Snipers Only Shoot to Kill

Indian forces have traditionally neglected the sophisticated weapons, but the Army, ITBP, and NSG are seeking to swiftly acquire them before the end-December deadline foreclosing the import of sniper rifles kicks in.

Representative image of a sniper.

Chandigarh: Sniping is a highly-skilled, precision killing business for most armed forces, but one that has been employed desultorily by India’s military, and even more randomly by its paramilitaries, deployed widely along its restive borders and against terrorists on internal security (IS) duties.

But official sources said in recent months, the Army, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), employed along with the disputed – and now restive – Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China and the National Security Guard (NSG) are seeking to up their sniping activity by importing small numbers of specialist rifles.

All three organisations are seeking to swiftly acquire these sophisticated weapons before the end-December deadline foreclosing the import of sniper rifles by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) kicks in. Sniper rifles are included in the MoD’s ‘negative list’, issued in early August that embargoes the import of 101 defence items in a bid to fast-track the government’s Atamnirbhar Bharat initiative to achieve self-sufficiency in armaments.

Earlier, in February 2019, the Army had inducted some 30-odd bolt-action .338 Scorpio TGT sniper rifles from Victrix Armaments of Italy and M95 rifles from the US company Barrett as an ‘emergency purchase’, employing them along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir to counter sustained sniping by the Pakistani Army.

A Barrett M95 sniper. Photo: Outisnn/Wikimedi Commons CC BY SA 3.0

Failed tenders

Alongside, India’s MoD is reportedly poised to resurrect its earlier 2018 request for proposal (RFP), or tender, to import 5,719 8.6mm sniper rifles and 5 million rounds of specialized ammunition for both the Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF). The previous RFP had included the import of an equal number of rifles, but double the amount of ammunition or 10.5 million rounds. It had also required transferring technology to the state-owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and domestic private sector companies, to locally manufacture an additional 4.60 million 8.6mm ammunition rounds, which posed problems and was eventually responsible for the tender being scrapped.

All four overseas vendors declined to bid on the grounds that transferring technology for the ammunition for a mere 4.6 million rounds was ‘commercially unviable’. The proposed delivery schedule of the rifles – 5,507 for the Army and 212 for the IAF’s Garud Commando force – stipulated by the MoD too posed glitches. The tender had required the shortlisted manufacturer to deliver the first lot of 707 rifles within six months of the contract being signed, and the remaining 4,472 supplied in batches of 1,200 units each over the next 30 months, unaware that such distinct weapons are not bulk-produced.

“The RfP was badly conceived, particularly with regard to the ammunition component, leaving the MoD no choice but to withdraw it,” said Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle (retd), director of Security Risks Asia, a New Delhi-based defence management consultancy. A follow-on RfP is likely to be issued sometime soon, he added.

A previous sniper rifle tender in 2009-2010 was similarly terminated due to the Army’s laughable and amateurish qualitative requirements (QRs) drawn up for them, that failed in mandating accuracy standards at a minimum range of 800 metres and absurdly required them to be fitted with a bayonet.

It was incomprehensible to the handful of vendors to determine why the rifle, purposed for employment at a distance of over 800 metres, needed a bayonet that is normally used by infantry soldiers in close combat. The unclear RfP also failed to differentiate between a bolt action or semi-automatic sniper rifle model, a critical QR determinant.

The Indian Navy, on the other hand, was more professional in its approach and in late 2016, acquired 177 Sako TIKKA t3 TAC 7.62x51mm bolt action sniper rifles from Italy’s Beretta for Rs 20 crore. Selected over UK’s Steel Core Designs Thunderbolt SC-76 model, the Sako rifle was acquired to upgrade the Navy’s Marine Commando (MARCOS) firepower and included 100,000 rounds of 7.62x51mm expert Match grade ammunition. In recent years, the secretive MARCOS have been increasingly employed on anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Malacca and, on occasion even on counter-terrorist operations in Kashmir.

A Sako Tikka T3 rifle.

Meanwhile, the ITBP, ranged beside the Army along the LAC in eastern Ladakh against China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), for its part recently tendered for 358 7.62x51mm bolt-action sniper rifles based on QR’s formulated by the NSG with its relatively extended sniping experience. Its RfP requires the proposed rifles to be fitted with integrated telescopic sights, including for low-light conditions, and the ability to function in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius, that prevail in the upper Himalayan reaches of eastern Ladakh during winter. Presently, the ITBP employs the Austrian Steyr SSG-69 bolt-action rifle with a 3,700 metre kill range and the 7.62x54mm Soviet-designed semi-automatic Dragunov SVD sniping rifle with a 1,300 metre range, that first entered Indian Army service in the mid-1980s.

