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The Role of Snipers in Armoured Warfare

‘The role of a sniper is to locate, observe and destroy key enemy personnel and equipment with indirect and direct precision fire’.  A sniper’s strength is their concealment and accuracy, but the price of this precision is time. With a planning rate of advance at 1 km per hour, there is a perception that snipers are too slow to influence an armoured battle. After all, why take the time to insert snipers when you can send a tank squadron from a greater distance and in a much timelier fashion? 

Armoured Infantry sniper platoons are often misused. There is little doctrine supporting their employment. The perceived time penalty of getting them into a position to provide the commander with effects is considered a tedious waste of resources in a fast-paced armoured battle. This has seen snipers operating as flank protection or seconded to the close reconnaissance platoon to bolster its strength instead of being employed more lethally. 

I argue that snipers can have a significant impact in armoured warfare.  As the British Army mobilises to counter a peer-on-peer adversary, the battlefield impact of snipers is crucial to breaking the recce strike complex fielded by Russia. 

Relearning lessons?

Current thinking in seminars, podcasts, and literature is trending towards retrospective and Cold War thinking as we move to counter conventional threats. Texts such as Storrs’, Battlegroup! are being widely read and are appearing on staff officer reading lists across the Army. Whilst valuable, it does seem we are relearning lessons from the past. Camouflage, concealment, deception and dispersal are returning to unit tactics and is no longer an afterthought on a planning cycle. 

Within this, a sniper is the master of camouflage and concealment, and their mastery of the basics are relied upon to mitigate the risk of compromise and casualties when facing a more significant force. These benefits can also be used by snipers when equipped with a suitable vehicle from which to operate.

Our experience

During recent unit training, The Royal Welsh Regiment sniper platoon operated with Landrovers, significantly reducing their notice to effect timelines. These battlefield stalwarts offered speed, mobility, greater sustainment, and an effective communication platform from which the sniper platoon could operate, vice the quadbike. The Landrover also proved to be a helpful deception tool as both the British contingent of the opposing forces and the Bundeswehr’s Ausbildungsverband were not expecting wheeled vehicles to be operating in the recce screen. The Landrovers were extremely quiet and, with in-service thermal sheeting and naturally sourced foliage, were relatively easy to conceal at vehicle caches ranging from 400m to 1500m away from enemy locations. 

Exploiting the aural saturation of the battlefield from Warrior, Challenger and Leopards, allowed single Landrovers to infiltrate undetected, buying snipers time to dismount and stalk onto objectives. When dismounted, the snipers reverted to the doctrine of light role sniping, providing effect before handing over to the Warrior-equipped recce screen, who could continue the fix from greater distances.

Tactical compromises: time

On the modern battlefield, multi-layered intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance means it is no longer a case of if one is detected by the enemy, but when. The media emerging from the war in Ukraine shows how vulnerable armoured vehicles are when static in hides. Footage from uncrewed systems shows that even good visual camouflage with cam-nets and foliage provides no barrier to other collection sources, such as thermal imaging. Ukraine has shown the world the importance of camouflage and concealment across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, the negating of which shows a commensurate increase in the risk to battle-winning units, such as a tank squadron or armoured infantry. From leaving an assembly area, bounding from wood block to wood block, in hasty hides, there is a high risk of compromise. It is here that snipers can be of assistance to reduce the chance of detection. The time penalty in using snipers now seems more palatable, especially when it means reducing the likelihood of compromise.

Sun Tzu stated that ‘all warfare is based on deception’. Snipers can provide credible options for deception through proactive electromagnetic signature management. The relatively small platoon of sixteen can portray a much larger force by maximising their signatures across the spectrum. This can be done thermally by exposing their vehicle’s hot spots, visually, by creating large dust signatures in a designated area, or by producing radio transmissions on maximum power to attract direction-finding electronic warfare capabilities. The agility of snipers operating from a wheeled platform can help preserve the larger, more cumbersome armoured platforms that are likely to be placed on an enemy’s high pay-off target list. Even if the deception fails, the saturation of enemy collection assets temporarily provides a window in time and space that a different manoeuvre unit can exploit.

Pseudo-special forces?

Snipers themselves often believe the media hype of thinking of themselves as pseudo-special forces and elite soldiers. Although this esprit de corps does have benefits, the real strength comes from the level of training that sniper receive. All private soldiers have received an eight-week sniper operator cadre, culminating in the badge week testing phase, where students must pass a minimum of three of five attempts at each of the seven sniper skills. 

The career stream within sniper platoons means that mainstream infantry courses such as the section commanders battle course and the platoon sergeants battle course are prerequisites for attending the sniper section commanders or sniper platoon commanders courses, respectively. 

This means that a sniper section commander has a further eight weeks of training in his role when compared to their rifle company peers. The compound effect of this means the quality of individuals within a sniper platoon is generally higher than the remainder of an infantry battalion. This adds versatility and adaptability due to a more comprehensive understanding of battlegroup tactical actions. While mounted in a wheeled platform, snipers can offer the commander a mounted reconnaissance capability that can quickly transition to a dismounted precision direct fire capability. The risk to command and control that comes from operating dispersed is mitigated by this higher level of tactical training. If the intent is understood, snipers will seek to furnish it with whatever tools they deem suitable.

 Conclusion

Snipers can provide much more than a long-range precision shot at a dismounted enemy. When equipped with a suitable platform to move around the modern battlefield, snipers can influence the armoured battle in ways Major Hesketh-Pritchard (the founder of the British Army Sniping) believed were impossible. 

In the age of multi-layered intelligence collection, snipers are the experts in camouflage and concealment. They offer commanders the ability to disrupt an enemy with a relatively high level of survivability but at the cost of time. The higher level of training snipers continue to receive ensures they remain a motivated, highly professional cohort whose versatility and adaptability will continue to prove an asset to the commander who fields them.

Cover photo: MOD.



James S

James is a senior non-commissioned officer in the British army. He has 17 years of experience in both light role and armoured infantry. He has served on operations in Afghanistan and Estonia whilst having deployed on numerous exercises in Europe, North America and Asia.

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