Cool Under Fire, Snipers Don’t Miss
Canada’s sniper have ducked mortars and dodged bullets in eastern Afghanistan in the last two weeks. They were nearly shot to pieces by a US Apache helicopter gunship – it stopped firing just in the nick of time.
They are said to have the highest number of confirmed kills of any regular army unit in the battle, although they deny it.
And three of them, along with three US special forces soldiers, also rescued a company of American 101st Airborne Division pinned down by enemy fire on the first day of Operation Anaconda – the mission to find and destroy al-Qaida and Taliban forces in the rugged region south of Gardez.
In an interview on a castle-shaped rock from which al-Qaida fighters gave them days of misery earlier this month, one of two detachments of Canada’s snipers described an arduous first week of battle.
Because of the job they do, the three youthful but cool professional sharpshooters want to be identified only by pseudonyms with their real ages, ranks and home towns.
They landed at first light on March 2, on the first US helicopter flying in with troops from the fabled Screaming Eagles. The troops started taking small-arms fire at the top of the first ridge they hit.
The Americans were pinned down but the three snipers and three special forces troops moved forward and sought high ground.
From there, they began picking off al-Qaida fighters, who were shooting from behind rock piles. A one-hour firefight ensued.
“As soon as we got rid of one guy, another one would come up, and another one,” said Master Cpl. Alex, a multi-talented 30-year old raised in Ottawa and Halifax.
Soon after that battle ended, another began. Troops from the 101st were able to move into blocking positions while the six engaged a determined enemy.
“The six of us suppressed fire and neutralized the enemy – they were either dead or they ran away,” said Alex. “Most of them were killed, as far as we could see.”
The snipers were in their element – free-ranging, aggressive, taking the initiative.
But their talent for concealment nearly cost them their lives at the muzzles of an Apache helicopter that came in, guns blazing, chasing an enemy target just beyond them.
Lying prone in their Britist desert fatigues with padded elbows, front torsos and legs, they were almost invisible against the dry valley floor.
They heard the sound, looked back, saw the dirt spitting up in two rows – and rolled. The pilot must have seen them at the last moment because the strafing stopped less than a metre from their position.
For the sake of speed, they were moving without their 50kg rucksacks and spare ammunition. But then they were running low and needed special optics equipment.
Under fire, Cpl. Ed, 25. of Manuels, outside St. John’s, Nfld., ran the 100 metres back down one side of the ridge and up the other – and then back with their gear in tow.
They were 3,500 metres high. At such altitudes, the air was gaspingly thin even at a brisk walk. Altough extremely fit, Ed was nearly passing out after the two-way sprint, with AK-47 rounds nipping at his heels.
But Ed, who’s developed an uncanny Sean Connery imitation, didn’t stop there. He grabbed his M-203 grenade launcher and started firing at the al-Qaida fighters who were giving them trouble from a nearby creek.
“We don’t know what happened,” said Alex. “All we know is, their firing stopped.”
The snipers also helped extract American troops in trouble.
Under cover of darkness, they and their US special forces comrades led soldiers of the Airborne out of the danger area, scouting ahead for enemy threats and bringing the Americans up a little at a time until they eventually linked up with friendly forces.
At one point, the three Canadian snipers were pinned down by mortar fire in a dry riverbed. They were caught in the open. The rounds came as close as 10 metres.
“They were bracketing us, walking them in,” said Warren. “We’d move and they’d adjust fire. Eventually they ran out of rounds or they just gave up. I don’t know.”
Canadian snipers Master Cpl. “Warren” left, Cpl. “Ed” center, and Master Cpl. “Alex” watch over Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Canadian Press photo: Stephen Thorne
The snipers returned to base near Kabul March 11. Two days later the three were out again.
This time they were part of Operation Harpoon, with Canadian troops on “the Whale,” a mountain overlooking the Shah-e-Kot valley where al-Qaida were putting up stiff resistance.
Operation Harpoon, carried out in conjunction with Operation Anaconda, consisted of 500 Canadian and 100 US troops, under command of Lt.-Col. Pat Stogran, who leads Canadian Forces in Afghanistan in the biggest ground offensive since the Korean War.
Thursday, the snipers joined troops from the US 10th Mountain Division in a Canadian assault on the castle-like rock feature from which al-Qaida fire controllers had guided mortars into their former positions with the 101st.
They took the rock with little resistance, killing several al-Qaida fighters and destroying an extensive cave complex.
The operation showed that Canada “is capable of combat operations,” Ed said.
“I’m extremely happy to be here,” said Alex. “It’s not about grabbing oil or anything like that. It’s something important.”