Nonetheless, despite inducting the Dragunov sniper rifle, its employment over decades by the Army was at best ad hoc, confined largely to picking off low-value targets along the LoC in a tit-for-tat competition that raged along the unresolved restive mountainous frontier. But despite inducting the Dragunov sniper rifle, its employment over decades was at best ad hoc, confined largely to picking off low-value targets along the LoC. For, unlike their Western counterparts, the 3,500-4,000 army snipers – around 10 per infantry battalion – remain little better than amateurs compared to their Western, and even Chinese counterparts.

They lack adequate training, suitable weaponry and specialised supplementary paraphernalia like accurate imported Match ammunition, hand-held laser range finders, night sights and related hardware, essential to accomplish this highly skilled and deathly mission. Army shooters were routinely issued inefficient OFB-produced ammunition, which experts dismissed as ‘wholly inaccurate’ and one that defeated the very purpose of sniping.

All that is required of the army’s Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) snipers is merely good marksmanship, and one that gets them temporarily tasked with sniping in careers spanning variegated assignments. Not for them the kudos, fearful glamour or mystique attached to snipers in foreign armies or the espirit d corps of belonging to an elite band.

‘No attempt at building up the ethos’

A special badge to boost the snipers’ image, similar to what prevailed in other world armies, was introduced in the late 1990s by army chief General S. Padmanabhan, but was withdrawn soon after, as it proved unworkable. Earning the prestigious badge required three confirmed sniper kills. But senior officers said non-snipers or part-time snipers, using assault and other rifles, frequently claimed the designated scalps, thereby becoming eligible for the insignia, which was considered improper.

And with the insignia’s abandonment went whatever fleeting support there had been from the Army Headquarters in promoting the tactical efficaciousness of snipers and establishing a dedicated corps of military ‘hit men’ who potentially can alter, not only the course of battles and politics, but also history with their kills.

“There has been no attempt at building up the ethos of sniping in the army or any of the other security agencies barring some Special Forces units, the NSGs Special Action Group (SAG) and the Special Group (SG) of the shadowy Special Frontier Force (SFF),” lamented a retired three-star special forces officer. Training of infantry snipers remains rudimentary, he declared, adding that their skilful employment can impose caution, cause attrition and demoralise the enemy.

After all, snipers – an 18th century term derived from the game bird, snipe, that is difficult to hunt as it efficiently uses camouflage to remain undetected – can end up saving many lives with one well-aimed round by relieving hijacks, hostage situations and even apocalyptic incidents like the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist strike that claimed 166 lives.

Through history, snipers have been grudgingly, albeit fearfully glorified, and in recent years their lethal calling has been the focus of several hauntingly successful Hollywood movies like The Deer Hunter in 1978, which ended up as a metaphor for the Vietnam War itself. Enemy at the Gates is another fictionalised biopic of the legendary Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsey and WW2 hero participating in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43.

Years later, renegade snipers from opposing sides dominated Yugoslavia’s civil war and these shooters emerged, in a sense, as the deadly leitmotif of the bitter ethnic clash in Eastern Europe through the 1990s that claimed thousands of lives. And, closer home in something long forgotten, many officers from the hapless expeditionary Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in the late 1980s were assassinated by rebel Tamil Tiger snipers using assault rifles. Ironically, some of these snipers had been instructed by India’s Research and Analysis Wing or RAW. The Tiger rebels invariably targeted Indian Army officers, confident that neutralizing them would demoralize the Force.

“The sub-conventional warfare that India today faces mandates acquiring certain specialist skills,”  retired Lieutenant General Vijay Kapur said, adding that snipers should constitute an essential part of this unconventional response. It is high time, the military analyst declared, that the Indian Army awoke to this reality.

Indian Army’s training for snipers

The Indian Army treats sniping training cursorily. Two-man sniper teams – the shooter and his interchangeable buddy or spotter – attend 4-6 weeks of elementary and inadequate training capsules at the Infantry School at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh. Unlike in India, the latter in foreign armies is an equally skilled marksman but one who specializes in target and atmospheric observation, handling location security and communications and, in some instances even directing artillery fire and close air support from forwarding positions.

