The Precision Engagement Gap

Gil Barndollar

The Precision Engagement Gap
To cite this article: Barndollar, Gil, “The Precision Engagement Gap”, Military Operations, Volume 3, Issue No. 2, Winter 2016, pages 4-6.

UK and US armed forces, by Spc. Daniel Love,
U.S. Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


A situation common to infantry veterans of our recent misadventure in Afghanistan: a squad-sized patrol is trudging back toward their humble Hesco home, tired and perhaps smelling the barn door after fruitless hours spent traversing canals or stumbling down hillsides. A short burst of fire cracks overhead, a little close for comfort. The men take cover, spread out on line, and scan the arid landscape around them for a shooter. In spite of their best efforts planning in front of the COC computer the night before, they are in open terrain, with the nearest mud-walled compounds nearly a kilometer away. Firing from a wetted down murder hole a few inches in diameter, the enemy is nearly undetectable. So the opportunistic Talib on the other end of the PKM lingers a little longer, expending a few more rounds in an effort to summon that unmistakable sign of success, the medevac Blackhawk.

Our patrol has few good options, especially if it is outside of the comforting envelope of our now-standard surveillance blimps and gyrocams. Light or medium machine guns, if brought out on patrol that day, are highly unlikely to do more than suppress our barricaded enemy at that range. Maneuvering upon him is probably not wise, given both the IED threat and his ability to either hop on a motorbike or stash his weapon and blend in among his neighbors. Snipers are a battalion asset, and often unavailable. Mortars, artillery, and close air support all take time to be brought to bear, and, more importantly, all greatly increase the risk of killing civilians and alienating the fence sitters among the local populace. In the current operating environment, we have an intermediate-range precision engagement gap.

The modern NATO battle rifle (a carbine in many cases) claims a maximum effective range of about 500 meters, be it M-4, HK-416, or SA-80.[i] But can we really expect our infantrymen to be able to consistently kill the enemy at that range? Given often insufficient marksmanship training, fleeting enemy exposure, a subpar rifle caliber, and the physical effects of moving to contact under combat loads that seldom dip below 70 pounds (and can be double that), the realistic range at which our riflemen will consistently hit the enemy is probably more like 250-300 meters.

In Afghanistan, at least half of all firefights have taken place beyond 300 meters.[ii] That this fact has not resulted in heavy casualties to NATO forces is a testament to body armor, dramatic advances in trauma medicine, and the general lack of Afghan marksmanship.[iii]The last factor is particularly key. One can be sure that if Western forces had been fighting even a moderately trained conventional or unconventional foe (like Hezbollah), losses to small arms and machine gun fire would have been far heavier.

A clear testament to the intermediate range engagement gap was provided by a March 2013 Marine Corps Gazette article. The authors, a rifle company’s lieutenants recently returned from a highly “kinetic” summer deployment to northern Helmand Province, laid out their frustrations with the inability of Marine rifle squads to employ precision fires against Taliban attacking them with machine guns or rifles at extended ranges. Non-organic fires took too long to authorize and bring into action, and the squad and platoon lacked any organic ability to engage at medium to long range. As the article’s title plaintively put it: “It’s Not the Artillery’s Fault.”[iv]

The lieutenants’ solution was to equip rifle squads with the Javelin missile, in lieu of a better option. A top-down attack anti-tank missile, the Javelin is effective out to 2,000 meters. But weight and cost are substantial drawbacks. Western militaries are already too far down the path of trying to solve tactical problems by throwing ungodly amounts of money at them: $200 million fighter jets for close air support, $450,000 mine-resistant vehicles for 50 pound fertilizer bombs. Shooting $40,000 anti-tank missiles at every solitary “accidental guerrilla” is another unwelcome step down this path.

There is a simple, and relatively cheap, tactical solution to the precision engagement gap: the squad designated marksman. Doctrinally, the squad designated marksman (SDM) is almost a blank slate for US ground forces. The US Army’s Field Manual 3-22.9 Rifle Marksmanship provides a short training course of fire for the squad designated marksman and briefly defines his role: “The SDM engages targets with direct small arms fire in the gap between the engagement range of the average combat Soldier and the sniper….The SDM program provides the squad with a designated marksman that has been trained to engage targets from 300 to 500 meters. He will operate and maneuver as a rifleman, but will have the added responsibility of engaging targets out to 500 meters with effective, well-aimed fires.”[v] The US Marine Corps, despite training and employing designated marksmen for decades in its Security Force Regiment (Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams and nuclear weapons security battalions), has no formal written doctrine for them.

