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SOF Sniper Systems Developments

 

Conducted March 20-24, 2017, the annual U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) International Sniper Competition exemplified the wide-ranging skill sets required to effectively operate as a force multiplying sniper team.

The event, which involved two-man teams from across USASOC’s Special Forces groups and Ranger battalions, also saw participation from special operations forces (SOF) and counterterrorism (CT) teams from Germany, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, and Italy, with competitors conducting a total of 20 scenarios encompassing stress shoots, engagement of moving targets, low-light scenarios, and long-range targeting.

According to U.S. Army sources, the event highlighted the substantial levels of fieldcraft involved in such operations, including battle preparation, stalking, target acquisition, and marksmanship.

“Positioned correctly, snipers provide critical overwatch of a target area and a go/no-go decision for tactical commanders on the ground. It’s not always about a sniper taking the shot but providing that situation awareness for teams who might have restricted fields of view.”

“Not only is it tough to hit the targets every time, but the competitors are also racing against the clock. Each event has time limits, ranging from 3 to 8 minutes, along with a limited amount of ammunition,” a spokesperson explained, while describing how the event saw collaboration between the U.S. Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School as well as the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Center of Excellence Special Forces Sniper Course.

This iteration is just one of many sniper competitions and cadres designed to enhance the operational effectiveness of sniper teams that continue to witness uplifts in demand across an increasingly complex contemporary operating environment (COE).

The ability of a small team to work independently to insert themselves behind enemy lines, observe, positively identify high-value targets, and successfully engage remains an integral element across the battlespace as SOF seek to disrupt terrorist networks globally.

U.S. Special Forces Sniper

A U.S. Special Forces soldier fires an M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle at enemy insurgents in Shah Wali Kot district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, March 4, 2014. U.S. Army photo by PFC Dakotah Lane

However, beyond the neutralization of high-value targets associated with such networks, snipers also continue to play a central role in most other special operations types, especially relating to direct action (DA) and counterterrorism (CT) missions.

Speaking to The Year in Special Operations upon condition of anonymity, SOF operators associated with the international community explained how snipers provide “eyes and ears” to assault teams and close target reconnaissance teams.

“It’s not only stacked layers of airborne ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] assets, which can provide a talk-on for assault teams onto targets,” a source explained. “Positioned correctly, snipers provide critical overwatch of a target area and a go/no-go decision for tactical commanders on the ground. It’s not always about a sniper taking the shot but providing that situation awareness for teams who might have restricted fields of view,” it was explained, with reference to snipers operating on land, from the air, and aboard maritime vessels.

The importance of sniper teams is currently being highlighted during ongoing operations in the Middle East, where coalition forces continue to encounter the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, also known as Daesh.

Defense sources explained to The Year in Special Operations how sniper teams were employed during military operations in urban terrain (MOUT), including combat operations to clear enemy combatants from the city of Mosul.

Sources also made reference to integral roles played by SOF snipers during CT operations, as part of both internal security and expeditionary operations, where teams can often be employed in a special reconnaissance (SR) role to trigger reactive operations.

Meanwhile, semi-automatic and bolt-action sniper solutions continue to be operated side by side across U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the wider international community, sources explained.

“Semi-automatic systems are ideal in CT missions, allowing operators to rapidly engage multiple targets in quick succession, although bolt-action rifles will always be more accurate because of less moving parts,” one industry source explained to The Year in Special Operations.

 

SOCOM Options

In 2009, SOCOM launched its Precision Sniper Rifle (PSR) program, designed to analyze and test sniper weapon systems to replace the command’s fielded bolt-action SOF sniper systems, including the MK13, M40, and M24.

The initial solicitation described a requirement for a manual or gas-operated action weapon available in left- and right-hand configurations with daylight optical gunsight and ammunition providing operators with 1.0 MOA (minute of angle) accuracy from 300 to 1,500 meters when fired from the shoulder.

Other requirements stipulated a Mean Rounds Between Failure rate of 1,000 rounds; total length of weapon system less than 52 inches; and all-up weight of 18 pounds when fitted with a five-round magazine.

However, after selecting a winner based on Remington Defense’s Modular Sniper Rifle (MSR), capable of firing .338 Lapua Magnum (LM), .338 Norma Magnum (NM), .300 Winchester Magnum (WM), .308 Winchester, and NATO Standard 7.62 mm x 51 mm ammunition, the program failed to materialize.

