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Volume 3 / Issue 2 / Winter 2016 Military Operations

Page 5

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


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 Precision Engagement Gap

Gil Barndollar