A legendary Marine Corps sniper who earned the Silver Star during the first battle of Fallujah, Iraq, has a warning for the Corps: Snipers are integral to the urban battle and the Marine Corps needs to adequately address its shortage of deadly marksmen.
Ethan Place was a corporal in April 2004 when he found himself perched as a sniper on a rooftop in Fallujah, staring through scope of his M40A3 rifle and scanning the long urban alleys of the Iraqi city looking for insurgents seeking to harm his fellow Marines clearing the city below.
“Urban terrain for snipers is a dream world for shooting positions and angles, the ability to hide and move,” Place told Marine Corps Times in an interview.
As Marines clawed their way through the city street by street and house to house, snipers like Place provided overwatch from above, pushing enemy insurgents further and further away from their comrades with long range precision fires.
“We were able to push the enemy completely back and also limit their range and their movement as well,” Place said. “They didn’t understand how far we could shoot.”
And while insurgents were kept at bay by precision shots, Marine snipers had freedom of movement on Fallujah’s rooftops, knocking out loopholes, or moving through connected houses and blown holes in the walls of the tightly connected old city.
For snipers and their spotters, it was “very easy to move back and forth,” Place said. We’d “shoot from one hide and move to another.”
The first battle for Fallujah, known as Operation Vigilant Resolve, would earn Place the nation’s third highest award for combat bravery.
He would leave Iraq with 32 confirmed kills as a scout sniper with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines.
The lessons learned from the Corps’ fight in Fallujah have not been lost.
But the Corps is reeling from a shortage of its professional marksmen — and it’s one that could impact the Corps’ ability to fight and navigate in future dense urban environments.
Manning its mission
High attrition rates and poor attendance numbers at the Corps’ 79-day Scout Sniper Basic Course is challenging the Corps to keep its sniper platoons adequality manned to carry out its mission.
From 2013 to June 2018 the Corps only has managed to pop out 226 snipers.
In 2017 only 42 students attended the sniper course and as of June 2018 only 77 Marines have attended. The numbers are below the nearly 100 Marines averaged in previous years back to 2013. Marine Corps Times does not have the final 2018 attendance numbers.
And the 14 sniper graduates as of June 2018 is on track to be one of the lowest numbers of snipers to successfully navigate the rigorous course since 22 graduated in 2017. Only 29 made it through in 2014.
The Corps typically has 300 scout snipers, Caylen Wojcik, a former Marine sniper who left the Corps in 2005, told Marine Corps Times.
But, the Corps says it only has 150 sergeants and below holding the coveted 0317 scout sniper job field.
“The advanced decision-making, infantry and marksmanship skills necessary to attain this qualification make the Marine Scout Sniper Course one of the most challenging schools in the Marine Corps,” Capt. Karoline Foote, a Marine spokeswoman, told Marine Corps Times.
However, the Corps argues that it has “sufficient inventory of scout snipers to consistently meet its operational requirements and accomplish its mission,” Foote added.
While the Corps has “sufficient inventory” to meet today’s operational requirements, the Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller recently rejected a proposal to grow the Corps’ sniper platoons by eight Marines.
That recommendation was borne out of a series of experimental exercises known as Sea Dragon, which tested infantry Marines with new kit and various squad configurations in an effort to help modernize the force.
The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory recommended to Neller that the sniper platoons should grow based on lessons learned from recent major urban fights overseas.
A sniper’s ability to navigate across complex urban and human terrain was highlighted in recent major urban fights like Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, as partner forces cleared the urban strongholds from ISIS militants.
In the fight to liberate to Mosul, ISIS snipers bogged down Iraqi fighters, slowing down the assault to liberate the city from the militants, with persistent harassing sniper fire, according to Alexander Mello, a researcher who co-authored a study on the defense of the city for the Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel at West Point.
Sometimes it was “one or two snipers holding up the advance of an entire column,” Mello said.
With limited counter-sniper capability, “You’d get a bunch of airstrikes to take out one guy in a single building,” leading to far greater destruction of the city and added risk of civilian casualties, Mello said.
That also aided ISIS in its ability to control information operations and push propaganda efforts during the siege of the populous urban stronghold.
ISIS snipers also enjoyed freedom of movement, traveling between holes in the walls of connected houses.
Those skill sets will be key for the Corps as it faces down the growing possibility of a major urban engagement in a future bout with peer and near-peer rivals.
Neller has said his decision to not grow the sniper platoons was one of “quality over quantity.”
“My concern is I’d rather have eight really good highly qualified snipers,” Neller said at a media roundtable event in October. “Our ability to try and get people through that training curriculum is always a challenge.”
However, the top Marine said that infantry Marines will continue to have long range precision fires embedded in every squad. A Marine carrying the M38 rifle, a designated marksmen version of the M27 IAR, will bear that responsibility.
But undermanning in the sniper platoons has been a consistent theme, Place said.
When Place was serving, he said there were usually 10 hogs, hunters of gunmen, per platoon. But he said that he’s heard grumblings that those numbers are as low as one to two hogs per platoon.
Sniper platoons generally consist of hogs, snipers who have been through the formal training, and pigs, professionally instructed gunmen who are still undergoing on-the-job training.
The right ratio between the two is key to ensuring proper training and the ability for the platoons to maintain their craft. With few hogs in the platoon, it is difficult to properly train.
“The Marine Corps’ goal is for each infantry battalion to deploy with at least six scout snipers,” Foote said. “Individual battalions are responsible for the management and the employment of their respective 0317 inventories.”
Some of the issues in the sniper community could be cleared up by turning the sniper field into a primary military occupational specialty, or MOS. It’s currently an additional MOS, Place said.
A primary job field for the sniper community would help formalize training, a career track and ensure the field is adequately funded, he said. Other snipers in the community have echoed that concern with Marine Corps Times.
The Corps says it has reviewed that option.
“The Marine Corps has recently considered designating the scout sniper MOS as an entry-level PMOS and determined that retaining it under the current model as a BMOS is the best option at this time for meeting manpower and billet requirements for this important skill set,” Foote said.
The Corps says it routinely reviews training and curriculum at the sniper school house and changes in sniper training could be made if new operational demands are made or changes in concepts of employment occur.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.