Hence why SOCOM is now pursuing its next strategy to equip next-generation snipers with suitable technology – the Advanced Sniper Rifle (ASR) program, which, according to industry sources, will also comprise a multi-caliber and bolt-action solution. Sources explained to The Year in Special Operations how the ASR program is expected to come to fruition over the “next few years.”

sniper team

The fieldcraft designed to covertly insert, execute, and extract into/from an area of operation remains critical to the operational effectiveness of a sniper team. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Charles Santamaria

The news follows SOCOM’s Broad Agency Announcement, published on the Federal Business Opportunities website on March 30, 2017, calling for “advanced sniper barrels” available in .300 WM and .300 NM calibers, providing lighter-weight options with “extreme accuracy less than 1 MOA and at least double current barrel life.”

According to Barrett’s international sales manager, Jordan Progar, the benefits of multi-caliber technology provide SOF teams with not only cheaper training costs with options to fire smaller and less-expensive ammunition (.50 BMG versus .308 Winchester as an example) but also more theater-relevant calibers for various environments, including MOUT, where snipers are engaging at shorter ranges and do not require larger-caliber, longer-range cartridges.

Progar described current requirements emerging from the COE opposed to operations in Afghanistan over the past decade, which sometimes called for a sniper capability out to 1,800 meters. “In the urban environment, including those [Daesh] controlled areas, you don’t need a .338 LM because you’re engaging at ranges of 800 meters or less.

“Lesser calibers can provide more discreet capabilities for snipers, especially if fitted with suppressor technology, while the ability to switch between caliber types [as outlined by the PSR and expected ASR solicitation] also allows levels of interoperability with coalition partners deployed on operations,” Progar said.

Looking ahead to the ASR requirement, Barrett confirmed it is lining up its Multi-Role Adaptive Design (MRAD) solution to participate in the program against likely competition from Accuracy International’s AX-series, Remington Defense’s MSR, and Sako’s TRG-42.

According to Progar, the MRAD comprises a user-changeable barrel system that can be removed by loosening two bolts using a wrench. Calibers can be changed in the field within just 30 seconds, he said.

“Besides reducing maintenance and logistical burdens, the MRAD allows for user-level caliber interchangeability and serviceability. It also includes a fully adjustable trigger module, which is user accessible, with a thumb-operated safety that can be configured for left- and right-hand operation.

“The ambidextrous magazine release can be used intuitively while retaining a firing grip and cheek weld,” Progar added.

Barrett MRAD

Barrett is expecting to participate in SOCOM’s forthcoming ASR program with its MRAD multi-caliber sniper solution. Barrett photo

The MRAD relies upon a bolt-action repeater operating system and is available in .338 NM, .300 NM, .338 LM, .300 WM, .308 Winchester, .260 Remington, and 6.5 Creedmore calibers, with a barrel length of 26 inches and total length of 49.4 inches. Weighing 13.10 pounds when loaded, the MRAD has a total magazine capacity of 10 rounds.

Meanwhile, Barrett’s semi-automatic M107A1 .50 BMG solution continues to be operated by SOCOM and partner forces globally. Larger-caliber options such as the M107A1 also continue to be used for CT and vehicle interdiction operations, where snipers can disable mobile vehicles as well as conduct anti-materiel serials including breaching doorways from range, Progar explained.

The system is capable of being fitted with the company’s own QDL suppressor, which provides the capacity to reduce noise levels from 180 to 150 decibels as well as minimize dust signature and concussion effects, increase muzzle velocity and accuracy, and reduce flash signatures.

In 2013, Accuracy International USA discontinued its range of AW and AE sniper rifles to concentrate on a new range of bolt-action solutions in 2014 onward, designated AX.

According to Accuracy International (AI) Sales Director Tom Irwin, main feature changes revolved around a “… quick-change barrel allowing for caliber changes in less than two minutes.”

“Our main family is the AX Series, which also has a front rail with our Keyslot feature for adding accessories like night vision [and] laser designators,” Irwin highlighted. “The AX also has a folding stock, which folds to the right over the bolt handle hence reducing the width for carrying,” he continued, while explaining how the AT Series was also introduced as a life extension to the AW Series, also comprising a quick-change capability. Irwin described how the weapon’s caliber could be changed with the simple swap out of barrel, bolt carrier, and magazine.

axmc338

Accuracy International USA is also expected to play a part in the SOCOM ASR solicitation with its AXMC338 after re-focusing developments on bolt-action solutions. Accuracy International USA photo

Available in .338 LM, .300 Winchester, and .300 WM calibers, the AXMC has an all-up weight of 15 pounds with a 27-inch barrel featuring a tactical muzzle brake. Measuring 1.25 meters (49.2 inches) in length when fully extended, the AXMC has the capacity to carry five rounds.

