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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Heli-Snipers Prove Effective

Giovanni de Briganti

PARIS — Since the French first fitted SS-11 wire-guided missiles to an Alouette 2 and invented the anti-tank helicopter, all sorts of weapons have been fitted to rotary-winged aircraft to increase the range of their combat capabilities.

Helicopters have been armed with forward-firing automatic weapons of calibers up to the 30 mm cannon, various kinds of guided missiles (using wire, laser or command to line-of-sight guidance) and unguided rockets. To aim and guide these weapons, helicopters have been fitted with various sensor packs, including laser range-finders and designators, day/night sights, and TV and thermal cameras, all with sophisticated gyro-stabilization devices intended to ensure accuracy. All of this adds up to hundreds of pounds of extra weight, but cost and performance penalties have been judged to be worth it because of the firepower they bring to the party.

Firepower is imperative to hold off hundreds of enemy tanks, and desirable for interdiction or close-support missions on a conventional battlefield. However, it can add up to overkill when fighting against today’s enemy, the terrorist/insurgent who appears briefly to carry out a hostile act before fading back into the general population.

Faced with this challenging enemy, the British and French armies have developed a low-tech but effective weapon that combines the helicopter’s incomparable mobility with surgical accuracy, all at rock-bottom costs: the heli-sniper.

French naval commandos in Somalia gave the most recent demonstration of this little-known weapon in mid-April, when they intercepted a gang of local pirates that had hijacked and ransomed a French-registered cruise ship. While driving off in a pickup truck with the ransom, the hijackers were stopped by a large-caliber round fired by a sniper aboard a French navy Eurocopter Panther. The bullet cracked the engine block, immobilizing the pickup on a desert track. Then, in a scene to warm the hearts of old-timers, French navy Alouette 3s (40+ years old) flying from the helicopter carrier Jeanne d’Arc (45+ years old) swept in and flew the captured pirates to a brig aboard the air-defense destroyer Jean Bart. Not quite "Apocalypse Now," of course, but it must have scared those pirates out of their wits all the same.

This was a very effective and inexpensive operation, with no loss of blood, thanks to the use of surgical firepower at the right time and in the right place. No B-52 strikes, no artillery and no collateral deaths.

Also in April, the British Defence Ministry for the first time revealed that the Royal Air Force Regiment has begun deploying teams of heli-snipers against Iraqi militias around Basra, in southern Iraq. They have been deployed for force protection of Lynx immediate response teams, according to the RAF, and scrambled to evacuate casualties, provide fire support, rapidly clear routes for convoys and counter "militia preparing crude explosive devices."

The heli-snipers fly on AgustaWestland Merlins and Lynx, are armed with high-powered rifles equipped with laser-marking devices, and "have already proved effective in combat," said the RAF, although it provided no details. In addition to a range of thermal imagers, the sniper teams have been issued laser target designators, range finders and a suite of VHF radios for air-to-ground communications. Each RAF Regiment field squadron has a section of sniper-qualified riflemen who provide the surveillance and target acquisition capability.

These heli-snipers go through a nine-week training course, the RAF said, "covering all the essential elements of sniping and surveillance, including specialist marksmanship skills such as angular shooting and advanced correction for wind.

"As this is a new skill to all the lads, we had to conduct a number of range sessions aboard the helicopters to see the effects on our shooting," said one RAF Regiment sniper in a quote cleared by the service. "Now, after a little practice, all of the lads are confident at engaging targets on the move from a helicopter."

It is something of a paradox that two European armies have opted to take such a low-key, low-tech approach to confronting the low-tech terrorist threat that has managed to challenge, if not defeat, high-tech Western armies. The advantages of the heli-sniper concept are as numerous as they are obvious. But best of all, they do not kill civilian bystanders if they miss their intended target.

Given the number of helicopters in Iraq, and the number of snipers already deployed there by the U.S. Army, Marine Corps and allied forces, arming those helicopters with snipers firing high-powered rifles somehow seems a more appropriate and more effective answer than those tried up to now, which are mostly based on overwhelming, if not indiscriminate, firepower.

Surely, if the Pentagon can afford to spend $22 billion to buy 22,500 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles to protect troops from roadside bombs, it can afford to deploy a few dozen heli-snipers to take out the bomb-makers before they strike.

In any case, given its low cost, the availability of the necessary resources in theater, and the failure of other tactics, the heli-sniper concept at least deserves a thorough evaluation.

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