Sniping is one of the most cost-effective tactics in an insurgency, both for security forces as well as terrorists

by Lt Gen H.S. Panag

Over the last one month, there have been a number of reports of our security forces suffering casualties from sniper fire in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). While sniping has been an ongoing feature of fighting on the Line of Control (LoC), alleged terrorist snipers have struck for the first time in the Valley and seem to have caught the security forces by surprise.

Intelligence reports indicate that two sniper pairs of Jaish-e-Mohammed have infiltrated into the Valley. Since September 2018, three kills in Kashmir’s interior have been attributed to terrorist snipers.

This has generated a lot of public interest, particularly in light of earlier reports about our troops suffering casualties from sniper fire on the LoC.

Making Every Shot Count

Sniping is one of the most cost-effective tactics in an insurgency, both for the security forces as well as the terrorists.

Based on intelligence, reconnaissance and observation, kills can be achieved at very long range. The world record is held by a Canadian sniper, who achieved an astounding 3,540-metre ‘kill’ in Iraq last year. Snipers are also used to shoot terrorists mingling with crowds in hostage situations, and during a firefight where the sniper is in an over-watch position.

Since snipers are highly skilled, they make every shot count. In Jammu and Kashmir, approximately 5,000 rounds are used to kill one terrorist. Snipers, on the other hand, take only 1.3 rounds to achieve a kill.

A sniper has to be physically fit, mentally robust, skilled at field-craft, and an exceptional marksman. He must be a master of camouflage, have the guile to bait the enemy and develop infinite patience to get the “sure shot”. The sniping duel in Stalingrad between Vasily Zaytsev (Russian Army) and Major Erwin K├Ânig (German Army), immortalised in the movie Enemy at the Gates, is a classic example of the stuff snipers are made of.

A sniper must have the scientific temper to understand the external ballistics of the bullet at long range, which is influenced by a host of factors that include gravity, wind speed and direction, altitude, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and centrifugal force. At long range, even a mild crosswind requires a significant “off set” of the aiming point away from the target, which has to be accurately calculated.

The prolonged specialised training and the relatively high cost of equipment deters terrorist organisations from training and using snipers. Short training capsules in field-craft, and skills to effectively use a weapon like the AK-47 at short range meet the requirements of terrorist outfits.

New Dimension

The reason for the likely change of tactics by the terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir is due to their diminishing numbers and inability to counter the effective security grid.

In my view, they are unlikely to use high-end sniper rifles with long range. What is more likely is the induction of “sharpshooters” who use a modern standard rifle like the US Army M4 rifle fitted with day and night vision telescopic sights to engage targets up to 500 metres. This would be a cost-effective alternative as, till now, terrorist attacks that involve the use of AK-47 are restricted to ranges of 20-50 metres. A few personnel of the Special Service Group of the Pakistan Army, with sophisticated sniper rifles, could also be inducted. The use of “sharpshooters” and some snipers can be a game changer in the ongoing proxy war. The security forces would have to take additional preventive security measures for the “off set” threat.

This new dimension is a wake-up call for the Indian Army to field its own snipers, which are the best countermeasure against the enemy “sharpshooters”/ snipers, in a more effective manner. To the best of my knowledge, we have never killed a terrorist using a sniper. The situation at the LoC is no different.

We have nearly 5,000 Dragunov sniper rifles with an effective range of 1300 metres inour inventory at the scale of 10 per Infantry/ Special Forces/Assam Rifles/ Rashtriya Rifles Battalion. Reports have surfaced recently about the Indian Army starting the process of importing 5,000-6,000 modern sniper rifles for Rs 982 crore to replace the Dragunov sniper rifle. It is surprising that there seems to be no plan to induct specialist sniper rifles for ranges beyond 1500 metres.

Yawning Gap

Where then are our snipers? Why are we not effectively using them? The answer lies in the proverbial statement – it is not the gun but the man behind the gun that makes the difference. We have not been able to develop the requisite skills in our snipers. They are no more than “sharpshooters”, a little better than the average soldier but certainly not skilled snipers

There is no specialist trade of “sniper”, but any above-average soldier after limited training wields the sniper rifle. Snipers lack specialised clothing and gear. Simulators are not available and training ammunition is inadequate. The sniper course conducted at the Infantry School lacks quality. Very few of our snipers can pass the universal test of a sniper, which is to score a first round “head shot” at 600 metres and a first round “body shot” at 1,000 metres. If a sniper cannot pass this test, he cannot be called a sniper and remains a marksman or a sharpshooter.

What is the solution? In my view, radical changes need to be made in our approach towards training of snipers. A specialised trade of “sniper” must be created. A core group of 100 snipers, after a selection based on international standards, must be trained in the sniper schools of western armies to create a pool of sniper instructors. A sniper training school must be established and all snipers must be trained there. Refresher training must be organised at Corps Battle schools under sniper instructors. In addition to the standard sniper rifles, we must import specialised long-range sniper rifles for “super snipers”. We must also kit our snipers up with gear of international standards.

Unless these reforms are carried out, no matter what rifles are imported, we will continue to produce only “sharpshooters” and not snipers, and remain at the receiving end in the changed scenario in Jammu and Kashmir.

Lt Gen H.S. Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years