One Shot, One Kill — Guaranteed?

A US Army sniper team from Jalalabad Provincial Reconstruction Team near Dur Baba, Afghanistan, Oct. 19, 2006. The sniper is armed with a 7.62-mm M24 (US DoD).

This week Lockheed Martin won a $6.9 million contract from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to further develop a system that is said to radically increase a sniper’s chances of achieving a first shot kill in daylight or darkness. Lockheed Martin has agreed to deliver fifteen field-testable prototypes of the new weapon system by October 2011.

With the lengthy US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been an increasing demand for trained snipers and designated marksmen, far more than the American sniper schools can produce. Today, many of the American snipers operating in the cities of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan are not school-trained. They’ve learned their stuff on the job, from other snipers. Part of the reason for this lack of school-trained snipers is the length of time needed to train a sniper — between eight to ten weeks — a lot of it devoted to the skills needed to shoot at long range; skills that a sniper must retain because no piece of equipment is available to replicate it.

Warfare has changed a lot in the last one hundred years. We’ve seen the warplane develop from a struggling motorized kite with less horsepower than a lawnmower, to a near-invisible death-dealing robot that can be controlled from halfway across the world. We’ve watched as the lumbering cast iron box of Amiens became the sleek, fast and efficient killing machine that is the modern main battle tank (MBT). We’ve seen the rise of the all-steel battleship, the king of the sea, and watched it humiliated and exiled into obsolescence by the aircraft carrier, the greatest single weapon of naval power projection the world has ever seen. We’ve watched aerial ordnance develop from hand-held bombs no larger than a light mortar shell into the nuclear monsters that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before going on to become virtually controllable missiles that can differentiate between your house and your neighbour’s. Soldiers no longer need to trudge through the mud as they did on the Somme, or race their horses through machine-gun fire as they did at Spion Kop; they ride into battle — by land, sea, or air — ferried over obstacles and armoured against the enemy’s fire.

To cope with the changing technology, warriors have had to be more intelligent and literate, trained for longer and with ever greater expense. Militaries today must maintain an ever growing component of support and technical personnel that have far surpassed that of the number of fighting men. In fact, in a modern multi-arms force, the warriors are in the minority, outnumbered by technicians, IT specialists, mechanics, and electronics experts. Even a lowly grunt in a western army today must have a basic working knowledge of computers, the ability to communicate over various networks, and operate electronic systems. Continue reading “One Shot, One Kill — Guaranteed?”

Interview with the Vampyr — a Sri Lankan Mercenary in Iraq

A private military contractor in Iraq (Ed Kashi/Corbis).
A private military contractor in Iraq (Ed Kashi/Corbis).

I walk into the bar at the Sapphire, knowing I’m early for this interview, but I don’t want to keep my contact waiting. He’s obviously a busy man, but has been convinced by a mutual friend to give me half an hour of his time.

The bar itself has a certain well-worn charm that reminds one of friendly little pubs in Europe — all dark wood, fake leather and dim, smoky corners. Except that there’s no smoke anymore. Sri Lanka’s draconian anti-tobacco laws have banished smoking to a glass-walled cage at the far end of the room. I curse softly and park myself in a cubicle, ordering a gin-and-tonic, and wait for the man.

The place is more or less empty — it’s not yet 6pm — and ten minutes later, I’m on my second G&T, when he walks in. Or at least I assume it’s him. I’ve no clue what he looks like, though he should recognize me since I mailed him the link to my blog the day before. It’s all a bit James Bondish, and I feel quite silly until he spots me and veers over to the cubicle.

Major Rohan — I’ve agreed to use only his first name, and not take any pictures — shakes my hand and sits down. He’s a big guy in his late thirties, close to six feet, but athletically built, with shortish hair and skin that’s negro black from long hours in the sun. He’s dressed in a short-sleeve button-down shirt and jeans, and looks exactly what he is — a businessman out for an informal drink. Continue reading “Interview with the Vampyr — a Sri Lankan Mercenary in Iraq”

How to Kill Innocent Women & Children

A page from a sniper’s logbook.

It’s easy. You just lead them a little less. It’s an old joke, born in the Vietnam War, and first recorded by Michael Herr, though Kubrick made it famous with his portrait of the crazed US Marine door gunner in Full Metal Jacket. In layspeak, a shooter “leads” a running figure so that he’s aiming at where the target will be when the bullet reaches it. Women and children run slower than an adult male.

It’s not so funny anymore though, when we’re fighting a war in which the uniformed enemy often is a woman or a child. Earlier this week, a US military court sentenced Sgt Evan Vela, a 24-year-old Army sniper, to ten years imprisonment for killing an Iraqi civilian. Funnily/sadly, the reason he was convicted was because he lied about planting a weapon on the dead man. The Iraqi and his teenaged son stumbled into a sniper ‘hide’, where Vela and his team were sleeping. The Americans took them prisoner, and later killed the father (it’s claimed he tried to warn some passing insurgent suspects of the American position) after releasing his son. They then planted a rifle on the body and claimed he was an insurgent. If they had killed the two Iraqis immediately, probably nothing would have happened, as it would have been passed off as a simple case of mistaken identity. Sad, but an inevitable part of a dirty war. Continue reading “How to Kill Innocent Women & Children”

Peter Pindar Upgrades Kipling


This is Peter Pindar’s upgrade of Rudyard Kipling‘s famous poem Tommy. It seems not much has changed in a century.

We aren’t made for cool Britannia; we leave boot marks on the floor.
We don’t walk like Peter Mandelson or talk like Jack Straw.
Call us forces of conservatism, if it suits your turn
But we’re off like some world fire brigade when the flash-points start to burn.
Continue reading “Peter Pindar Upgrades Kipling”

Privatisation & Loyalty in the War on Terror

Hessian mercenaries surrender to Washington at the Battle of Trenton in 1776. (Library of Congress)

A recent post by Indi on the correctness of allowing people with foreign interests to hold high military office got me thinking about the whole private military contract business. Coincidentally, I had just finished reading The Road to Hell by Brian Geddes, a British mercenary (or private military contractor as they are now called) in Iraq.Indi’s post basically pointed out that the SL Army commander, Gen Sarath Fonseka, the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, and a few others who are US green card holders, cannot be trusted to hold such high positions as their loyalties could possibly be divided.

Regardless of whether Gota & Co are actually foreigners or not, I tend to think that nationality is beside the point when it comes to fighting a war — or cleaning up after it for that matter. The soldier of fortune or mercenary warrior has had a long career — one that parallels the history of the citizen soldier, both in length and quality. Mercenaries have been employed as far back in time as the 13th Century BC, when Pharaoh Rameses II employed 11,000 mercenaries. In the 3rd Century BC, Hannibal of Carthage used Spanish and French mercenaries in his conquest of Italy, and Roman Caesars hired Visigoths to serve as the Praetorian Guard. More recently, the British used Hessian mercenaries against George Washington in his War of Independence. Two of the biggest private armies in history were the British and Dutch East India Companies which carried out proxy wars on behalf of the British and Dutch rulers, and were commercially motivated. Other famous mercenary organisations like the French Foreign Legion and the Gurkha regiments have rightfully earned a ferocious reputation as fighting troops. Continue reading “Privatisation & Loyalty in the War on Terror”