This instruction at Mhow includes a combination of firing practice and rudimentary attempts to mentally attune the marksman and his buddy to patiently await their quarry through aerobic and yoga lessons and breathing exercises to enhance concentration. Professional snipers abroad, however, are tutored, amongst other rigors, in the art of camouflage and deception, trained to stop breathing and reduce their heartbeats to the barest minimum whilst firing, as even the minutest unsynchronised twitch or movement can prove calamitous in securing their target. They are also trained to control their bladders and Pakistan’s Pathan tribesmen, who were considered by the British as the world’s most patient and competent snipers, use leaves to urinate so as not to make a noise or leave any tell-tale sign of their presence.

Despite a tradition of mythological marksmen like Dronacharya and Arjuna, the Army also had no nucleus of sniper instructors, as none had been nurtured as no foreign, friendly military was willing to instruct Indian soldiers in this specialty. The handful of NSG shooters who, some years ago had undergone sniping instruction abroad in countries like Israel, were too few in number to institutionally amplify this expertise in any meaningful manner. And the first two special forces officers who, after much negotiation and persuasion, attended a snipers intervention course in France in the late 1970s, with the intent of returning home on the specialized appointment, were soon diverted to other assignments that did not require their newly acquired skills.

One rare instance, however, of India’s security forces have effectively employed sniping involved NSG sharpshooters during Operation Black Thunder in May 1988 to lift the siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by Sikh terrorists. Crouched atop buildings overlooking the Temple complex, NSG sharpshooters with their favored 7.62X51mm German Heckler & Koch gas-operated semi-automatic PSG1 A1 sniper rifles, eliminated at least five of the besieging well-armed, trained, and committed Sikh separatists, successfully bringing the operation to fruition, with no casualties to the security forces. The PSG1 A1s were successfully employed once again by the NSG’s SAG army commandoes during the 2008 Mumbai terrorist siege.

The Golden Temple at Amritsar, site of Operation Blue Star.

Bolt-action vs semi-automatic-recoil rifles

Meanwhile, in professional sniping circles, the rivalry between a bolt-action and a semi-automatic-recoil or gas operated-sniper rifle has never been satisfactorily resolved, and it’s unlikely it ever will. Experts maintain both types had operational advantages and disadvantages and that large numbers of each kind had been inducted for military and law enforcement tasks around the world.

Users claim that the bolt-action sniper rifle, considered by many shooters as the ‘purist’s’ weapon, is easier to maintain, more reliable, accurate and lighter and with fewer moving parts in its mechanism, is easy to assemble. Whilst firing, its only moving parts were the pin and spring, greatly mitigating any chance of either a malfunction, or any of its rounds being thrown off target.

But some Western, particularly US Army snipers aver that semi-automatic sniping rifles had a definite tactical advantage over the bolt action model. They reason that fundamentally with a semi-automatic rifle, the shooter can keep his eye on the target through his telescope, if a second shot is needed, which he could immediately take.

In contrast, the bolt-action rifle shooter can do one of two things when he misses: chamber a new round into the breech, taking his eye off his objective, thus temporarily losing sight of it; or alternately, continue to observe his target and then cycle the bolt later, but once again crucially losing sight of it.  Either way, the bolt-action rifle marksman is unable to take a follow-up shot instantly with the necessary sight correction, by which time his quarry – in all probability, alerted to the danger – shifts or worse, disappears.

Specialists claimed that because of this drawback, many militaries and law enforcement agencies worldwide have switched to semi-automatic sniper rifles, due largely to the rapidity of firing additional, follow-up rounds without reloading. A police semi-automatic sniper rifle, for instance, can be used in situations requiring a single shooter to engage multiple targets in quick succession; his military equivalent can be equally effective using this model in a target-rich environment.

A riveting 1944 German army snipers training black and white film, stresses how the sharpshooter must evaluate the minutest details in his environment, developing primeval instincts of the hunter in the fatal battle of nerves with his victim. He needs to be precise, for once he reveals his firing position, he is vulnerable and needs to either make a getaway or shift location swiftly as the enemy would be seeking him. In multiple target situations, however, snipers can use relocation effectively, not only to spawn chaos and confusion in enemy ranks, but also to eliminate the wind factor which may be more advantageous elsewhere.

The police or paramilitary sniper, on the other hand operating in a controlled environment, tries to get as close to his quarry as is possible and fires normally from a comfortable or flat surface. However, unlike the military sniper, the inherent disadvantage he operates under is that a miss could mean hostage deaths; a miss by a military sniper, on the other hand, could go unnoticed, resulting in no immediate crisis except to the shooter.

In short, one man’s fate comes from another man’s – or sniper’s – wait.