Sniping with the .50 BMG in Afghanistan
New long-distance record set!
(The following is from the Canadian newspaper National Post. The shooters were using .50 BMG rifles that had Lilja barrels on them outfitted with Nightforce 5.5-22x NXS scopes.)
OTTAWA BLOCKS U.S. EFFORT TO HONOUR OUR SNIPERS: Canadian snipers pose with their 50-calibre rifle at base camp in Kandahar. Five of the men, whose names the military withheld for security reasons, were nominated for Bronze Stars by the U.S. for their prowess in fighting near Gardez. The sixth joined the unit later in the war.
Wait due to ‘Canadian protocol’
A kill from 2,430 metres
By Michael Smith and Chris Wattie
The United States wants to give two teams of Canadian snipers the Bronze Star, a decoration for bravery, for their work in rooting out Taliban and al-Qaeda holdouts in eastern Afghanistan, but Canadian defence officials put the medals on hold, the National Post has learned.
The five snipers spent 19 days fighting alongside the scout platoon of the United States Army’s 187th “Rakkasan” brigade last month, clearing out diehard fighters from the mountains near Gardez in eastern Afghanistan.
The Americans were so impressed by the Canadian snipers that they recommended them for medals after the battle.
Sources told the Post that U.S. General Warren Edwards had already signed the recommendation for five Bronze Stars for the sniper teams, drawn from 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, last month. Gen. Edwards, deputy commanding general of coalition land forces in Afghanistan, had recommended three Canadians for a Bronze Star and two for a Bronze Star with distinction.
The night before the troops were to be awarded the medals, about three weeks ago, Canadian military officials in Ottawa put the decorations on hold, according to a U.S. Army source in Afghanistan.
The Canadian military told their U.S. counterparts to wait before awarding the medals for reasons of “Canadian protocol.”
Spokesmen for the Department of National Defence would not comment on the award last night, but a source within the department said the medals are on hold while the military decides whether or not to award the men a similar Canadian decoration.
However, Dr. David Bercuson, director of the Centre of Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, said the real reason for the delay was likely official squeamishness.
“Canadians don’t kill — they don’t even use the word kill; that’s the problem,” he said. “I think the military is not sure that the government is prepared to accept the fact, let alone celebrate the fact … that Canadian soldiers do sometimes end up killing people.”
Many of the U.S. scouts who worked directly with the Canadian snipers were incensed that the Canadians did not get the Bronze Star, the medal for bravery the U.S. military usually gives foreign soldiers serving alongside its troops.
The snipers themselves, all of whom spoke on condition their names not be printed, have said they would prefer to receive a medal from their peers in the field rather than from National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.
Dr. Bercuson said there should be no objection to Canadians receiving a U.S. decoration: As recently as the Gulf War, two Canadian CF-18 pilots were given the Bronze Star.
He said the medals would be a badly needed boost to the morale of the almost 900 Canadian soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, especially after four of their comrades were killed and eight others wounded in last week’s friendly fire incident.
“Absolutely they should get it,” Dr. Bercuson said. “It would be good for the morale of the guys and good for the morale of the whole unit, and they need a morale boost right now.”
Canadian snipers were reportedly outstanding in the fighting around the mountainous al-Qaeda bastion east of Gardez, code-named Operation Anaconda.
The battle pitted the two Canadian sniper teams against an enemy that showered the assaulting coalition troops with mortars and machine-gun fire as soon as they jumped from their helicopters.
One member of the team, a corporal from Newfoundland, said on his first night in combat he and his partner got an al-Qaeda machine gun in their sights as it was hailing bullets down on U.S. troops below. Crawling up into a good position, they set up their .50-calibre rifle — the McMillan Tac-50, a weapon the corporal compares to having superhuman power in your hands. “Firing it feels like someone slashing you on the back of your hockey helmet with a hockey stick.” (These are the rifles fitted with Lilja .50 caliber barrels and Nightforce NXS scopes.)
When he hit his first target, an enemy gunman at a distance of 1,700 metres, he said all that ran through his mind was locating his next target.
“All I thought of was Sept. 11th and all those people who didn’t have a chance and the American reporter who was taken hostage, murdered and his wife getting the videotape of the execution; that is my justification.”
A master corporal from Ontario, the lead sniper of his three-man team, said when they first landed in the combat zone “our spider senses were tingling…. It was night and we didn’t know what to expect.”
By daylight, after coming under enemy machine-gun fire, he managed to ease his rifle barrel between two rocks and quickly located an enemy sniper hiding behind a small piece of corrugated steel between two trees. He guessed the distance at 1,700 metres and fired one shot through the metal, killing the man instantly.
He said afterward he remembered thinking: “That’s one less bullet that’s gonna be coming at us, one less person we have to think about.”
During the next four days of fighting, the Newfoundland corporal set what is believed to be a record for a long-distance shot under combat conditions, hitting an enemy gunman at a distance of 2,430 metres.
The days of crawling, shooting and long hours waiting in cover left the Canadian snipers exhausted. “You don’t realize what you’ve done to your body and how tired you are till it’s all done. I think we slept 14 or 15 hours when we got back,” the master corporal said.
Three of them, along with U.S. special forces soldiers, also rescued a company of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division that was pinned down by enemy fire on the first day of Operation Anaconda.
They also participated in Operation Harpoon, with Canadian troops on “the whale,” a mountain overlooking the Shah-e-Kot valley where al-Qaeda fighters were putting up stiff resistance.
Operation Harpoon, carried out in conjunction with Operation Anaconda, consisted of 500 Canadian and 100 U.S. troops under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Stogran, who leads Canadian Forces in Afghanistan in the biggest ground offensive since the Korean War.
Lieutenant Justin Overbaugh, of the American scout platoon to which the Canadian snipers were attached, said it was a pleasure to work with the Canadian troops. “Their professionalism was amazing,” Lieut. Overbaugh said. “The Canadians were a very large asset to the mission. I would have loved to have 12 Canadian sniper teams out there. I’d have no problems fighting alongside of them again.”
He said the Canadian snipers had equipment far superior to theirs. Their rifles had longer range than the U.S. weapons and better high-tech sights. Lieut. Overbaugh said if another mission comes up, he will request the Canadian sniper teams be sent with his unit.
Senior military officials in Ottawa made a point of praising their work at the time. “The sniper teams suppressed enemy mortars and heavy machine-gun positions with deadly accuracy,” Vice-Admiral Greg Maddison said after Operation Harpoon ended. “Their skills are credited with likely having saved many allied lives.”