The city is a very dangerous place to fight. It doesn’t matter what your job skill is, at some point you will become decisively engaged by the enemy. You can be a truck driver, supply clerk, or infantryman—you have to leave your Forward Operating Base to get from point A to point B. This gives the enemy the chance to use the terrain to their advantage. The urban environment has many different faces of danger that take the need for situational awareness to a much higher level.
This is especially true for a sniper team that will operate as a small unit with little or no support. A quick reaction force isn’t always quick enough. I have seen a time in Iraq where the insurgency wasn’t really happening yet and the IED’s, car bombs, and nightly mortar attacks were still a couple of months away. It was a strange time because we were still getting accustomed to the battlefield, which was a city where people lived and worked. We were operating in an environment that was literally foreign to us. We didn’t speak the language or know the customs. The major combat operations had taken place a few weeks prior to my unit entering Baghdad, but our mindset at that time was still on taking ground and closing with the enemy. Now, however, we already had the ground but didn’t know who the enemy was.
We had previously been in active ground combat and saw Saddam’s Fadayeen use ambulances to move men and weapons around the city where we were conducting operations. We watched them push women and children out into the open to retrieve ammunition and weapons from dead fighters because they knew we wouldn’t engage them. Once we moved north into areas where people actually lived, it was hard to adjust to the fact that not every person on the battlefield was a bad guy. The reality was that a very small minority of individuals were part of the budding insurgency. The problem was telling them apart.
Combatants and Non-Combatants
Now we are in a situation where the enemy looks like a friend and a friend looks like an enemy. There are many instances where those we thought were our friends, turned out to be our enemy. It is easy to want to get to know the locals at first because they are something new. The differences between you and them are interesting and you will also find that you have things in common. This is a very dangerous relationship, because you don’t really know that person. I have seen things go both ways. I have seen Iraqis working as interpreters fight right alongside soldiers and I have seen Iraqi police, in uniform, attack coalition troops. Now Iraqi soldiers go on patrol right alongside of the coalition troops, so there has to be some level of trust. The goal is to have the indigenous forces take over, but we also do not want to be lulled into a false sense of security because we let our optimism get the better of us.
The main issue with a civilian presence on the battlefield is that you don’t really know their combatant status. Everyone is gathering intelligence on you at all times, there is no denying that. They are getting close to your patrol and taking account of the number of men, weapons, and equipment. They watch your routines and know your intentions.
This civilian presence in active firefights poses a much higher risk of civilian casualties. The insurgents don’t care. In fact, civilian presence helps them accomplish their mission. Our military holds itself to a higher standard and will be as discriminate as possible when engaging the enemy. Those who are in the insurgency do not. Our engagements are much more difficult because we have to be discriminating in who we engage. Once we do engage the enemy, the shots become very difficult. They will limit their exposure time and move quickly. This forces split-second decisions to engage or not engage that target. This doesn’t leave much margin for error in determining combatants from non-combatants. We have to answer for every shooting, right and wrong. It is extremely important to positively identify the target prior to pulling the trigger.
Insertion and Extraction
Snipers are scouts first and foremost. They are the initial element into the area of operation. The mission of a sniper is to provide precision fire on key select targets and targets of opportunity, but it’s the secondary mission of observing and recording battlefield data that we do most. We will watch an area in a small element for a specific amount of time and relay the state of the battlefield back to the commander. We will be in position to watch before an operation and stay behind when it’s over. Snipers will also be placed on forward missions to alter enemy movement. We would rotate teams out in the city at night, watching likely avenues of approach for the enemy to attack from, or where they might emplace IED’s.
Both of these types of missions are crucial to the commander. They provide him with much-needed battlefield data prior to/immediately following a mission and help to disrupt enemy operations in areas with little coalition presence. We insert/extract during the times of darkness but being compromised is a common thing. Nine times out of 10, the enemy is not likely to strike from their own neighborhoods. They generally come into and attack from the areas close to the coalition forces and then leave. Our goal is to hit the enemy without them knowing you were there. Sometimes you must run the risk of staying in position even though the local community is aware of your presence.
