Weapons: Giving Russian Snipers Problems


March 31, 2018: When the United States finally agreed to provide Ukraine with lethal military aid at the end of 2017 what the Ukrainians had at the top of their list were M107 12.7mm sniper rifles and special ammo for them. In particular Ukraine wanted the Mk 211 Raufoss round, which is an armor piercing incendiary round. This round in more expensive and designed to destroy light armored vehicles, any exposed equipment (radars and the like) as well as penetrate brick walls and detonate on the other side. In addition to causing fragments that wound or kill the Mk 211 will also cause fires. It is illegal to use the Mk 211 against people and, as a practical matter, it is too expensive (15 times more than standard round) for shooting at people. The Ukrainians want the M107s firing Mk 211 rounds to flush enemy troops out of buildings or to accurately hit and disable unarmored or lightly armored vehicles at long distances. The Ukrainians also wanted some of the latest American electronic sights for 12.7mm rifles, especially the ones that work well at night and over long distances.

The Americans also sent 220 Javelin ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) and 35 launch units. The Ukrainians know that the launch units, with their long-range all weather sights are useful just for surveillance at night. Ukraine already manufactures plenty of sniper rifles and ATGMs. What they need is special gear to better deal with the heavy use of snipers by the Russians. While the enemy in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) is technically rebel Ukrainians the reality is they are mostly Russian regulars or civilian contractors (many of them Russian volunteers who are paid by Russia, and this includes groups like Cossacks). Russia is using the Ukraine to catch up with the West when it comes to large scale use of snipers armed with more powerful sniper rifles. The Donbas is a good place for this because the front line has been static since 2015. That stability is the result of a series of ceasefires. Russia always breaks these ceasefires with sniper, missile and artillery fire. What the Russians are doing is testing new tactics and weapons in an effort to regain highly effective sniper force they had during World War II but lost after the war.

Russia made wide use of snipers during World War II, many of them women. These snipers had simple equipment (tuned up military bolt action rifles and 3.5x or 4x telescopic optical sights) but with lots of work for snipers Russia developed thousands of expert snipers. The post-war Russian military could not maintain this force because the Russians had few career soldiers and depended largely on conscripts. But the current Russian army has a growing percentage of higher paid career soldiers and many of these are equipped with modern (Western style) sniper rifles and accessories and Russia is experimenting with new sniper tactics. In particular Russia is working on using large numbers of snipers in an area, deployed in depth and trained to coordinate their operations. This involves the deployment of multiple sniper platoons (about twenty two man teams) for short (a few days), or longer (weeks) periods in combat to see what impact this has compared to more conventional tactics (smaller numbers of snipers assigned as needed). NATO military advisors (and observers) noticed this mass use of snipers and that’s one reason for quickly responding the Ukrainian requests for the M107 sniper rifle and special ammo.

The M107A1 is the latest version of the M107, which is a semi-automatic 12.7mm lightweight (23.5 kg/30 pound) rifle with a ten round magazine and an improved recoil system. The M107 entered service in 2004 replacing most of the bold-action M82 12.7mm rifles that were basically copies of the original Barret 12.7mm rifle that appeared in the 1980s. The M82/M107 can hit man-size targets at 2,000 meters (and 25 percent further in the hands of an expert sniper). The West also developed better 7.62mm (the most common round) sniper rifles as well as these same rifles equipped to fire slightly larger (8.6mm) and much longer range rounds. But the 12.7mm riffle based on the original Barrett design remains the sniper rifle with the longest range and largest round. Thus the design of the Mk 211 round only really works in 12.7mm.

The Russia response to the new Western snipers has been the recently introduced T-5000 sniper rifle. Russia has been testing and tweaking the T-5000 since 2011 and that resulted in a very effective sniper weapon. The T-5000 rifle was the sort of weapon Russian snipers had been asking for since this sort of high-tech design first showed up in the West as the Cold War was ending. Russia really could not compete with Western weapons manufacturers until they got legal access to Western technology and markets. That happened in the 1990s and Russian firms have been producing a growing number of world-class designs. This gave Russian manufacturers access to the large market police and civilian shooter market in the West. For example, to be successful most T-5000 sales must go to non-military users.

Russian special operations troops sent to Syria after 2014 (before the larger “official” deployment in mid-2015) apparently had some T-5000s and the stories of the range, accuracy and ease of use this new sniper rifle began to spread among the special operations community and demand increased. There were already some foreign customers (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Vietnam, Syria and China). The problem was that the Russian manufacturer (Orsis) could not produce them fast enough. By the end of 2017 production had apparently been increased sufficiently to offer the latest version, the T-5000M, openly and not quietly (to a few key customers).