“Every time something happens, I just think Spet. 11 and all the people who were not involved in armed conflict and were hurt. Innocent people – firefighters, police, women and children – who died just because a man doesn’t agree with the way another people live.”
Bolt Actions Speak Louder Than Words
The abilities of Canadian snipers are well known in the international sniping community. Four Canadian Army teams won top honors at the U.S. Army Sniper School’s first international sniping competition at Fort Benning, Georgia. Canadian Army snipers have seen limited deployment on recent peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, but in Afghanistan they got the chance to go “live.” Two teams of Canadian snipers from the 3rd Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group deployed in support of U.S. infantrymen from two U.S. Army light infantry battalions (2nd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division [Air Assault], and 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division), during Operation Anaconda in March 2002. The snipers are part of the 3rd PPCLI battalion reconnaissance platoon, stationed in Edmonton, Alberta.
Trained to engage targets out to at least 800 meters, Canada’s snipers — there are only a few dozen — learn their trade in the Sniper Cell of the Combat Training Center’s Infantry School at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick.
The Canadian Department of National Defense (DND) officially confirmed that a team of six Canadian snipers killed several heavily armed Taliban or al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan in the first weeks of March, “taking out” machine-gun nests and mortar positions at long range — the first confirmed enemy killed in combat by Canadian troops since the Korean War. In a press briefing at the onset of Operation Harpoon, a mopping-up mission to find and eliminate pockets of resistance remaining after Operation Anaconda, Vice-Admiral Greg Maddison, the Deputy Chief of Defense Staff, said Canadian snipers from the 3 PPCLI Battle Group killed enemy fighters during Operation Anaconda and they could kill more in Operation Harpoon. “These sniper teams suppressed enemy mortar and heavy machine-gun positions with deadly accuracy,” he noted.
During Operation Anaconda, Canadian snipers killed enemy fighters while defending U.S. troops that were under fire. “As the American battalion was moving down the ridge and dealing with the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters that they were encountering, the snipers were there to provide defensive capability. As they were moving forward, they would encounter various positions in which mortars were being fired at them and at the Americans and they were able to take out some of these positions and protect the Americans as they were continuing towards their final objective,” he added. “Their skills are credited with likely having saved many Allied lives.”
He would not say how many enemy fighters the snipers killed or provide any other details of the incident, stating, “First of all, we don’t have the specific numbers from the folks on the ground. It’s a very difficult thing to ascertain. The snipers were moving forward with the American battalion. Once the Taliban had been neutralized, if you will, they carried on forward to the objective and we’re not in the business of actually counting how many folks they may or may not have indeed killed. So I can’t tell you a specific number of how many were.”
The Canadian Department of National Defense can’t (or won’t for reasons of political correctness) be specific or give numbers, but Soldier Of Fortune can.
“Without Warning, Sans Remorse”
The need for snipers became apparent to the Canadian Defence Department during the summer of 1990 when snipers from the then-Royal Canadian School of Infantry (RCSI), CFB Gagetown, NB were attached to 5e Groupe-Brigade Mecanise du Canada from BFC Valcartier, Quebec during Operation Salon for the Mohawk Indian uprising in Oka, Quebec.
In 1992, Canadian Army sniping underwent “rejuvenation” at the School of Infantry. The Infantry School conducts the master sniper course and also oversees the three Area Training Centers governing the basic sniper courses. The master snipers are capable of instructing basic snipers and facilitate their continual training, magnifying their impact many times over. The 3PPCLI snipers train at their Area Training Center’s Basic Course at the Land Force Western Area Training Center, Wainwright, Alberta. The official motto of the snipers is “Without Warning, Sans Remorse.”
For ease of administration and training, snipers are organized as a section of the reconnaissance platoon. The section consists of a sergeant section commander, two master corporals, one of which is the second-in-command, and four corporal/private snipers. The section is organized into three detachments of two snipers each, and the section driver is also a spare sniper. When deployed, each team or detachment is organized as a sniper and an observer. Team members assist each other during long periods of observation and with range estimations, adjustments of rounds and security.
The Section Commander is designated as the unit master sniper, and is responsible for advising the Commanding Officer, usually through the reconnaissance platoon commander, on all matters related to sniping including counter-sniping. He is also responsible for sniper training and testing. According to WO Rick Hills, OIC of the Master Sniper Cell at CFB Gagetown, “The employment of snipers will vary by the scale and type of conflict and the selection of weapons and equipment will also remain flexible and task-dependent. Canadian snipers will always operate, as a minimum, in pairs as a two-man detachment.”
