QUANTICO, Va. -- When Marine Sgt. Jonathan Charles' unit arrived in Afghanistan, the American troops faced an entrenched enemy that picked a fight with the Marines almost every time they stepped off base.
"They couldn't get outside the wire more than 50 meters before it was a barrage of fire," said Charles, a scout sniper.
The Marine battalion quickly dispersed well-camouflaged scout sniper teams throughout the Musa Qala area in southern Afghanistan, the former Taliban heartland. The teams would hide for days, holed up in crevices, among boulders or in mud-walled homes, and wait for unsuspecting militants to walk into a trap.
The result: Dozens of militants were killed by an enemy they never saw. Word of unseen killers began to spread among the "few who got away," Charles said. Within weeks, the tide had begun to turn and by the end of the unit's seven-month deployment in March 2011, the battalion's 33-man sniper platoon had 185 enemy kills.
"They quit altogether," Charles, 26, said of the Taliban. More important, with the enemy largely neutralized, the battalion could focus on building local security and developing Afghan security forces. This approach is the bedrock of counterinsurgency warfare, which is designed to allow the United States to remove most combat troops by the end of 2014.
Snipers have quietly emerged as one of the most effective but least understood weapons in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Advancements in technology and training have made them deadlier than in any previous generation. Their ability to deliver accurate shots minimizes collateral damage - a key factor in counterinsurgency - and they are often more effective than much ballyhooed drones at secretly collecting intelligence.
The number of slots at the Army's sniper school at Fort Benning, Ga., increased to 570 last year, up from 163 in 2003, when the Iraq War started. The Marine Corps operates several sniper schools, too.
A precision weapon
U.S. commanders typically describe counterinsurgency as improving government and the economy and protecting the population. But killing hard-core elements of the insurgency helps persuade the population to join the winning side, military analysts say.
Snipers are ideally suited for that. "It's a lot easier to win hearts and minds when you're doing surgical operations (instead of) taking out entire villages," said LeRoy Brink, a civilian instructor at the Fort Benning school.
Snipers have another advantage. They wear on the enemy's psyche, producing an impact disproportionate to their size. "It takes the fight out of them," Marine Col. Tim Armstrong, commander of the Weapons Training Battalion at Quantico, said of the impact on the enemy.
Snipers will play a prominent role as the military reshapes itself into a more agile force after Iraq and Afghanistan. In a new strategy unveiled in January, the Pentagon said it planned on building a smaller, more expeditionary military force and would expand America's capabilities to train indigenous forces over the next several years.
Snipers fit well into that concept, said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "They've proven to ... have had substantial payoff in terms of military effectiveness. They will continue to be valued."
Refinements in training and advancements in technology have proved a deadly combination for snipers.
"It's much more of a science now," said Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Eggers, a leader at the Army's sniper course at Fort Benning. "Understanding the technology, better understanding of ballistics - that is what has really changed the game."
In recent years, snipers have been armed with handheld ballistic computers that calculate the effects of air pressure and other atmospherics on a bullet's trajectory. Optics and rifles have also improved accuracy. The Marine Corps assembles its own bolt-action sniper rifles to exacting standards here at Quantico.
Typically, a well-equipped sniper in World War II could be expected to hit a human target with a single shot at about 600 yards in favorable conditions and during daylight. Today, snipers can typically hit targets at twice that range - from more than half a mile away - and at night, said Bryan Litz, a ballistics expert at Berger Bullets who has done military contract work.
In Iraq the value of snipers was clear from the beginning. When Marine officers were negotiating with insurgents holed up in Fallujah in 2004, the enemy's first request was that Marines withdraw snipers who ringed the city and were targeting insurgents.
Fallujah had become a symbol of insurgent resistance after four U.S. security contractors were killed in an ambush and the charred remains of two were strung from a bridge over the Euphrates.
"They weren't concerned with the tanks or the battalions in there," Armstrong said. "They wanted the snipers removed."
Marine officers refused. Within days, the insurgents met the Marines' initial conditions.
"They're a small niche that can really wreak havoc on the enemy," said Clarke Lethin, a retired Marine officer who was on the staff of the unit that conducted the negotiations in Fallujah. "Our snipers were very effective when we were trying to bring terrorists to the table."
There's a personal element to snipers that is hard to quantify but has an impact on the enemy.
When an insurgent is killed by an unseen drone strike, "the enemy sort of absorbs that," dismissing it as superior American technology, Armstrong said.
They have a different reaction to sniper kills. "When a sniper shoots them ... it translates to, 'I just went to a fight man-on-man and I was bested by another man,' " Armstrong said. "That is the psychological impact of scout snipers on the battlefield."
