Since the days of Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock and his exploits in Vietnam, the image of Marine Corps Scout Snipers has struck fear in the hearts of America's enemies.
And for good reason.
The Corps has one of the most comprehensive — and toughest — training schools for its sniper teams, with a grueling curriculum of long-range shooting, covert reconnaissance and advanced camouflage.
And that's the problem, Corps infantry leaders say.
Marine officials have confirmed that Commandant Gen. Robert Neller is considering a plan that would make being a Scout Sniper a primary military occupational specialty in the Marine Corps, a move infantry leaders say would help units better meet the increasing demand for these highly-skilled specialists.
A Marine spokesperson declined to comment on whether the Commandant would sign off on the changes but said the Corps is looking into how to improve its Scout Sniper cadre.
"The Marine Corps is currently assessing the best way to train and sustain its Scout Snipers," Marine spokesperson 1st Lt. Danielle Phillips told WATM. "It's important we are thorough in our review to determine the best way the Corps can improve this vital capability."
According to officers familiar with the process who spoke to We Are The Mighty on background, the way the Corps staffs its sniper platoons falls far short of the authorized goal of around 20 per platoon. One leader said on average a platoon has four trained snipers "if we're lucky."
"A lot of kids come to the sniper school not prepared or not fully qualified, so they fail out," the infantry leader said. "So we're just not able to maintain the number of snipers we need in a battalion."
That's why Neller was forwarded a plan to make the 0317 Scout Sniper MOS a primary one, in hopes that the Corps will do more to make sure enough of the sharpshooters get to the fleet where they're needed.
"There's a struggle to find Marines who have the time to train up and get to a 'school level' of success," said a senior Marine sniper familiar with the MOS change proposal. "Right now it's almost impossible."
The senior Scout Sniper, who spoke on background to We Are The Mighty, said if the change is approved, a Marine who signed on as an 0317 would go through boot camp and the School of Infantry then would immediately be sent to a Basic Scout Sniper course. After that, the Marine would go back to the fleet to fill a Scout Sniper job in a platoon rather than leaving to chance the option of being pulled into another combat arms job.
Today, Marines who are selected for Scout Sniper have already completed one deployment and are approaching their end of active service, making it hard to keep snipers in the Corps even if they get the secondary MOS, the sniper leader said.
"There's no way to make sure they stay in the sniper community," he said.
As part of the change, the Corps is looking into modifying the Basic Scout Sniper course to focus more on the "scout" part of the training as opposed to shooting skills, the senior Marine leaders said.
Over the years, scout snipers have played an increasing role in reconnaissance and clandestine observation of targets where infantry leaders need "eyes on" key areas. Additionally, it's been increasingly difficult to teach the advanced marksmanship skills that were once part of the basic sniper curriculum, contributing to the wash-out rates and making it harder for Marines to prepare for the sniper school.
The senior sniper said a lot of the advanced shooting techniques and other sniper-specific skills can be taught by senior NCOs once the new 0317 gets to his platoon. After a deployment in a sniper platoon, the Scout Sniper is better prepared for an advanced course and will help form a more seasoned cadre of leaders back at the platoon, he said.
But there are critics, senior Marine leaders acknowledge, particularly when it comes to the training changes.
"The old timers are pointing a bony finger at us and saying the new plan waters down sniper training," the senior sniper said. "That's an emotional response to how it used to be."
"Nobody's watering down what the Scout Sniper is and what he can do," he added.