- Feb 8, 2007
- Land of Swine and Maple Syrup
Great article and I'm sure these guys will be missed in the AO.
Canadian snipers are a high-valued asset
Published On Mon Jul 04 2011
A Canadian sniper from the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry tests his equipment in full camouflage as he looks through a C-3 rifle at the airbase in Kandahar, Afghanistan Saturday February 9, 2002. The precision marksmen are trained in the art of camouflage and movements in enemy territory.
KEVIN FRAYER/Canadian Press
By Rosie DiManno Columnist
SPERWAN GHAR—Breathe calmly, slow the heart rate, squint the eye and slowly, with gentle pressure, squeeze the trigger.
With the Tac-50 bolt-action rifle, too heavy to lift and aim — even for hard-bodies — the shooter rests the weapon on a bipod and, optimally, flattens his rib cage against the ground at a slight incline. The 50-calibre bullet — size of a Tootsie roll — will hurtle out of the internally fluted barrel, rotating fiercely, and heave infinitesimally to the right, what’s call the spin-drift.
Shooter and spotter will have corrected for that, and also the wind currents, the distance, the ambient temperature. Bullets go faster in high heat.
The target — the victim — will feel that bullet before he hears it. And it will kill him.
Less than a second and one “bad guy’’ removed, with no collateral damage done.
No mental anguish either, for killing a fellow human being.
For snipers, it’s the job.
Their motto: “Without warning, without remorse.’’
“Pat’’ has that legend tattooed into his forearm.
Just “Pat,’’ because Canadian snipers can’t be identified by name and no photographs published that show recognizable faces. Pity, really, because they deserve to be acknowledged and praised.
They are a high-value asset, a force multiplier, and, for the insurgents, a high-value target.
The Taliban have snipers too, though not so elevated in skill, and customarily wielding old British Lee Enfields. “We call them sharpshooters rather than snipers,’’ says Pat.
Insurgents prefer other tactics anyway, the stuff of random terror, indifferent to civilians sucked into the concussion blast of a mine, roadside IED or — as with a Kabul hotel last weekend, a medical clinic in Logar the week before — suicide bomber.
Sniper Platoon is attached to the Task Force but operates almost along the lines of Special Forces; independent, self-contained and agile. “Special,’’ notes Pat, “just not Special Forces.’’ Whether sussing the environment ahead of a company operation or providing specialized force protection for infantry and artillery colleagues, theirs is an assignment of keen vigilance.
“We’re the eyes,’’ says Pat.
And it better be 20-20 vision. That’s the first requirement.
When a Chinook transporting troops made a “hard landing’’ in the Kandahar desert in May — which makes the incident sound less traumatizing than it was, as is evident from classified video footage shot from a second Chinook on that air transfer — it was snipers who swiftly secured the perimeter, scanning the moonscape for any militants even thinking about approaching the wounded bird. (It was later helo-winched to safety.)
Snipers secrete themselves into the terrain, often holing up for days in a grape harvest hut, eyeballing pattern-of-life through the narrow drying slits. They’re delighted by crenellated mud walls that provide some protection while permitting them to insert the nose of a rifle barrel into a crevice. Yet movement inside is severely restricted, lest flittering shadows be noticed by an enemy also watching for infidel-pattern-of-life.
Sniper units are small per mission, sometimes no more than five. “One is spying on the enemy, one covers your ass at 6 o’clock, one’s on the radio, one’s flanking and one is sleeping. We sleep in shifts.
“We’re alone out there,’’ Pat continues. “No ’terps, no medics, no support personnel.’’
They grow beards, simply to avoid shaving, thus lessening the amount of water that must be carried.
Pat has learned some Pashto, for basic communication when slipping out of surveillance cover and dealing directly with a local who’s been adjudged friendly, perhaps merely to ask for water and to assure their presence will not cause civilian alarm. But mostly they stay in the shadows, relying exclusively on each other.
Eighty per cent of the job, says Pat, is observation, analyzing movement, trying to visibly distinguish between a friendly or benign Afghan and a militant, studying the contour of clothing that might be hiding a weapon, a rocket tube or IED materials.