The production model is known as the T-5000M. It is a 6.5 kg (14.3 pound) bolt action rifle with a 66cm (26 inch) barrel, five (or ten) round magazine and Picatinny rail. Actually there are slight variations (weight, length) based on caliber selected. The T-500o is available in versions for the standard NATO 7.62x51mm (.308 Winchester), .300 Winchester Magnum or .338 (8.6mm) Lapua Magnum. With the 8.6mm round the T-5000 has achieved accurate shots at over 2,000 meters. The T-5000 looks and operates like Western designs and that was done on purpose, using quality components and expert construction. The Russian manufacturer expects to sell most T-5000s (at $6,000 each, without accessories) to export customers although many elite Russian sniper units are now scheduled to finally receive them and allow snipers who “tested” a T-5000 in the Caucasus to use one regularly.

The T-5000 was part of the Russian effort to reform their Cold War era armed forces by adopting the best techniques and weapons used by the more successful Western troops. The T-5000 was part of an effort to make more aggressive use of snipers. By 2010 Russia was selecting the most promising new recruits and sending them to a three month sniper course. Via this, and other recruiting methods, the Russians sought to obtain at least a thousand additional snipers by 2016. Apparently they succeeded and thanks to the Internet these newly trained snipers were familiar with the rifles their Western counterparts were using in combat and wanted access to the same quality of equipment. Some Russian snipers quietly got to use the latest Western sniper designs, but Russia did not want to have their snipers equipped with a standard weapon that was not Russian made.

Ukraine already had developed and was manufacturing a Western grade sniper rifle; the UR-10, as 5 kg (11 pounds unloaded) semi-automatic weapon with 51cm (20 inch) chrome-lined free-floating barrel which is good for about 7,000 shots. The UR-10 is accurate to 1,200 meters versus about 800 meters for older Russian sniper rifles (like the SVD). The UR-10 uses a lot of tech from the AR-10, which is the basis for the main American sniper rifle; the 7.62mm M110.

The Russians are trying to develop a sniper program similar to the one the Americans have developed since the 1990s. The United States has been the most successful user of snipers so far this century. Since 2001 sniper training in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps has undergone tremendous changes. Mostly this was because so many snipers were getting lots of combat experience. That experience comes back to the sniper training schools. Another change has been increasing communication between the three primary centers of sniper training (army, marines and army Special Forces). Each of these schools has long tended to develop in isolation from the others. But after 2001 there were more competitions and gatherings that brought together snipers from all three and many valuable exchanges about tactics, techniques and combat experience took place. Finally, the growth in the number of snipers led to many more sniper weapons and items of equipment being developed and produced. This has been driven, in part, by the growth in the number of civilians taking up sniping as a sport. Some of these civilian snipers are former military, but most are civilian shooters seeking an edge in their hunting, or simply to develop some new, and challenging, skills.

In 2004 the U.S. Army, emulating the U.S. Marine Corps, began training additional snipers, so that army units would have more than three times as many. This was about the same number of snipers the marines have had for a long time. To do make this happen, the army is tripled the output of its sniper schools. The army had a five week sniper course, while the marines had a ten week course that was considered one of the best in the world. These schools turn out professional snipers who know how to operate independently in two man teams.

Marine regiments (about the same size as army brigades) then had about three times as many snipers per battalion as did army units. Back then, the army only has six or eight snipers per infantry battalion. The additional sniper training sought to provide one sniper in each infantry squad. There are 27 squads in an infantry battalion.

But both the army and the marines were also taking advantage of the greater number of veteran troops in their combat units, and the fact that just about every soldier has a rifle with a scope, and has a lot of target practice behind them. In the past, infantry commanders were encouraged to find and designate about ten percent of their men as sharpshooters (sort of sniper lite) and make use of these guys to take out enemy troops at a distance, with single shots. This was a trend that had been growing since the 1990s and was becoming a major feature of American infantry tactics. These sharpshooters, especially the ones with combat experience, were the prime candidates for sniper school. The trained snipers, however, also have the special skills required to find the best shooting position, and how to stay hidden, and get out of harm's way if discovered. Trained snipers have proved to be a powerful weapon in the kinds of battles encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq. The enemy fighters greatly fear the snipers, and the presence of snipers restricted the mobility of enemy gunmen.

Russia does not have a large number of infantry with combat experience or even men who volunteered for infantry duty. But the Russians do have generations of experience screening young men for the military and quickly identifying those with potential for doing specialized (leadership, technical, special operations, sniper) tasks and offering them a better deal than the average conscript got. China is adopting a Western model since they have plenty of volunteers for the infantry and an affinity for Western methods. Meanwhile Russia has turned Donbas into a live fire training area, something the Ukrainians do not appreciate at all.


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