The enemy also understood the psychological potency of an unseen enemy that can strike at any time. Starting in 2005, insurgents released a series of videos showing U.S. soldiers being shot, claiming it was the work of a single sniper who was stalking Baghdad. The video was an effort to strike fear into American troops by raising the specter of an unseen gunman preying on U.S. troops.
The U.S. military denied that any one insurgent marksman was responsible for the killings and dismissed the video as propaganda. Military analysts say insurgent marksmen lack advanced training and equipment that would allow them to take long-range shots at night.
"They're not able to engage in the ranges that we are and not at night," Litz said.
Glamorized by Hollywood
More recently, snipers have been lionized by Hollywood, video games and books. American Sniper, an autobiography of a Navy SEAL sniper, has dominated best-seller lists since its publication in January.
They capitalize on a fascination the public has with marksmen who match wits against an elusive enemy. In 2009, the public was captivated by news of Navy SEAL snipers killing three Somali pirates simultaneously, ending a five-day standoff after the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama was seized off the coast of Somalia. It was the latest in a rash of piracy in the region.
But sniper training is a far cry from the image of lone gunmen stalking human prey that is often portrayed by Hollywood. The training is daunting. Students often spend hours moving a couple of hundred yards without being detected. They learn to pay attention to every detail. Even if instructors can't see a sniper stalking through the underbrush, they might detect vegetation moving slightly as they crawl a few yards.
"It's not as sexy as the public would think," Eggers said, amid the deafening sounds of students at Fort Benning firing .50-caliber sniper rifles, larger weapons designed for use against vehicles. "It's actually a pretty boring job."
The image of the lone gunman is dated. During Vietnam, snipers were often sent on hunting missions far from friendly forces, Brink said. Today, however, the Army usually teams them up with conventional forces or places them in positions that can be supported by nearby friendly troops.
"Back in the day, they would just go out hunting," Brink said.
The Army's main sniper school at Fort Benning, nestled amid Georgia's gentle hills and pine forests, teaches students about marksmanship, stalking, observation and other skills.
The Marines put their scout snipers through an intense 11-week course where attrition is high and students learn marksmanship, ballistics and observation skills. Students are screened carefully for intelligence and psychological stability even before arriving at Quantico.
"We're looking for a different type of Marine: one with a higher (test score) ... level of maturity and experience," said Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Chad Ramsey, who helps oversee the Corps' reconnaissance career field. "The perception doesn't equal the reality when it comes to going through the school."
The Marines' scout sniper school at Quantico is "one of the top three or four toughest schools in our military, hands down," said Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Micheal Barrett.
Students in the Army's five-week course learn complex formulas designed to predict how a bullet's trajectory will be changed slightly by the atmosphere. When firing long distances, wind variations and even barometric pressure can knock a bullet off course. Bullets travel faster at high altitudes where there is less resistance in the thinner air.
Reading body language
Students learn how to create Ghillie suits, which are complemented with local vegetation so that snipers can blend into the background when stalking a target. They learn to shoot accurately under stress.
During one exercise at Fort Benning, students run several hundred yards wearing about 45 pounds of combat gear before entering a building to complete exercises before each of four separate firing positions.
At each position the snipers are given a short time to fire at targets hundreds of yards away. To get to each position, they run up ladders and stairs. They are graded on speed and accuracy.
The exercise is designed to "see how well they operate under stress," said Arturo Prieto, a 52-year-old instructor and retired Army non-commissioned officer, after a team of panting snipers finished the course and dashed out of the building.
In conventional wars, snipers were often dispatched on missions to kill high-ranking officers, who were identifiable by their uniforms and insignia. In 1777, an American marksman killed a British general at the second Battle of Saratoga, changing the course of the battle and proving the worth of a trained marksman.
Today, snipers face an enemy that wears no uniforms or insignia. It makes for a tougher environment that requires powers of observation and judgment that are typically not demanded of conventional soldiers.
They still go after "high-value targets" designated by commanders, but much of their time is used conducting surveillance.
For example, they might watch from a hidden location as conventional forces move toward an objective, or observe a marketplace, looking for things that seem out of place.
"You're going to need to read his body language," said Sgt. 1st Class Adam James, 29, an instructor.
That's something drones and other technology can't do.
"A UAV is going to be able to report ... vehicles or whatever the case may be," said Sgt. Augusto Zapata, a 26-year-old Marine scout sniper instructor at Quantico, referring to the acronym for drones. "But that Marine on the ground observing through those optics is going to be able to make out somebody who seems nervous or seems out of place."
Staff Sgt. Ian Shepard, 30, an instructor, watched as two students at Fort Benning's sniper school settled into their firing positions.
"Shooting is the easiest part of the job," Shepard said. "It's more of a mental game than anything else."