The AX family has now been supplemented with a .50 BMG solution designated the AX50, which, according to Irwin, also features the same quick-change barrel capability. This latest addition to the Accuracy International USA inventory comprises a 26.5-pound weapon system when unloaded, with a 27-inch barrel.

Measuring 1.4 meters (55.1 inches) in length when fully extended, the bolt-action weapon can be reduced to 1.1 meters (43.3 inches) using a foldable buttstock. The rifle is fitted with a five-round capacity magazine with two-position safety catch.

“There is a high demand for bolt-action sniper rifles in all calibers,” Irwin said. “This is driven by the continuing threat of terrorism. The threat is ever-changing based on emerging new equipment and tactics, so as we look forward, we have to be ready to develop sniper rifles with different calibers and integrate electronics into the emerging platforms.

“I see the benefit of a multi-caliber rifle not just in operations but in training,” Irwin continued. “With a multi-caliber rifle, training on a common platform can take place using lower-cost ammunition, like .308 versus .338 for example. In addition, a system can be set up for a particular operation without carrying several rifles. Barrel, bolt, and magazine changes are all that is required.”

However, Irwin described to The Year in Special Operations how the future of the designated marksman or sharpshooter market would continue to witness a move toward more semi-automatic capabilities, once more referencing changing threats across the COE where urban battles are becoming increasingly more regular.

Examples include Heckler & Koch’s Compact Semi-Automatic Sniper System (CSASS), selected by the U.S. Army in April 2016 to supplement the M110 SASS model. The CSASS is an evolution of the company’s 7.62 mm Gewehr 28 (G28) Designated Marksman Rifle, of which a total of 3,643 units will be delivered to the Army.

H&K 9 CSASS

Heckler & Koch’s G28 has been upgraded and selected for the U.S. Army’s CSASS to add to in-service M110 SASS weapons. Heckler & Koch photo

Upgrades of the CSASS over the legacy SASS cover multiple areas, ranging from enhanced reliability and accuracy through to reduced weight, length, and improved ergonomic features such as bipod, pistol grip, and buttstock.

Director of International Sales at Colt’s Manufacturing Company, Matthew Fehmel, concurred, explaining: “We have seen demand for medium-range sniper weapons in semi-automatic with many of the same features that are in demand for assault rifle platforms. Although using larger calibers, these design features are very similar and show an opportunity for Colt to move into new markets with weapons that still fit our core capabilities.

“A key example of this is the new Colt Semi-Automatic Sniper System, which employs the time-tested gas impingement operating system on a highly accurate and lightweight 7.62×51 mm platform. With a state-of-the-art Leupold scope and ergonomic furniture, this weapon is already gaining traction and attention in the medium sniper rifle market both domestically and internationally.”

Fire Control Systems

However, no matter whether SOF select semi-automatic or bolt-action operating systems, the greatest progress across the market with respect to sniper effectiveness continues to be made in the integration of fire control systems.

On March 31, 2017, the Department of Defense Ordnance Technology Consortium published its Request for Ordnance Technology Initiatives for FY 2018, calling for industry to develop an enhanced Sniper Fire Control System (SFCS) capable of providing operators with: “increased probability of hit; decreased time of engagement; minimize source of aiming errors; and reduced size, weight, power and cost (SWaP-C).”

According to the solicitation, a TRL-7 prototype system must weigh less than 4 pounds including optics, laser rangefinder, weapon orientation, and environmental sensors, as well as electronics and power for system operation including ballistic computational device, integrated display overlay, mounting adapters, and cables.

“The SFCS prototype, as a system, can be mounted to M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System (SASS) or M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle (ESR) via a MIL-STD-1913 (Picatinny) rail,” the document reads. “The prototype shall have a direct view optic with continuous magnification from no greater than 6X to no less than 20X with boresight adjustable passive reticle that provides constant aspect ratio within the magnification.