The terrain is seldom your friend. It is impossible to know the exact layout of a building that you have never seen before. Once you get inside, your vantage point may not be what you thought it would be from the ground/aerial imagery, or it may not have the appropriate security elements to sustain an observation position. Then you have to move to the alternate position, which is always more difficult than planned for.
You must know the routine of the neighborhood. For example, in Baghdad during the summer months, temperatures are stiflingly hot. Thus, most residents will shop in the evening and sleep during the hot part of the day. This becomes a problem when you’re trying to insert into a mission at 0100 hrs and there are still people hanging out in front of houses. They don’t generally sleep indoors during these hot months, but will be on the sidewalk in front of their homes, in their courtyards, or on their roofs. It’s a hell of a thing to trip over a sleeping body while heading into their house.
There is always somebody watching. It is good to use an observation point that is not occupied by a family, but more often than not that isn’t possible. You will eventually have to use a building that is occupied in order to get eyes on the target. This is unavoidable in this type of environment. They know you’re there. You are physically in their home, taking their weapon(s), and looking around for the best point of observation. The neighbors probably know you’re there too. One of the saving graces for this technique is that normally the enemy doesn’t attack from their own neighborhood.
So what to do with these people? Do we let them go about their business and leave their home during the day? Are they reporting to insurgents that we are operating that area? Do we detain them? That’s a difficult and risky option. Depending on the length of your mission, you will have to feed/water them and provide toilet breaks. This means that at least one of your team members will be occupied taking care of them. Also, there is the risk that once you do leave, you have either made another enemy for the Coalition forces, or that family is going to be killed for aiding you during your stay with them. This is a difficult situation.
Avoid Routines And Complacency
Becoming complacent is probably one of the most common mistakes anyone can make in a combat zone. It is easy to get into a rhythm while on patrol and forget where you are. It is also easy to become distracted while watching a certain area. I’ve done it many times, especially under periods of extreme exhaustion and lack of food/water. There have been many instances where soldiers on patrol and sniper teams in their positions were attacked because they were too relaxed.
A two-man team is not the best in an urban environment. You can run into major security issues: A mission of a few hours may be fine for a two-man team with support on the ground—anything longer than 30 hours is not. Complacency comes with sleep deprivation, which affects each individual differently. With a two-man element, you must always have 100% security. There are not enough eyes to provide 360-degree security, with one man awake and one man sleeping. This means that everyone has to stay awake and alert throughout the duration of the mission, a problem after 30 hours. The body must rest and will shut down regardless. After you get past that point, it becomes necessary to implement a rest plan, very difficult with just two individuals.
A four-man element, at a minimum, is more desirable because it gives true 360-degree security and provides opportunity for a feasible rest plan. Knowing how easy it was to become complacent, we would rotate the security positions in the OP every 30 minutes to an hour. Keep in mind that all movement is limited and based on the position. This technique gave all of the members of the team something new to look at, which keeps the mind fresh and helps keep everyone focused. You do not want any minds wandering when in such a small element.
Routines are just as dangerous. The main routes within the cities and highways are easy targets because there is such a large Coalition presence and at some point there will be a convoy driving on it. It is no problem for enemy observers to sit remotely and command-detonate an IED when a truck convoy drives by. Routines within sniper missions are particularly dangerous, especially when assigned a specific sector and mission. You run the risk of creating a pattern with your team if you use the same techniques. The battlefield is a fluid mechanism and a sniper is one of the most feared—you are a priority target. You can continue to use the same positions throughout the sector only as long as you are smart about it. There needs to be sufficient time, weeks or even months, between uses. It is hard to work in one specific area for an extended period of time and not use the same OP’s more than once. The success of this method and safety of the team depends on the frequency of time between uses.
In the city, danger is around every corner, so you must deal with that fact and be successful. A sniper team is one of the greatest assets on the urban battlefield, as long as they understand how to operate. Teams will be conducting missions that can either turn the tide of, or completely ruin, an entire operation. Snipers must be highly disciplined to withstand the stress involved in this type of environment. The urban environment is dangerous on many levels. Combatants vs. non-combatants, insertion/extraction hazards, and a lack of situational awareness all take a toll. It takes a special group of marksmen to survive and thrive in it.
The city is a very dangerous place to fight. It doesn’t matter what your job…
by Tom Beckstrand / May 3, 2009