Azzurra was a district right on the border of Pakistan. With only a few months left on our deployment we were getting more and more anxious. As we got closer to the time to come home, the missions became more and intense. They say that the most dangerous times of the deployment for a regular army unit is the first and last 100 days, because complacency and distractions are at their highest. Even though I had received a promotion, but I was still just a specialist, and with that rank, there was very little that I had to concern myself with on the admin level. I was there to shoot people and other than that, the only thing I could really get creative with was my packing list. Unlike most regular army platoon, we had a full blown OPORD before every mission and I was there for every single one, but the things I was most concerned with were things like the length of movement, the number of days before resupply, the number combination, and the SP time. Even though we were going to be flying three hours to a place that was way out of our AO, everything about preparing for this mission was going as usual…until we got to the flight line. We always got out to the HLZ at least one hour before the bird was scheduled to land, and because this was a three hour flight this was one of the only times we were waiting for the Chinooks at the LZ when it was still day light. So we were just bullshitting around and having a good time, when the company commander came out. It was very weird because he had never done that before, I guess it could have been because this time we weren’t leaving at 0100 in the morning and he was actually awake; I didn’t have a clue, but there we were, all of us standing in two single file lines at the edge of the LZ. He walks up to us as the Chinooks are now in sight and says,
“Good luck guys, you’ll do great!”
I looked at Will and we both had a puzzled look that asked, ‘what just happened, why is he here?’ There was simultaneous acknowledgement of a similar scene from the movie of Blackhawk Down and we immediately started laughing. This brief moment of humor was interrupted by the rapid deployment of a crouched widened stance to braced against the shock waves of the incoming Chinook rotors. The humor quickly fled us as we glared at the Chinook through the kicked up gravel and dust, but it seemed there may have been more to this mission than we (or at least I) were told about.
When we landed it was dark, it was usually dark, but this was a little different. This time it was darker but not because of a partial moon or a dense overcast…it was something else. It was because the surrounding mountain were so damn high that we were staring up at what we thought was the sky only to find it was still the earth. They towered at least twice as high as the mountains we typically encountered and flooded the valleys with darkness. We were supposed to meet elders that morning, so with a few hours to spare we made our way from the drop zone toward the village and rolled a 100% security plan straight into the morning schedule. As soon as the day broke the night, I positioned myself behind a wall at the outskirts of the village and scanned the mountains for movement. A 100-meter poppy field and small kolat home was all that separated me from the base of the mountain. We were in a bowl surrounded by mountains, fish in a barrel for any Taliban on the ridge. We had to get moving up if we wanted to survive, we had to secure high ground.
The locals were hired by the Taliban to grow and sell opium from their poppy fields in order to acquire money for weapons. Most of the morning was spent planning on how to occupy the complicated area. We had a dog team, a combat photographer, and some military intelligence attachments, so everything was moving a lot slower than usual, but as the sun began to set pieces started moving. I along with one another sniper team would be emplaced on the mountain with the platoon sergeant and one scout team. The other sniper team would secure a small cellphone tower compound less than half way up the mountain, and the platoon leader would remain at ground level with one squad and take cover in an abandoned school house to remain in contact with the locals.
Approaching the top of the mountain, we came across an unlikely rock formation. A crescent shaped stone wall was built into the side of the mountain. It was still dark but it appeared to be very old, most likely built during the Soviet-Afghan War during the 80’s. It was perfectly positioned to over-watch our friendly positions at the base of the mountain, but as convenient as it was, it was still 100-meters from the summit, and stopping there would inhibit our ability to secure the back side of the mountain. By the looks of it though, this old structure was the only source of cover available on the entire mountain face. We decided to split-up, half of us continued up the mountain to recon the top and backside, and the others stayed to inspect the old fighting position for mines and booby traps. By the time we finished inspecting the old fighting position, the others returned and reported back. The backside (directly behind us) was a sheer cliff that was ultimately unclimbable, but the left and right rear flanks were not as steep and could be scaled with the right motivation. These avenues needed to be under constant observation to be deemed secure, but due to the unusual terrain composition and limited personnel, we were unable to safely occupy the very top. Instead we sent a team up to the military crest, the position before cresting the peak, to act as a listening position (LP) and rely early-warning signals for threats from the two rear flanks. Without any type of cover what-so-ever we scavenged for large stones to stack against the most likely avenue of approach, but with a limited supply, we struggled to build enough cover for the entire team, so I moved back down to the old Russian FP. Along the way, I noticed a semi-circular shape growing on the mountain peaks and ridge lines that were making up the horizon. As beautiful as it was, this sun rise came with a complimentary gut check this morning. The atmosphere reflects sunlight before Bob decides to reveal himself, and this is what distinguishes the dawn from the sunrise. This subtle illumination can be dangerous, especially during the first morning of operation in a new area. It typically lasts 20-30 minutes, but varies based on the geographical location, elevation, and surrounding major terrain features. It was certainly nothing new, but it could still sneak up on us. After infiltrating by air during the late night hours and navigating up one-thousand feet of unfamiliar mountainous terrain, we found ourselves making minor adjustments to new discoveries made as the dawn broke the night. More sunlight revealed less cover and more threatening exposure. I quickened my steps and lengthened my stride down the hill to satisfy my wrenching gut and get into position before giving away our newly acquired positions.