“The prototype shall have an integrated laser rangefinder with eye-safe wavelength and beam divergence of no greater than 0.3 milliradian; an integrated display overlay capable of projecting an active (displaced/disturbed) ballistic reticle in target space,” it continued, while demanding both long-range and medium-range variants.

Examples include Elcan Optical Technologies’ Digital Fire Control System (DFCS), which was unveiled to the market at the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) exhibition in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 3, 2016.

Comprising a laser rangefinder (LRF), ballistic calculator, digital micro-display with X1.8 continuous zoom, and disturbed reticle display, the DFCS measures 24 centimeters with an all-up weight of 2.8 pounds. Company officials explained how Elcan was considering a next-generation model providing operators with enhanced operating capability across more difficult environments, including cold weather and maritime domains.

International Solutions

The international sniper system market remains buoyant, with multiple special operations units releasing requirements throughout 2016 and 2017 as well as cementing procurements to enhance existing force-multiplying capabilities of operators.

German SOF have selected the G29 in .338 LM caliber for their next-generation capability in a EUR1.9 million deal with CG Haenel, while in Poland, SOF now have access to 150 Sako TRG M10 bolt-action rifles in .338 LM (8.6 mm x 70 mm) caliber as part of a $7.8 million deal. SOF units including GROM will also receive a total of 50,000 ball and armor-piercing rounds.

Based on Sako’s TRG-42, which is also available in .300 Winchester Magnum caliber, the M10 has a magazine capacity of 10 rounds. Weighing 12.8 pounds unloaded, the rifle measures 47 inches in length and has a maximum effective range of 800 meters. Variants of the weapon are currently in service with Finnish, Danish, and U.S. special operations forces. Sako beat out competition from Accuracy International, Barrett, and Voere, industry sources informed The Year in Special Operations.

Elsewhere, the Indian army has released a solicitation for the acquisition of 5,000 bolt-action rifles, also in .338 LM caliber, with demand for a weapon system capable of adapting to extreme mountain, cold weather, jungle, and desert warfare.

Requirements call for a lightweight sniper solution providing Indian army Para-SF and navy MARCOS operators with maximum mobility across the battlespace while providing the necessary lethality to successfully neutralize a variety of target types.

Rising tensions in Eastern Europe have also triggered increased activity across the Baltic states as well as Russia, with the Lithuanian military announcing it had procured an undisclosed number of Accuracy International AXMC rifles chambered in both .338 LM and .308 WM calibers.

Conversely, Russia’s Kalashnikov Group used September’s Army 2016 Military Technical Forum event near Moscow to unveil a series of sniper solutions aimed at enhancing the capabilities of Spetsnaz special purpose brigades.

The SV-98M is a 7.62 mm x 54 mm bolt-action rifle, measuring 1.2 meters (47.2 inches) in length, with a 65-centimeter (25.5-inch) barrel, and effective range of 1,000 meters, Kalashnikov Group sources confirmed. The rifle was exhibited at the event with an X10 IP69 Hyperon weapon sight with in-line image intensification (I2) sight.

Defense sources have suggested to The Year in Special Operations how Spetsnaz procurement cells are currently evaluating the weapon system, which includes a bipod, adjustable buttstock, and 10-round magazine, for integration into its armory as a sniper option.

The VSV-338 follows emerging trends for .338 caliber across NATO entities, with Kalashnikov claiming the rifle can accurately engage targets out to a range of 1,500 meters. Weighing 7.2 kilograms (15.9 pounds), the weapon system measures 1.1 meters (43.3 inches) in length and retains a magazine with five-round capacity.

Finally, the company has also introduced a semi-automatic sniper solution in line with growing requirements for CT and counterinsurgency operations. The SVK, which features a short-stroke piston gas-operated system, can be chambered in 7.62 mm x 54 mm or 7.62 mm x 51 mm. Weighing just 5.9 kilograms (13 pounds), with a foldable buttstock, it offers special operations teams a lighter-weight solution for increased mobility across the battlefield. The weapon was shown at the Army 2016 forum featuring a suppressor, optical gunsight, and I2 in-line sight.

The role of the sniper across the COE remains as relevant as ever, highlighted by the effort and investment paid to the training teams tasked with identifying personnel with the correct aptitude for such missions.

This trend is unlikely to change as the future character of conflict continues to evolve toward a battlespace that will still require the force-multiplying effects of a sniper team.