Despite the absence of doctrine, it should be clear what a designated marksman is not. He is not a sniper. His training in stalking, tracking, and counter-sniping should be minimal to non-existent. Training in observation skills is an aid to any infantryman, but the designated marksman is not an intelligence-gathering asset like a sniper is. The SDM is also not to be employed independently forward of friendly lines, as Marine and SOF snipers often are. He is a member of his squad, an infantryman who fills a vital overwatch and precision engagement role by dint of extra training and a superior rifle. A platoon commander can also opt to aggregate his DMs into a small but highly lethal support element, should the mission require it. For situations where his skill set is not needed, the DM can pick up a standard rifle or carbine and fill a different billet in his squad.

There are some who argue that while the designated marksman concept is sound, the DM should be armed just like his squad-mates, with an M-4 or M-16A4 with a 4x general combat optic.[vi] This argument ignores one of the primary drivers of our engagement gap: caliber. While the NATO standard 5.56x45mm cartridge is adequate at relatively close range, it derives its wounding power from its ability to fragment inside a target at high velocity due to its yaw. If the round does not yaw and thus does not fragment, it is likely to pass through a human body relatively cleanly, leaving small entry and exit wounds. While 5.56mm rounds may be able to perforate paper targets at 500 meters, they rapidly lose the ability to incapacitate men as ranges creep beyond 200 meters.[vii] Repeated attempts over the last thirty years to rectify this problem within caliber have failed.

The insufficient terminal ballistics of the 5.56mm cartridge only became more pronounced as first the US Army and now the Marine Corps shifted from the M-16A4 rifle to the M-4 carbine as the primary personal weapon of their troops. While the Marine Corps’ new M-27 Infantry Automatic Rifle is extremely accurate, it shoots the same 5.56x45mm rounds as the rest of the weapons in an infantry squad. Until the US military, and thus NATO, makes a wholesale conversion to a heavier intermediate cartridge like 6.5mm or 6.8mm, the designated marksman requires a different weapon than his squad-mates.

There are many possible options for this Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR). The British Army, new to the concept, uses the Lewis Machine & Tool L129A1. The US Army provides its SDMs with the Enhanced Battle Rifle, a modernized (albeit heavier) M-14. The Marine Corps Security Force Regiment uses the M-110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System (SASS). What all these intermediate-range, precision rifles share is a 7.62x51mm cartridge, semi-automatic fire, and the ability to consistently hit (and kill) a man-sized target at a range of at least 800 meters. All of these rifles also mount a more powerful optic than the Trijicon Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight or M68 Close Combat Optic that are standard for most Western infantrymen.

The weapon, however, is secondary to the training needed to create a truly expert squad sharpshooter. As in so many other areas, our marksmanship training is a hold-over from the days of a mass conscript army, designed to be thrown into combat en masse against the Soviets and suffer heavy casualties. The trainfire course, developed for the 1950’s Pentomic Army and still in use today, only requires shooters to engage out to a distance of 300 meters.[viii] The close quarters jungle fighting of Vietnam and the low quality of US military manpower during the dark rebuilding years of the 1970s only reinforced training to the lowest common denominator, with marksmanship being no exception.

As a result of this inadequate training and equipment, designated marksmen became an ad hoc addition to infantry operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US Army added SDMs to its light infantry tables of organization, but provided them with bare bones training, a weeklong course in fundamentals, taught by the Army’s marksmanship team, that was little more than information all infantrymen should know: range estimation, windage, stance, and trigger pull.[ix] US Marine Corps units provided hastily identified superior shooters with the Mark-12 SAM-R (Squad Advanced Marksman Rifle), essentially a National Match-grade M-16 firing superior 77-grain 5.56mm ammunition. Despite only minimal in-country training, this tactical innovation was reported to be highly effective.[x]

With the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns appearing to be over for conventional forces, the US Army and Marine Corps have returned their units to the status quo ante bellum. The United States Army Marksmanship Unit’s SDM Course maintains an erratic training schedule, while DMs have disappeared from Marine Corps infantry and light armored reconnaissance battalions. Despite the clear need for designated marksmen, the training and the rifles necessary have lost out to other priorities for a military entering a period of (relative) fiscal austerity. This is a typical case of being penny wise, pound foolish.