Only 500-meters away and just as tall, there it stood. We were separated from it by a draw that sloped a couple hundred meters below and away. The ridge line was clearly defined against the sky so any changes to the contour would be obvious. There was usually enough time to scan the area of interest and visually memorize its characteristics. We made mental notes of possible enemy fighting positions, various ranges, target reference points, wind direction, and if necessary, wind values. If possible, we exchanged some of this information between one another to speed up the process. In all it shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes to identify. Ideally, this kind of information would be drawn on a piece of paper in the form of a sector sketch. One copy would stay with the shooter for reference, and another would be passed up to the squad leader for assembling with sector sketches from other team members, after which, he would have a 360-degree view of the entire surrounding area. Also noted on these sector sketches would be specific azimuths, to verify interlocking sectors of fire, and noted dead-space, to identify were grenades were needed. He would be able to verify the security of the OP and distribute personnel appropriately.
Our new sniper systems were equipped with 20x Leopold scopes, so we were able to positively identify relatively small details even from 500-meters away. The 10x scope on the M24 and M110 were better than the typical 3.5x ACOGs on the M4s but they were still only half as powerful as the new glass on our XM2010 sniper systems. Initially we were looking for anything out of place, signs of human disturbance to the natural environment, and geometric shapes that are not commonly found in nature. I scanned across the ridge line rather rapidly from left to right, stopping at each tree, rock, and bush that broke the natural contour of the ridge. Methodically examining it. Making a conscious effort to concentrate on a specific area of the irregular shape, for an extended period of time. It was called burning, a common term used for staring at something. If the shape changed it was easier to notice while staring at it, versus trying to identify a small change to an irregular shape after glancing back from something else. Experience revealed that time and fatigue will cause your mind with play tricks with your eyes during observation and surveillance. You might think that something moved or changed when in fact it is exactly the same as it was the last time you observed it. One tree in particular stood out with a small cluster of short bushes growing right next to it. An ideal firing position for the enemy should we encounter contact from that ridge. Continuing my scanning I identified another similar TRP further (75-meters) to the right and burned each irregular shape to ensure nothing was changing or moving. Because the eyes are trained to read from left to right, it is common to overlook something while scanning in the same fashion. To avoid this, I continued my observation of the ridge by scanning it again right-to-left. It is slightly uncomfortable and requires more time, but it forces the eyes to slow down and reduces the possibility of overlooking anything.
I was getting some much needed rest at about 1400 that day when Coldsteel kicks me in the leg and says,
I was in a daze from the short sleep and crawl across the 8-foot-wide hole to get a look at what he is talking about. He in in the prone behind his rifle and says,
“I’m going to take a shot.”
I still wasn’t all there but after he sends the first shot, I starting hearing cracks and whizzes and he looks me straight in the face and says,
“Get on your gun!”
Then it dawns on me, we are about to be in a firefight. I reach across and pull my rifle up over the rocks and it feels like it weighs 100 pounds, either I was really tired or I was just really uncomfortable with popping my head out of the hole. They had no idea we climbed this mountain before them…until now.
At 8,500-feet in the air and 500-meters apart, we began to exchange hot lead from one peak to the other. A small 8-foot tall tree built into the old rock wall, was taking more than its fair share of the abuse. It kept reminding us with pieces of debris falling into our neck collars. The debris was being shot off the tree from rounds that were passing not too far overhead. A fire trailing RPG projectile sailed across the depression and approached the ground at our position with a quickness. The corner of my eye catches it, in slow motion, floating between our listening-position (LP) and myself about 5-feet above the ground. The same ground I used to fill sand bags with hours ago. 300-meters behind us, it self-detonate in the air. I recalled the TRP that I predicted would be an ideal enemy firing position. Carefully examining the area, I observed a reduced silhouette shape and burned the object. Small flashes of light confirmed my observation. They were muzzle flashes and indicated the silhouette was firing on our position. Positive identification of the enemy was more than half the battle, now to engage. Using the reticle I was able to conduct a hasty range confirmation on the target within a few seconds. By positioning the head shape of the silhouette into the appropriate marks.