“You study body language,’’ explains Martin, sniper platoon sergeant. “You study faces. It’s a bit like (the TV show) Lie to Me. A sniper needs to have acute patience, intuition, awareness, attention to detail and a photographic memory. Where have I seen that face before? Where did I see that motorcycle before?’’
They connect the dots, assess the threat and, before any harm can befall their comrades, interdict — eliminate it. Just as they can knock off an enemy from two kilometres away during combat, with their Tac-50 or the lighter AR-10, standard long-range sniper weapon and backbone of their arsenal.
On one March afternoon in 2002, in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, a Canadian sniper team with Cpl. Rob Furlong killed an Al Qaeda fighter from a distance of 2,430 metres — about the distance from the foot of Yonge St. to Yonge and Wellesley. Furlong’s first shot missed, but his second hit the fighter’s backpack. The third hit its mark and wasted him.
That volley surpassed the confirmed kill record of 2,286 metres — set by U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock in Vietnam — that had stood for 35 years. (The Canadian mark was broken last year when a British sniper, Craig Harrison, a corporal of horse in the Household Cavalry, killed two insurgents in Afghanistan at 2,475 metres.)
The Canadian effort in 2002 came during Operation Anaconda, in which the Canuck snipers were unofficially credited with 20 kills.
Each of that 5-man Canadian sniper team — Furlong, Master Cpl. Graham Ragsdale, Master Cpl. Tim McMeekin, Cpl. Dennis Eason and Master Cpl. Arron Perry — was nominated for a U.S. Armed Forces Bronze star medal. We’re good at this.
Twenty per cent of what they do out here has been lethal, though the Canadian Forces will not provide numbers for enemy combatants killed by sniper fire.
“Snipers don’t keep count,’’ Pat claims. “I’m sure further up the chain of command they do.’’
Adds Martin: “There’s no sense of vengeance involved. It’s almost like we’re neutral, actually.’’
Pat: “My job is protect brothers-in-arms, ISAF personnel and civilians.’’
For a sniper, the rifle is an extension of his body, an almost living thing that quickens to his pulse. Aim can be taught and trained but not the exacting precision of a dead-eye. They’re not about the fire fight and kinetic combat; they’re about the single shot from a kilometre away, sniper working in unison with his spotter who will calibrate adjustments, standing just behind the shooter’s shoulder and following the bullet’s trajectory. Astonishingly, spotters can actually see the bullet and confirm target hit, even as the shooter is still following through on his delivery, what Pat likens to the follow-through of a golf swing.
“The spotter is the harder job,’’ he says. “In a fraction of a second, you can lose the bullet.’’
Pat thinks it’s an innate talent, the way some people are born with an ear for music. He recalls, as a child, riding in his father’s car and instinctively lining up telephone poles as if looking at them through cross-hairs, long before he ever thought of growing up to become a soldier, originally an infantryman and then surviving the culling process of sniper school.
“Also, you have to be a little bit crazy.’’
He doesn’t often think about the threat of IEDs because sniper patrols — half the size of a regular platoon — fan across countryside or perch on high ground not usually covered by ground forces and thus not seeded with explosives by insurgents who closely track coalition movements.
“If you’re afraid of dying every time you put your foot down, it’s going to be a long tour,’’ says Pat.
On a sniper platoon, the intra-loyalty is intense, the faith in each other complete.
“I know this man by heart,’’ Martin says, putting his hand playfully on Pat’s knee and getting it swatted off. “We trust each other with our lives. It becomes intuitive.’’
Pat picks up the thread: “He’s got my back.’’
The satisfaction of a confirmed kill is not something that can adequately be conveyed to a civilian. While the sniper’s role may be intellectually understood as a necessity in the battle field, many people recoil morally or psychologically from the reality of it.
The only recoil Pat feels is from the rifle in his hands when the bullet flies.
“The target doesn’t know what happened. He didn’t hear a sound. That comes after.’’