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Sniper shortage: Too many Marines are washing out of sniper school

March 5, 2017 (Photo Credit: Sgt. James R. Skelton.)
The Marine Corps is facing a “critical gap” of scout snipers due to the high washout rates at sniper school, so the Corps is looking at changes to how the elite sharpshooters are trained, officials said.

The graduation rate for scout snipers school for the past several years has been down significantly. An uptick in 2016 bumped the graduation rate to about 44 percent; but that remains well below the nearly 56 percent graduation rate in 2012, according to Training Command.

“The significant causes of attrition in the course are in practical application evaluations, which includes stalking, marksmanship and land navigation,” Training Command said in a statement to Marine Corps Times. “The eligibility requirements and training requirements have not been made more difficult.”

The one-shot, one-kill capability that snipers bring to the battlefield continue to  be invaluable in protecting troops and civilians from enemy fighters – including enemy snipers. Snipers also support infantry battalions with forward reconnaissance and observation. And they are often used to boost force protection, especially at U.S. embassies, where security has intensified during the past several years.

Having scout snipers on the battlefield will be even more important given the types of environments where Marines will likely fight in the future, a Marine Corps official said.

But the Marine Corps has determined that it has a shortfall of scout snipers, said Maj Henry Nesbit, deputy infantry advocate for the Ground Combat Element Branch of Plans, Policies, and Operations.

“While we remain proud of those who achieve the hard-earned right to be a scout sniper, we recognize that there is a critical gap that must be addressed," Nesbit said.

To boost the graduation rates for student snipers, the Marine Corps is overhauling the way those Marines are trained.

Until now, scout snipers have honed their skills in a single training program where they learn critical skills that include blending into any environment, moving without drawing attention and hitting targets at long distances.

Starting this spring, however, the Corps will experiment with breaking up the training into two parts and, in between, giving those Marines time on an operational unit, a Marine Corps official said.

“Traditionally, there’re two areas that challenge our students: one is stalking and the other is the marksmanship skills,” the Marine Corps official said.

“The intent is to give a sniper student the basic skills they need to join their unit under seasoned scout snipers,” the official said. “Then they will be doing [on-the-job-training] out in the operating environments and doing certain skills, holding certain billets at a lower level in their teams to gain that experience and be mentored and coached under the senior scout snipers of their unit prior to going to the advanced course – and having a greater chance of success.”

Scout snipers training
A Marine student undergoing the 2nd Marine Division Combat Skills Center Pre-Scout Sniper Course looks through an M40A5 sniper rifle at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Jan. 6, 2016.
Photo Credit: Cpl. Paul S. Martinez.
“The Marine Corps understands the importance of that capability,” the official said. “So we’re looking at ways to be able to increase throughput and enhance our training. That’s why we’re doing this.”

Many details of the planned experiment have yet to be worked out, such as how many student snipers would participate and what requirements they would have to meet to move from the basic to advanced course, officials said. Breaking the training course in two and having the students spend time with units will lengthen the overall training.

“It’s not finally approved,” the official said. “It’s predecisional. I don’t want to get ahead of the commandant on this one. We’re testing the concept at this point.”

Battalions select infantry Marines at the rank of lance corporal and above for the training, which is held at School of Infantry-East at Camp Geiger, North Carolina; School of Infantry-West at Camp Pendleton, California; and Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.

To earn the scout sniper military occupational specialty, infantry Marines must currently complete a three-week indoctrination course and the 79-day Scout Sniper Basic Course.

One challenge the Marine Corps faces in filling out Scout Sniper platoons is that many of the Marines completing the course are nearing the end of their first term of enlistment.

Top Marine Corps officials are reportedly considering a plan to make the scout sniper military occupational specialty, 0317, into a primary MOS, which would allow recruits to come into the Corps and move directly into a sniper training pipeline, according to a report from the online publication We Are the Mighty.

A Marine  Corps spokesman declined to confirm that such an option was being looked at. “The Marine Corps is currently assessing the best way to train and sustain its scout snipers,” said Maj. Clark Carpenter.

Inside the scout sniper community

Typically the Marine Corps has up to 300 or so trained scout snipers across the force, said Caylen Wojcik, a former Marine staff sergeant who served as a scout sniper from 1998 to 2005.

Being a scout sniper involves many technical skills, such as camouflage field-craft, mission planning and marksmanship, said Wojcik, who taught at the scout sniper basic course for three years. Without prior training, it is difficult for Marines to successfully complete sniper school, he said.

“As an example, before I went to school, I went through a regimental pre-sniper course, which was six weeks long,” Wojcik said in an recent interview. “A significantly higher percentage of attendees at the regimental course graduated the division course because they were prepared.”

Wojcik, who sits on the board of the United States Marine Corps Scout Sniper Association, said the Marine Corps' need for scout snipers comes in waves, typically ramping up during intense combat and ebbing when things calm down, he said.

“Generally during a wartime scenario, a commander sees the benefit of scout snipers on the battlefield and he says, ‘I want you guys everywhere; I need you guys everywhere,” because a sniper is probably the ultimate force multiplier on the battlefield,” Wojcik said.

When operations wind down and those commanders move on, they leave a vacuum in institutional knowledge about how best to use scout snipers, he said. 

The scout sniper community itself also sees a very high rate of turnover because once Marines become staff sergeants, their primary MOS becomes 0369 – Infantry Unit Leader – and that means they will be sent to whichever unit the Marine Corps deems necessary, Wojcik said. 

Without any career progression in their community, the only way scout snipers can keep doing their jobs is by becoming reconnaissance Marines, he said.

Wojcik said he believes that scout snipers should have their own company to reduce the turnover rate. That unit’s various platoons would then be attached to infantry battalions as needed, he said.

“What I see would be the most beneficial for that MOS is to be able to have career progression,” Wojcik said. “In an ideal world … all that leadership would be qualified scout snipers so that they have a thorough, in-depth understanding of what those Marines do and what they’re capable doing. That’s going to allow them to best support that unit.”

'It's not meant for everybody'

A scout sniper platoon works directly for the battalion commander and may be tasked to provide support to maneuver units or may operate separately, officials said.

Scout sniper teams are assigned to surveillance and target acquisition platoons, which fall under a battalion’s intelligence section, said Gina Cavallaro, author of the 2010 book “Sniper: American Single-Shot Warriors In Iraq And Afghanistan.”

“They are trained to conduct close surveillance and intelligence-gathering missions and long-range marksmanship,” said Cavallaro, a former Army and Marine Corps Times reporter. “Recon Marines are trained as snipers as well, but their missions support larger regimental or brigade level operations and they are part of the special operations community, often working in a joint tactical environment. They gather intelligence for big amphibious operations and also execute direct action missions.”

As an elite force, scout sniper teams have “one of the most dangerous jobs on the battlefield,” so it make sense that the required training is hard, she said.

“Everyone wants to be a scout sniper but it’s just not meant to be for everybody,” Cavallaro said. “It takes discipline and maturity and skill. Anybody can pick up a rifle and shoot a target. But to be sniper you have to really be switched on.”

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