Reports have surfaced recently about the Indian Army starting the process of importing 5,000-6,000 modern sniper rifles for ₹982 crore to replace the Dragunov sniper rifle that is in service currently. It may take three to five years for the import/manufacture to fructify.
There were also reports of long-range sniper ‘kills’ being achieved by Western armies, with a Canadian sniper team having achieved an astounding 3540-metre ‘kill’ in Iraq. Both reports evinced a lot of public interest, particularly in light of earlier reports and videos of Pakistani snipers of scoring ‘kills’ along the Line of Control (LOC) but with no corresponding news about similar exploits by our snipers.
What, then, is the state of the ‘art of sniping’ in the Indian Army? Are we successfully exploiting our snipers? If we are not, then why is it so?
Interestingly, the word “sniper’” owes its origin to the British Indian Army of the late 18th century. A snipe is a migratory water bird, which has now become rare in India. An elusive bird, the snipe was difficult to shoot – both on the ground and on the wing, due to its habitat in slushy waters, its alertness and its dodgy, ever-changing flight.
To shoot a snipe on the ground or on the wing, extraordinary skills of field craft and marksmanship were required. A soldier proficient in shooting snipes was called a “sniper”.
Universally, all armies maintain sniper squads in the Infantry and Special Forces (SF) units. “Sniping” is a specialised task. A sniper has to be physically fit, mentally robust, skilled at fieldcraft and an exceptional marksman. He must have the patience to wait or stalk for hours on end to get that one “sure shot”.
The bullet, at long ranges, is influenced by a host of factors that include gravity, wind speed and direction, altitude, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and centrifugal force.
Even a mild crosswind of 8 kmph would have required the Canadian team mentioned above to ‘off-set’ the aim by 30 feet or 9 meters! While small calibre, such as the 7.62, can be used up to ranges of 1300 meters, for longer ranges heavy calibres up to .50 inch or 25 mm are required.
Snipers are very effective in conventional and counter-insurgency (CI) operations wherein enemy soldiers, commanders and terrorists, based on intelligence and observation, are killed at long ranges. Snipers are also used to shoot terrorists in crowds, in hostage situations and during a firefight where the sniper is in an over-watch position.
Since the snipers are highly skilled they make every shot count. In the Vietnam War, 50,000 rounds were fired to kill one enemy soldier. The statistics are not known for our army, but a rough check done by me in CI operations in J&K revealed we were using 5,000 rounds to kill one terrorist.
Snipers, on the other hand, take only 1.3 rounds to achieve a kill. Most armies appreciate the worth of snipers and employ elaborate training methods to develop this resource. Very stringent qualification and validation tests are laid out. Only a few make the grade.
In the Indian Army, up to late 1950s, there used to be Sniper Section of 10 men in each Infantry Battalion. This squad operated directly under the Commanding Officer. They would use the Lee Enfield .303 No 4 Mark 1(T) Rifle, considered to be one of the greatest sniper rifles which proved its mettle during the Second World War. A very tough sniper course was also run at the Infantry School until l970.
When we switched over to the semi-automatic 7.62 mm Rifle in the 1960s, no replacement was found for the old sniper rifle. Both the sniper rifle and the sniper section simply disappeared from the army for 30 years.
In the early 1990s, the Dragunov SVDN Sniper Rifle with a range of 1300 meters was introduced. India has approximately 360 Infantry Battalions, 50 Assam Rifles Battalions and 62 Rashtriya Rifles Battalions—a total 472 battalions. Each battalion is authorised 10 sniper rifles, which adds up to an approximate total of 4720 sniper rifles. There is no specialist trade of “sniper”, but any soldier after training mans the sniper rifle. Generally, two snipers are trained in each of the four rifle companies, and two are part of the Ghatak Platoon. Sniper rifles are also authorised to SF units of all three services.
The sniper course was restarted at the Infantry School, but remains a poor cousin of its predecessor. The Indian Army’s strength is the regimental ethos and élan. The skill levels are average and assumed to be compensated by motivation and ethos. Adequate attention is not paid to selection, training and sustainment of specialists such as the snipers. Indian Infantry does not follow the specialist trade system and a jack-of-all-trades is just not good enough for specialist tasks. Consequently, we have failed to exploit the “art of sniping” in CI operations or along the LOC. Imagine a terrorist being pointed out by an informer being killed at 1,000 meters or more. Or killing enemy soldiers on the LOC at a fraction of the cost that heavier weapons inflict.
The universal test of a sniper is to score, first, a “head shot” at 600 meters followed by a “body(chest) shot” at 1000 meters and that too after an indefinite wait in a hide or prolonged stalking. If a sniper cannot pass this test, he cannot be called a sniper and remains a marksman or a sharpshooter. To the best of my knowledge, most of our snipers cannot pass this test. If there are a few exceptions, they only prove the rule.
The irony is that we gave the word “sniper” to the military world, but—despite 4720 fairly effective Draugnov Sniper Rifles in service—we simply do not have enough ‘snipers’ to use them. The irony feels starker because snipers are undoubtedly the most effective force-multiplier in CI operations and LOC warfare.