Serious Body Counts
Canuck snipers supposedly had the highest number of confirmed kills in the Shah-i-Kot Valley fight. A source in Kandahar working with the Canadian sniper teams estimates “well over 20 confirmed kills at long ranges.” There is an unconfirmed, but widely circulated, report of a 2,400-meter kill (chest-shot) against the driver of an enemy resupply truck. If validated, it will be a new record for the longest shot made by a military sniper in combat (currently 2,500 yards or about 2,250 meters, held by GySgt Carlos Hathcock, USMC, near Duc Pho, South Vietnam, January 1967, with a Browning .50 HMG mounting an 8-power Unertl telescopic sight).
Two detachments of Canadian snipers entered the battle alongside U.S. units. One group of three went in with a company from the 101st Airborne’s 3rd Brigade “Rakkasans.” When the American grunts became pinned down, the three Canadians and three accompanying U.S. Army Special Forces shooters armed with M24 Remingtons went to work. Moving to a vantage point, they began picking-off al-Qaeda fighters engaging the 101st infantrymen. For more than an hour they fought it out with heavily dug-in al-Qaeda fighters. According to Master Corporal (MCPL) “Alex,” a 30-year old infantryman from Ottawa and Halifax, “As soon as we got rid of one guy, another would come up, and another one.”
With the pressure off them, the company of 101st infantrymen quickly moved into their assigned blocking positions. The Canuck snipers were in their element. They continued their long-range shooting with their McMillan Brothers .50-cal. Tactical Anti-Materiel Sniper Rifle System. This is the new bolt-action, Long-Range Sniper Weapon (LRSW) that was only introduced to Canadian Infantry Battalions in April 2000. The LRSW is modified for Canadian Army use with a moveable cheek piece and shortened bipods, and is fitted with a 16x Leupold optical sight. It has a five-round magazine, weighs 12 kg./26.4 lbs., and is 145cm/58 in. in length. The Canadians push AMAX Match .50-caliber ammunition through it.
The spotter (secondary) or team commander, uses a C3A1 7.62mm Sniper Rifle — a Parker-Hale M82 modified to Canadian specs with a six-round detachable magazine, extended bolt handle, strengthened receiver, new trigger safety and a new match-type barrel. The C3A1 is fitted with a Unertl 10x optic (same as USMC-issue), and its usual fodder is Norma Match 7.62mm ammunition loaded with the Sierra Match King 168-gr. HPBT(M) bullet. The LRSW is fitted with Gen III and the C3 Gen II Simrad image-intensification devices for low-light work. For back up they both have the Canadian-made Diemaco C-8 5.56mm Carbine (analogous to the U.S. M4) and 9mm Inglis GP (M1935) Hi-Power pistol using standard service ammo. The teams also have 20-power compact spotting scopes, a Leica Vector binocular with built-in rangefinder, compass and inclinometer functions and a GPS uplink, in addition to normal field gear, camouflage, and ghillie suits: The Canadians put it all to use.
The LRSW, however, is the primary weapon for the sniper team. When employing the LRSW, the usual two-man team of sniper and spotter will normally be increased to three and will then be designated as a sniper team. The team will consist of the No. 1, (primary sniper) employing the LRSW, the No. 2, (team commander) employing the C3A1, and the No. 3, (team security) employing the Canadian-made Diemaco C7 5.56mm M16A2 type rifle. With the weapon systems complementing each other, this allows for a maximum of flexibility of tasks within the team.
Into The Fray
The American infantrymen, flown in by CH-47 Chinook helicopter and forced to hump over bare ground from their two mountain LZs, were taking heavy fire from the enemy. They were easy targets for well-prepared heavy machine-gun and automatic-weapons positions on the 10,000-foot ridge known as the Whale’s Back on the West side of the valley, and the commanding 10,000- to 12,000-feet heights of the Shah-i-Kot mountain ridge on the East side, and even the village, Sherkankel, in the valley. The American grunts came under immediate and intense enemy fire from these prepared defensive positions sited above and all around them. American infantrymen in the fight said the enemy fire consisted of everything from small arms to mortars and heavy machine guns, firing with interlocking arcs from both the top of the Shah-i-Kot mountain range, and across the valley from the Whale. Many were pinned down by the heavy fire and needed help taking out the enemy machine guns and mortars that were inflicting casualties. The Canadian snipers were on the job.
A recent Canadian newspaper article by Canadian Press photojournalist Stephen Thorne interviewed some of the snipers. MCPL Alex recalled, “The six of us suppressed fire and neutralized the enemy. They were either dead or they ran away.” Kitted-out in British desert DPM uniforms (the Canucks haven’t issued desert brown uniforms yet) they were so well camouflaged they were nearly shot up by Apache attack helicopters. They heard the Apache firing and looked behind them to see great spouts of dirt in two rows. The rounds stopped only a meter from their position. MCPL Alex said, “I don’t know how the .50 didn’t get hit. We laughed after that. You got to.”
