Friday, May 01, 2009

New gear puts snipers in check in Iraq

By Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY WASHINGTON — Sniper attacks by insurgents on U.S. troops in Iraq have been eliminated so far this year, the result of better equipment and training and taming the insurgency, according to military officials and records. In 2007, there were 291 sniper attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, according to Multi-National Force-Iraq, the U.S.-led military coalition there. There were 92 such attacks last year and none so far this year, records show. Because improved tactics and technology have helped slash the number of attacks, commanders in Afghanistan — where ambushes and sniper attacks have increased — are asking for technology that can pinpoint the source of gunfire, said Maj. Shawn Lucas, who helps coordinate countersniper efforts at the Pentagon. Insurgents rarely engage U.S. forces in conventional attacks because of the overwhelming advantage American troops have in firepower, equipment and training. They opt instead for longer-range attacks, such as ambushes, sniper fire and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Sniper attacks increased from 10 in 2007 to 19 in 2008, according to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. There have been five sniper attacks so far this year. Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a military spokeswoman, cautioned that the figures for Afghanistan are estimates. Since late 2008, the Army has been issuing devices to soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq that can pinpoint the location of snipers, Lucas said. One or two soldiers per unit now wear the iPod-size devices to help them spot snipers' locations, take cover and return fire. "At longer engagement ranges, like what you see in Afghanistan, it can be particularly difficult to pinpoint where exactly the shooter is," Lucas said. Without the new technology, he said, a sniper can shoot before anyone can find him by ear or by "seeing the muzzle flash and the smoke from the rifle." The device, called the Soldier Wearable Acoustic Targeting System, is part of a $450 million effort the Army mounted after sniper attacks reached their peak in Iraq. The money has been used to buy similar devices for vehicles. If a bullet passes close enough to the device's sensors it can point out the location of the shooter, Lucas said. More than 1,000 of the devices have been issued to soldiers. Soldiers had complained about the inaccuracy of earlier versions of Boomerang, the device that can be mounted on Humvees. Some of those soldiers lacked the training to understand its limitations, Lucas said. The Army is now issuing third-generation Boomerangs with improved accuracy, he said. There are about 700 on Humvees, and thousands more are scheduled to be installed on Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, Lucas said. Commanders also have made urgent requests for better binoculars and infrared sights to locate snipers at night. President Obama's decision to send 21,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year to help root out insurgents and train Afghan security forces could mean more potential targets for snipers. Soldiers now are better trained on how to spot snipers and how to conceal themselves, Lucas said, leading to a dramatic decrease in attacks in Iraq. Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, credited some of the decline to the counterinsurgency strategy that was adopted in 2007 in Iraq. It focused on providing security for population by controlling neighborhoods. In turn, Iraqis provided security forces tips on insurgents, including snipers. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a series of speeches to war colleges to build support for his $534 billion budget proposal, declared that providing troops in combat with what they need to fight and survive is his "overriding priority." Sniper attacks were once feared by the Pentagon as a threat second only to roadside bombs. In 2007, Defense officials sought $1.4 billion for anti-sniper programs. Budget documents then stated that snipers, if unchecked, could have surpassed roadside bombs as the top killer of U.S. troops.

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