Corps may tackle sniper community problems
By Dan Lamothe - Staff writer
Posted : Thursday Mar 17, 2011 6:58:57 EDT
Several influential Marine officers are pushing for major changes to the Corps’ scout sniper community, including the adoption of a primary military occupational specialty and the expansion of scout sniper teams and platoons.
The Infantry Operational Advisory Group, a panel comprising regimental commanders from across the Corps, has unanimously recommended that the service’s infantry division commanders review making the “0317” scout sniper MOS a primary specialty, said Capt. Matthew O’Brien, officer in charge of the Scout Sniper School at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. That move would open the door for scout snipers to work in the field longer, receive better training and improve the overall quality of the scout sniper platoons.
The Ground Board will meet next in May, and consists of all four two-star division commanders and Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon, deputy commandant of plans, policies and operations. Commandant Gen. Jim Amos and other top generals could consider the proposal if it gets the board’s approval.
The scout sniper community has pushed for a primary MOS for more than a decade, saying its current organization complicates retention efforts, especially within conventional infantry battalions. In the past, the members of the IOAG couldn’t all agree to move the proposal forward, O’Brien said.
The step is significant. Currently, the secondary MOS is awarded only to Marines who graduate from the Scout Sniper Basic School, widely considered one of the most difficult courses in the Corps. It trains Marines — primarily 0311 infantry riflemen — in advanced marksmanship, land navigation, patrolling, stalking, concealment, calling for fire support and other skills.
Passing sniper school would still be a requirement to earn the MOS, but the adoption of a scout sniper career path would keep more seasoned scout snipers in the infantry, scout snipers said. Today, with no primary MOS or financial incentives, many make lateral moves into the Corps’ reconnaissance community or Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, where they snag big bonuses and continue to hone their craft.
As a result, battalion scout sniper platoons are frequently in a state of flux, several scout snipers said. Marine Corps Times granted them anonymity because they did not have their commands’ permission to discuss the subject candidly.
Top Marine officials are aware of the scout sniper community’s challenges. A 2008 study conducted by Marine Corps Combat Development Command and subsequently reviewed by other major commands recommends a primary scout sniper MOS as a means to address them.
A comprehensive summary of the study also highlights a number of manpower-related problems within the scout sniper community. Marine Corps Times obtained it through the federal Freedom of Information Act. Those problems reportedly include:
• Competition outside the Corps. High numbers of scout snipers leave the Corps for higher-paying jobs with private security firms and government agencies, the study said.
• Career-track issues. The Corps does not allow Marines to operate as scout snipers beyond the rank of staff sergeant, making it difficult to keep seasoned personnel in operational and training billets. Also, there are no B-billets for scout snipers, even though some serve as instructors at scout sniper schools overseen by each infantry division and the Weapons Training Battalion at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. That leaves trained snipers choosing between training others in their craft or taking an unrelated B-billet they may need to be competitive when going before a promotion board.
• Internal confusion. Marines with an 0317 MOS are inadequately tracked, the study said, leading some “highly skilled scout snipers” to be assigned to generic infantry billets. That problem appears to persist. The Corps was unable to provide the number of scout snipers currently on active duty.
• Inexperience and poor morale. The loss of senior leadership within scout sniper platoons has a “direct and lasting impact on overall mission achievement,” the study said. It hurts training and mentorship for junior Marines within the platoon, and leaves less-experienced scout snipers to brief and advise commanders. “The effect is then doubled, leading to Scout Sniper Platoons that are both under utilized and incorrectly employed, leading to an adverse impact on morale,” the study concluded.
Scout snipers interviewed for this story said those issues don’t hold true in every battalion, but many problems do persist. Several compared the push for a primary MOS to an effort undertaken by the reconnaissance community in the 1990s to develop the 0321 MOS into a primary specialty. The Corps did so in 1997, and has put a premium on drawing and retaining recon Marines in recent years, offering big re-enlistment bonuses.
“We have been trying to get that done forever,” said one scout sniper, who completed a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan in early 2010. “It just makes more sense. It will make funding better. There will be better equipment designated strictly to the snipers, and they won’t be sharing with a company of 0311s who need gear also.”
How to fix them
In addition to adopting a primary MOS, the 2008 report suggested several other ways to improve scout sniper retention and manpower issues. They include: • Provide re-enlistment bonuses and special duty incentives to scout snipers.
• Increase senior instructor billets at the four scout sniper schools.
• Improve tracking and billet allocation for scout snipers.
• Require the scout sniper platoon sergeant to be a qualified scout sniper with the 0317 MOS.
• Establish a formal career progression for scout snipers.
• Establish an entry-level training pipeline for the MOS.
• Develop an “organic recruitment drive” for scout snipers at Infantry Training Battalions, where entry-level Marines learn basic infantry skills.
• Develop progressive training for senior scout snipers.
• Consolidate the scout sniper platoons into companies under the Corps’ reconnaissance battalions.
• Establish a consolidated Scout Sniper Company with a dedicated training platoon at the regimental level.
These recommendations lead to more questions, scout snipers acknowledge. Competition for re-enlistment bonuses already is scarce, for example. It’s also unlikely battalion commanders will want to give up the authority they now have to decide who attends scout sniper schools.
Still, one scout sniper instructor said it would be better to decide who qualifies for scout sniper school before the Marine reaches the fleet, the same way some Marines go recon. They’d still need to pass scout sniper school, and they’d have mentoring after they graduate.
“They could be taught by older Marines in the platoon, and then they’d stay in the battalion longer,” the instructor said. “The way it’s set up, a lot of guys get trained, do one deployment and check out.”
If the primary MOS was adopted for privates through sergeants, it would allow the Corps to track its scout snipers better, get them better training and dip into the infantry less frequently to fill platoons with Marines who haven’t gone through scout sniper school, O’Brien said.
“They keep having to jump back into the 03 boat,” O’Brien said of battalion commanders. “We can do a lot better.”
The IOAG also has recommended that the Ground Board review another scout sniper proposal, O’Brien said: Expanding the standard scout sniper team from four to six men, increasing the amount of force protection available for teams operating far from help.
The proposal was met favorably by the regimental colonels, who reviewed a 2009 study that recommended the change. It included interviews with more than 150 snipers and called for scout sniper platoons to grow from about 18 to 26 Marines, with a commander, a platoon sergeant, and four teams of six Marines.
“Simply stated, the Marine Corps has to determine where these additional Marines would come from in order to ensure that” the manpower is accounted for, O’Brien said.
Scout sniper teams already take on some missions in which they operate with more than four men. In Iraq, teams frequently were expanded to six when extra security was needed. Theater-level guidance in Afghanistan suggests that scout-sniper platoon operations should be conducted with eight Marines, due to the sprawling nature of the war zone and how long it can take for a Quick Reaction Force to arrive when scout snipers are spotted by the enemy and pinned down under fire, O’Brien said.
“That’s what the situation calls for,” he said. “They’re more clandestine affairs with small teams, but you need about eight Marines to hold your own in a gunfight that goes on for any length of time.”