The team had cached their 110-pound rucks. Under fire, they needed additional optics and, a testament to the amount of shooting they were doing, ran low on ammunition (the other Canadian team eventually resorted to using U.S. Army .50-caliber ammunition as they’d depleted their supply of AMAX Match ammo). Corporal “Ed,” 25, of Manuels, Newfoundland, volunteered to run down into the valley and up the opposite ridge 100 meters away to get more ammo and equipment. With the air thin at 11,500 feet CPL Ed was ready to pass out after his sprint back and forth through enemy fire, but still managed to return fire with his M203 40mm grenade launcher. His rounds must have found their target, some al-Qaeda firing from a nearby streambed.
“We don’t know what happened. All we know is their firing stopped,” said MCPL Alex. The Canadian snipers also came under heavy mortar fire. MCPL “Warren” said, “They were bracketing us. We’d move and they’d adjust fire. Eventually they either ran out of rounds or they just gave up. I don’t know. You could hear the fins rotating as they came in. It’s a sound I’ll never forget.”
There are undoubtedly some al-Qaeda who will never forget the sound of a Canadian sniping rifle echoing over the Shah-i-Kot valley, as well.
Interview With A Sniper
MCPL Alex, the “shooter” on his three-man team, is back at his unit’s home base in Edmonton, Alberta. He recently talked for three hours with Soldier Of Fortune about his experiences in Afghanistan. For their personal security, SOF has used the nom de guerre as given to the Canadian media for the Canadian snipers.
Alex, a 10-year veteran, has been a sniper for two years. He went to Croatia in 1993, joined the Canadian Airborne Regiment in 1994, then returned to the Balkans for duty in Bosnia in 1997 and 2000. Trained at the Wainwright sniper course, he was a sniper in Bosnia in 2000. During that tour he and other Canadian snipers completed a British Army sniper course as well.
Alex and the five other 3 PPCLI snipers deployed to Afghanistan with their unit. After initial duty at Kandahar on observation posts and some work with Northern Alliance troops, both of the three-man 3 PPCLI sniper teams were attached to the 3rd Brigade (Rakkasans), 101st Airborne Division. Alex and his team were with C Co, 2d Bn, 3rd Bde of the 101st (he proudly showed me his Rakkasans challenge coin). Alex was the “shooter,” or No. 1, armed with a McMillan Brothers .50 caliber. Three U.S. Special Forces shooters, known only by their first names, joined them for Operation Anaconda. The solitary shooter armed with a Remington 700 (M24) and backed up by two team members armed with M4 carbines, he also laid down effective fire on long-range targets.
As soon as the Canadians were attached to the 101st they received a bit of culture shock seeing the wealth of gear and support the U.S. Army receives, in contrast to Canadian Army. They also experienced the U.S. infantryman’s unique Hooah attitude and esprit. From Bagram Airfield they staged with the Rakkasans for Operation Anaconda.
On 2 March they deployed at first light via CH-47 Chinook. Unlike some other units, they took no ground-fire on the way in. However, 15 minutes after landing on the cold LZ they were in contact, receiving small-arms fire from enemy forces. They moved to a position looking toward the Whale, east of the village of Sherkankel. Alex told SOF, “I said to Joe, one of the SF snipers, ‘shouldn’t we put a gun up here?’ He told us ‘Let these guys, they’re regular infantry, just let them do their thing, if the shit hits the fan, we’ll sort it out.’ Next thing you know it happened, and we started moving to high ground. We were carrying C-8s, Brownings — the Americans had M4s — and I had the .50 on my back in a drag bag. My spotter had a C-7 with M203 grenade launcher and the radio.” Alex and his team set up a firing position and began supporting C Company.
“We helped them by taking out certain positions so they could carry on with the primary task. Our engagement distances that day were from 777 meters to 1,500 meters.” The U.S. and Canadian teams’ spotters engaged al-Qaeda much closer than that, though. “We took fire from the rear, maybe 10 meters away from us; we looked at each other like ‘What the hell is that!’ and one of the spotters turned around and covered us.” Alex’s team also came under fire from an RPG from the rear. This definitely got their attention. Spotters (both Canadian and American) used their M203 40mm grenade launchers (the Canadian spotters carried 5.56mm C-7A1s with Elcan low-mount optical sights and M203 grenade launchers) to suppress enemy fire from a nearby wood-line. “We had debated taking the M203 with us. We were taking fire from a treeline (to our front) and we couldn’t see where he was and I wasn’t going to waste a shot there. So he (the Canadian team’s No.3) came up and just started pumping-out rounds along with one of the SF guys with a grenade launcher. So I used it to mask the sound of my firing.”