The Washington Post peaked in 1972 when it broke the Watergate story and helped usher Tricky Nixon into retirement. Since then, however, it’s been mostly downhill. Just how far was brought to my attention by my evil brother Bill Heavey who e-mailed me a Post story entitled “Why the Marines have failed to adopt a new sniper rifle in the past 14 years.”
Usually, articles such as this are assigned to reporters who are completely ignorant of military matters or guns, but in this case the writer is a young man named Thomas M. Gibbons-Neff, who is currently a senior at Georgetown University, has a wide list of professional writing credits, and was a rifleman in the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. He had two tours in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, made corporal, and led a scout-sniper team. There’s even a photo of him holding what appears to be an upgraded M-14, the USMC Designated Marksman rifle.
With these credentials, you might expect that the piece would be accurate, but it’s loaded with half-truths, inaccuracies, and omitted information. In fairness to Mr. Gibbons-Neff, I don’t know whether they are his mistakes or his copy editor’s, or both.
The first clue that something is amiss comes at the very end of the article where he is identified as a “former U.S. Infantry Marine.” Sorry, but the United States Infantry is Army. The correct term is “former Marine infantryman.”
Then we come to the silhouette chart of the maximum effective ranges of the Marines’ current sniper rifle and its competitors, which are given in yards. All military distances are given in meters and kilometers, and have been for a very long time. Perhaps the Post’s editors felt that thinking metric was beyond its readership.
More important, person or persons at The Post have not grasped the difference between how far various rifles will shoot, which is the term they constantly use, and maximum effective range. At this point, I invite you to click the link and read the whole piece.
Got it? Good.
The point of this seems to be that the Marines, because of their long tradition of fighting with outmoded equipment, are stuck with a sniper cartridge, the 7.62mm, that lacks the range to be effective on our current battlefields. The Marines could replace it with the Precision Sniper Rifle, which is made by a private contractor (Remington) and is a .338 Lapua, but this would mean phasing out the Marines’ Precision Weapons Section, which builds the Corps’ current sniper rifle. Since Marines are a clannish bunch and don’t want to see the PWS disbanded, they stick with a gun that puts their snipers’ lives at risk.
Now let’s assume I’m a copy editor who actually knows his business, and this piece lands in front of me before it goes into print. Here are the problems I have with it, in boldface:
“For 14 years, Marine snipers have suffered setbacks in combat (Name one. Date, place, what happened.) that they (Who is “they?”) say have been caused by outdated equipment (What equipment? Radios? Boots?) and the inability of the Marine Corps to provide a sniper rifle that can perform at the needed range (Which is how far?).
“The Marine Corps is known for fielding older equipment. In the 1991 Gulf War, when the Army was driving (Just driving? Or did they get to shoot the guns, too?) the brand-new M1A1 Abrams battle tanks, the Marines crossed into Kuwait with the aging Pattons—tanks that rolled through the streets of Saigon in the ’60s. (This is not quite what happened. The “aging Pattons” were M-60A1 and M-60A3 tanks that had been modernized and upgraded, and shot the hell out of the more modern Soviet tanks used by the Iraqis. Upgrading old equipment is common in the military. The U.S. Air Force still flies upgraded B-52 bombers that date to the 1950s, and A-10 Warthogs from the early 1970s).
“‘It doesn’t matter if we get the best training,’ said one reconnaissance sniper who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to talk to the media (Then why is he talking to the media?) ‘If we get picked off at a thousand yards (not meters?) before we can shoot, then what’s the point?'” (Since at least half of a Marine scout-sniper’s training involves the art of not being seen, even at very close range, why are these guys allegedly being detected and killed at 1,000 yards … or meters? Something here does not make sense).
But the real problem with the piece lies in its assumption that the Corps is willing to throw away lives to keep the Marines in the Precision Weapons Section from going back to the fleet and doing sea duty. As it happens, I know a retired Marine who has first-hand knowledge of the situation, and his explanation is quite different. He says:
“When I was attached to the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion and was deployed several times between 2005-2008 in Fallujah, Iraq, the sniper rifle debate reared its ugly head many times. I sat down with our snipers and asked them what would be their perfect rifle, to include caliber. No two could agree, so you can imagine asking a roomful of them that question.
“Calibers that were the most requested were the .300 Win Mag, .338 Lapua, and .408 CheyTac. In the end, by a majority-rules decider, we went with the .408 CheyTac.
“I collected all the other data as far as weight, length, etc., and submitted a UNS [Universal Needs Statement] to the Marine Corps. The UNS program in the Corps is designed for Marines to voice their opinion to commanders relating to their gear needs. An example of a successful UNS was the up-armored Hummer. Marines needed it; they asked for it; and they got it.
“I forwarded the UNS I submitted to a friend of mine with 2nd Recon Battalion and he went over it with his guys and submitted a very similar one. We had done our part. The Marine Corps then did their own SME [Subject Matter Expert] review of the UNS, but the panel of SMEs could not agree which rifle or caliber they wanted, and the Corps stopped the panel until the sniper community could agree on a rifle/cartridge.
“Ultimately the snipers are partly to blame. It wasn’t money, because at the time there was more money available than the Marine Corps could spend. The Corps just didn’t want to buy something that not everyone wanted.
“The other issue with going to a non-DOD caliber is ammunition acquisition and making it available to troops on the front line. 7.62mm is readily available anywhere you go in Iraq or Afghanistan but .408 CheyTac is not. The Marines at PWS [Precision Weapons Section] in Quantico are eager to build what Marines want, but they have to have the approval of Marine Corps Systems Command, and until that comes, it’s just not going to happen. Until a decision is made, the Marine Corps will not transition to a new sniper rifle, just an upgraded one.
“One thing I know is that Marines will be successful in combat with whatever weapon they are given. Pull out a bunch of level “A”-packed M-1 Garands from a storage warehouse in Albany, GA, issue them to Marines, and they are going to kill the enemy. The weapon doesn’t make the Marine; the Marine makes the weapon.”
This is somewhat different from Mr. Gibbons-Neff’s version. I’d like to know who he talked to and what ax they had to grind.
It’s also worth pointing out something about the PSR that was not mentioned in the article. The PSR is an interchangeable-cartridge rifle that transitions between the .300 Win Mag, the .338 Lapua…and the “obsolete” 7.62mm.
If by some wild chance Mr. Gibbons-Neff reads this post, I welcome his comments.