Truly embracing the squad designated marksman concept would not be without cost. If the designated marksman is to be a true specialist, on par with a machine gunner or a mortarman, a four week course is necessary, with the attendant ammunition and travel costs. The rifles and optics are also expensive. A M-110 SASS and its full suite of day and night optics costs $75,000. But again, one Javelin missile sets the taxpayer back about $40,000.

There are countless tactical bad habits from the last fifteen years of low intensity conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.[xi] The addition of a medium-range precision rifle to the infantry squad is not one of them. The squad designated marksman is an idea that has been discussed in US infantry units for decades. It is an idea that has been validated by battlefield experiments and expedients during the last ten years of small wars. Precision engagement at the squad level is not a tactical need that will end with the war in Afghanistan. Future wars are still, as Marine General Charles Krulak noted 15 years ago, more likely to be the “stepchild of Chechnya” than “the son of Desert Storm.” This likely persistence of low intensity, infantry-centric fighting, coupled with the extreme aversion of Western armies to causing civilian casualties, demands a high level of marksmanship and the ability to positively identify targets at the greatest possible range. These skills are even more necessary in urban environments, where fleeting target exposures and the 360 degree threat make the DM’s overwatch capability a critical enabler of squad maneuver.

The benefits from squad designated marksman training would also go beyond simply providing small units with trained sharpshooters. The DMs, having gained a far fuller knowledge of marksmanship and a host of associated skills (range estimation, observation techniques, ballistics) in their training, would gradually build up these skills throughout the infantry as a whole, resulting in a better-trained force across the board.[xii] An army with trained DMs in all of its rifle squads will be one that is restoring a hunter or “jaeger” mindset to its men, a mindset that has been dulled by the past decade of presence patrols and key leader engagements. For all of these reasons, the designated marksman’s full inclusion in the doctrine, training, and equipment of Western infantry units is long overdue.


[i] This number is illusory from the outset, because it does not account for the inaccuracy of the M855 cartridge most commonly issued. See Major Thomas P. Ehrhart, ‘Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantryman’s Half-Kilometer’. Monograph, U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, 2009, p. 2, and First Sergeant (Retired) D. Robert Clements, ‘The Designated Marksman Equation’, Infantry, Vol. 97, No. 5 (September-October 2008), p. 48.
[ii] Ehrhart, p. 24.
[iii] C. J. Chivers, ‘Afghan Marksmen – Forget the Fables’, New York Times At War blog, 26 March 2010 (available online,, accessed 26 May 2015).
[iv] The Officers of Golf Company, 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, ‘It’s Not the Artillery’s Fault’, Marine Corps Gazette, March 2013, pp. 40-43.
[v] FM 3-22.9 Rifle Marksmanship,M16-/M4-Series Weapons (2008), p. 7-62.
[vi] Clements, p. 49.
[vii] Ehrhart, pp. 26-28.
[viii] US Marine Corps annual rifle qualification includes prone shooting out to 500 yards, albeit with archaic “loop slings” until recent revisions. See MARADMIN 069/15, AUTHORIZED INDIVIDUAL WEAPONS, OPTICS, MODULAR ATTACHMENTS AND MODIFICATIONS FOR FY15 ANNUAL RIFLE AND PISTOL TRAINING.
[ix] Major Tyson Andrew Johnson, ‘The USAMU Squad Designated Marksman’s Course (A Student’s Perspective)’, Infantry, Vol. 97, No. 4,(July-August 2008), pp. 47-51. SDMs were allocated to US Army squads at a rate of one per squad, later changed to two.
[x] CWO4 Charles F. Colleton, ‘A New Page in Combat Marksmanship’, Marine Corps Gazette, January 2004, pp. 46-47 and R. R. Keene, ‘The Corps’ Guardian Angels Tote One Hell of a Rifle’, Leatherneck, September 2009, pp. 36-38.
[xi] Risk aversion at all levels, an over-reliance on fire support, the primacy of force protection, and an overuse of special operations forces are some of the most obvious.
[xii] This is especially true in the US Army, where the 300 yard marksmanship qualification range does not even require wind holds to be successful.