Ri­fles en­ter Marine snipers’ sights

Teams say they used ob­so­lete weapons and equip­ment for 14 years

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY THOMAS GIB­BONS- NEFF thomas.gib­bons-neff@wash­post.com

It was the sum­mer of 2011 in south­ern Hel­mand prov­ince, Afghanistan, and mission af­ter mission, Sgt. Ben McCullar of Third Bat­tal­ion, Sec­ond Marines, would in­sert with his eight-man sniper team into the berms and dunes north of the volatile town of Musa Qala.

Some­times they would fire at a group of en­emy fighters, some­times the en­emy would fire at them first, but al­most im­me­di­ately, McCullar ex­plained, their team would be pinned down by ma­chine guns that out­ranged al­most all of their sniper ri­fles.

“They’d set up at the max range of their [ma­chine guns] and start fir­ing at us,” McCullar said. “We’d take it un­til we could call in [close air sup­port] or ar­tillery.”

The story of McCullar and his snipers is not an iso­lated one. For 14 years, Marine snipers have suf­fered set­backs in com­bat that, they say, have been caused by out­dated equip­ment and the in­abil­ity of the Marine Corps to pro­vide a sniper ri­fle that can per­form at the needed range.

They trace the prob­lem to the rel­a­tively small Marine sniper com­mu­nity that doesn’t ad­vo­cate ef­fec­tively for it­self be­cause it is made up of ju­nior ser­vice mem­bers and has a high turnover rate. Ad­di­tion­ally, snipers say that the Marine Corps’ weapons pro­cure­ment process is part of an en­trenched bu­reau­cracy re­sis­tant to change.

The Marine Corps is known for field­ing older equip­ment. In the 1991 Gulf War, when the Army was driv­ing the brand-new M1A1 Abrams battle tanks, the Marines crossed into Kuwait with the aging Pat­tons — tanks that rolled through the streets of Saigon in the ’ 60s. In 2003, when they en­tered Iraq again, Marine snipers car­ried the M40A1 sniper ri­fles, many of which be­gan their ca­reers shortly af­ter the end of the Viet­nam War.

To­day, the Marines’ pri­mary sniper ri­fle, a newer vari­ant of the M40, still shoots roughly the same dis­tance: 1,000 yards.

Cur­rent and for­mer Marine Corps snipers say their hard­ware doesn’t match the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the other ser­vices, not to men­tion what is in the hands of enemies such as the Tal­iban and the Is­lamic State.

“It doesn’t mat­ter if we have the best train­ing,” said one re­con­nais­sance sniper who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he is not per­mit­ted to talk to the me­dia. “If we get picked off at a thou­sand yards be­fore we can shoot, then what’s the point?”

McCullar, who was also an in­struc­tor at the Marine Corps’ main sniper school in Quan­tico, Va., un­til this month, when he left the ser­vice, voiced sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments.

“With an av­er­age en­gage­ment of 800 yards, you’re al­ready rul­ing out a lot of our weapons,” McCullar said.

McCullar’s most re­cent de­ploy­ment to Afghanistan, in 2011, was marked by con­tro­versy when other mem­bers of his sniper pla­toon were filmed uri­nat­ing on dead Tal­iban fighters.

That year was also a pe­riod of im­pro­vised tac­tics on the bat­tle­field, as McCullar and his fel­low snipers of­ten found them­selves in sit­u­a­tions where bet­ter ri­fles were needed.

“Some­times we could see the [ Tal­iban] ma­chine gun­ners, and we re­ally couldn’t en­gage them,” McCullar said. He added that if Marines had dif­fer­ent weapons, such as a .300 Winch­ester Mag­num or a .338, their ac­cu­racy would be much im­proved.

The Army, for in­stance, adopted the .300 Win Mag as its pri­mary sniper ri­fle car­tridge in2011, and it fires 300 yards far­ther than the Marines’ M40, which uses a lighter .308-cal­iber bul­let.

In a state­ment, the Marine Corps Sys­tems Com­mand said it has “eval­u­ated sev­eral op­tions for re­plac­ing the M40 se­ries sniper ri­fle; how­ever, the weapon con­tin­ues to meet our op­er­a­tional re­quire­ments.”

The M40 is built by Pre­ci­sion Weapons Sec­tion, a com­po­nent of the Marine Corps that is con­tracted by Marine Corps Sys­tems Com­mand and is pri­mar­ily staffed by Marine ar­mor­ers. It ex­ists solely to build and re­pair the Marines’ pre­ci­sion weapons.

Chris Sharon, a for­mer chief sniper school in­struc­tor at Quan­tico, says there has been a re­luc­tance to cut the M40 pro­gram be­cause it could make Pre­ci­sion Weapons Sec­tion re­dun­dant.

“No­body wants to be the one who kills PWS,” said Sharon, who is also a for­mer con­trac­tor for Marine Corps Sys­tems Com­mand, not­ing that killing the ri­fle would sig­nif­i­cantly down­size one el­e­ment of the Marine Corps.

Sharon says the so­lu­tion to the Marines’ prob­lems lies in a sys­tem called the Pre­ci­sion Sniper Ri­fle, or PSR, which other ser­vices so­licit di­rectly from a pri­vate arms man­u­fac­turer.

It’s not that ex­pen­sive,” Sharon said. “You could buy and main­tain two PSRs for one M40. . . . All of our NATO al­lies have a .338 ri­fle, and we’re the only ones still shoot­ing .308.”

Sgt. J.D. Mon­te­fusco, a for­mer Marine Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Train­ing Group in­struc­tor, re­counted a moun­tain sniper course in which he par­tic­i­pated with a num­ber of Bri­tish Royal Marines dur­ing train­ing in the rugged ter­rain of Bridge­port, Calif.

Mon­te­fusco said the Marine snipers in the course were tech­ni­cally more pro­fi­cient than their Bri­tish coun­ter­parts, but since the weather was ter­ri­ble and the Bri­tish had ri­fles that fired a heav­ier bul­let, the Marines paid the price.

“Pretty much all the Marines failed,” Mon­te­fusco said. “And the Brits just had a heav­ier round, they didn’t have to worry nearly as much as we did when it came to fac­tor­ing in the weather.”

Mon­te­fusco added: “A .338 [ri­fle] should have been adopted while we were fight­ing in Afghanistan.”

The Marine Corps re­cently de­cided to up­grade from the M40A5 to the M40A6, a new vari­ant that still shoots the same dis­tance.

“You have to look at those pro­grams and ask who’s driv­ing the bus on this?” Sharon said.

McCullar, Sharon and other snipers all voiced their con­cern about the next con­flict and how Marine snipers will stack up against their ad­ver­saries on the bat­tle­field.

“We make the best snipers in the world. We are em­ployed by the best of­fi­cers in the mil­i­tary. And we are the most feared hun­ters in any ter­rain,” said a Marine sniper in­struc­tor, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to speak to the me­dia. “But the next time we see com­bat, the Marines Corps is go­ing to learn the hard way what hap­pens when you bring a knife to a gun­fight.”

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