Just when it couldn’t get any more exciting, a squad of Taliban are seen climbing the back-left flank of the mountain. An approach from which our teams on the ground cannot engage. The heavy enemy fire from the northern ridge-line was doing a damn good job of diverting our attention and fire power from all other directions. Using a dirty map and an 8-digit grid, our forward observer (FO) calls for in route F-16 to drop 500lbs of JDAMN on a grid Danger Close to our position.
“DANGER CLOSE, DANGER CLOSE, TAKE COVER!”
With pin-point accuracy the screaming fighter jet delivers a ground shaking crack. Then…
The unfamiliar sound was shrapnel from the bomb itself landing all around us. It lasted for what seemed like forever, but in reality about 30-seconds, for all the debris to fall out of the sky. I was anticipating body parts to fall as well but only steel and rock peppered the area.
Tactically, it was not ideal for us to remain on the mountain, but strategically, it was necessary for the security of the team on the ground. Despite the large attack we encountered, we were told to hold the position, after all, without our presence, the enemy would have assumed control of the high ground and it would have been a real disaster.
An hour long rotational guard shift tore us away from the small stone wall one-by-one. The unnerving thought of a second attack kept us bright-eyed and bushy tailed throughout the remainder of the day and into the night.
To Be Continued…
The Army was in pursuit of a long-term solution for improving the sniper weapon system since the late 1980s, but as complaints continued to rattle the Department of the Army from high ranking Army officials, the plan for a short-term solution was initiated.
The intent was focused on fielding deployed sniper units immediately with a longer range sniper weapon system. Oklahoma’s republican senator, James M. Inhofe, submitted a proposal to amend the SA 1694 amendment and bill S. 1390, that would authorize the appropriate funding to be given to the Assistant Secretary of the Army (ALT), for the development of a better sniper rifle during the fiscal year of 2010.
On the 15th of January 2009, the Army issued Request for proposal (RFP) to the firearm industry for rapid Reconfiguration of the M24E1. Requirements for the solicitation were developed by a collaboration of efforts from the warfighter, the Soldier Requirements Division, engineers at the ARDEC Picatinny Arsenal.
Several companies including Accuracy International, Asbury Precision Ordinance, and Remington Outdoor Company competed for the contract. All competitors were required to submit at least 4-bid samples, at no cost to the Army, for an extensive test evaluation at the Aberdeen Test Center during the Spring and Summer of 2009.
Remington’s XM2010 design was unique and unmatched by the other competitors. They won the contract for 250-units on 18 September 2009. Remington rapidly vamped up the manufacturing process and sent the FAT units through further inspections at the individual level. During the First Article Testing (FAT) stage of the M24 reconfiguration project, a simple instruction manual was printed off the Xerox machine, stapled together.
One manual (figure-1 above) documents a handwritten note from a sniper school instructor conducting individual testing on the weapon at the US Army Sniper School facility. The note suggests adding a heat shield to the suppressor to reduce a heat induced mirage. He states that after 21-rounds, one round every 30-seconds, the heat from suppressor caused a mirage to appear in the scope. Upon adding a heat shield to the components of the system, seen installed on the suppressor in the figure-2 below, Remington quickly produced 250-units, and the Army deployed two Fielding Teams to deliver the systems to deployed sniper units in Afghanistan.
The package included the PVS-29 night vision device, an Advanced Armament Titan-QD Suppressor with heat shield, and the Leopold Mark-V LR/T 6.5-20x50mm Optic with the new Horus vision reticle. They were sent in a small shipping container about the size of a refrigerator. It was, without a doubt, not your typical ‘standard issue’ delivery of gear. This special delivery came with a condensed two day familiarization class that covered basic operation of the rifle, primarily for the new Horus Vision Reticle, and one day at the range to assist in zero confirmation, adjusting length of pull, and comb height.
“Make sure you stay in touch with us, we want to know how well they function out here and if any improvements can be made, make sure to send us an email when you can”.
The case contents included the rifle fixed with a Leopold Mark IV 6.5-20x scope and H-58 Horus Vision reticle, Nights Armament Titan suppressor, PVS-29 night vision, (*) sling, key-hole maintenance kit, and a cleaning kit.