sniper rifle from Barrett Firearms. As Task & Purpose previously reported, the Army wants to adopt the MRAD under its Precision Sniper Rifle program to replace both of the service’s M107 sniper rifle and M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle systems, while the Marine Corps wants to purchase the MRAD through SOCOM’s Advanced Sniper Rifle program to replace all of its bolt-action sniper systems. Chambered in 7.62×51 mm NATO, .300 Norma Magnum, and .338 Norma Magnum, the MRAD boasts an effective range of well over 1,600 yards, according to Barrett.
“It’s a phenomenal rifle,” Wade told Task & Purpose of the MRAD. “State of the art.”
Despite recent advances in U.S. military weaponry, Wade suggests that the nature of the federal acquisitions system hobbles the Pentagon when it comes to fielding new weaponry, slowing the adoption of new rifles to a relative crawl. Wade points to the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, which is only now seeing widespread fielding across Marine combat units — despite initial limited testing beginning in Afghanistan nearly a decade ago.
The Pentagon “isn’t adapting nearly quick enough to Russian and Chinese threats,” Wade says. “Given the operating environment of the federal acquisition system, we simply can’t keep up with some of these other countries."
But more importantly, Russian snipers aren’t just angling for a materiel advantage, but a doctrinal one as well. While American snipers test their mettle on static training courses, deployed downrange mostly in reconnaissance functions, Russian snipers have in recent years enjoyed the heat of active combat in the contested theater of Crimea to hone their tactics and establish a doctrine laser-focused on suppressive fire and psychological warfare. The 2016 Army report notes that tacking and reacting to Russia snipers battlefields like Ukraine has proved “problematic”; the sniper defeat methodology that’s served U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq since the start of the Global War on Terror has proven relatively ineffective against the versatility of the Russian sharpshooter
More importantly, while Russian snipers are enjoying constant, specialized training, the Army and Marine Corps don’t even make sniping a primary military occupational specialty, resigning sharpshooting to a backseat skill set rather than one worth honing to its logical extreme. Indeed, Wade points out that only 30 percent of the Marine Corps’ sniper billets at the moment are filled with graduates of the service’s Scout Sniper Course.
“If you’re not going to make someone a full-time sniper, then it’s your personnel and training that will end up holding you back,” Wade says. “The technology is in estimation the same, with an edge to the Russians, but you need to turn sniping into a true profession, cradle to grave. It’s an art and a science, but right now, we don’t really let Marines be snipers.”
To catch up to Russia, the U.S. military isn’t just embracing better weaponry and materiel for snipers, according to Robert Scales, a retired Army major general and recent member of the vaunted Close Combat Lethality Task Force commissioned by former Defense Secretary James Mattis. Indeed, the Pentagon’s never-ending quest for lethality means rethinking sharpshooting not just for Army and Marine Corps snipers, but for Army and Marine Corps units entirely. If “every Marine is a basic rifleman,” as the saying goes, then why can’t every soldier be a sniper?
“The traditional distribution of weapons is an obsolete concept,” Scales said. “If you’re a light recon unit every soldier in that unit should be carrying that new SDMR because scouting units tend to maintain stand-off of 1,000 meters or more. Why carry a weapon with an optimal range of 300 meters? If we’re not careful, we fall into convention.”
According to Scales, the utility of a conventional American sniper is “severely limited” because it’s “such an exclusive function” that drains combat power away from existing small units. “The ghillie suit and paraphernalia and the traditional bulk of sniper weapons mean that the average sniper needs a bevy of supporting weapons and personnel for such a low rate of fire,” Scales told Task & Purpose.
“So we asked: Why doesn’t everybody have the capability to be a sniper? With advances in technology and new training, there’s no reason we can’t elevate the individual soldier to the level of a very capable sniper.”
To that end, the question isn’t a matter of whether American snipers can outshoot their Russian counterparts, according to Scales: it’s a question of making the sniper somewhat obsolete.
“The cultural hill you have to climb in terms of snipers is huge: the infantry school is in love with bolt-action rifles, but there’s no reason that a semi-automatic [sniper system] is any less precise despite this obsession,” Scales explained. “The vision is not to make the sniper a more elite element but to expand the skills and knowledge and technologies down so that, instead of one guy in a company who can accurately hit a target at 1,200 meters, you have an entire unit that can hit between 600 and 1000 meters. That’s overwhelming killing power, and if you’re able to take out enemy mortar or anti-tank guided missile positions from 1,000 meters, you’ve completely reversed the firepower advantage an enemy may have.”
This isn’t to say that Russian snipers won’t continue to plague their adversaries for the foreseeable future; indeed, the battlefield of Crimea presents a unique training environment unlike any other in the world for the Kremlin’s elite band of sharpshooters. But with incremental changes in equipment and a tectonic shift in personnel and training, U.S. soldiers and Marines might prove themselves just as formidable on future battlefields.
Until then, is it possible to say that one country’s snipers have the edge over the others? Wade thinks so.
“At this point, I’d have to say advantage Russians,” Wade told Task & Purpose. “My gut is telling me that it’s not based on materiel weapons or ammo, but the worry is personnel and training.”