The Buzz

Why Is the Trump Administration Selling Giant Sniper Rifles to Ukraine?

On Dec. 20, 2017, the U.S. State Department publicly announced it was finally issuing an export license for Ukraine to purchase lethal military weapons. Pres. Donald Trump personally approved the move after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis briefed him.

Curiously, the only specific form of lethal aid in the authorization is $41.5 million worth of Barrett M107A1 .50 caliber anti-material rifles, as well as combat shotguns, silencers, military scopes and flash-suppressors. This was a far cry from the 1,200 Javelin anti-tank missiles that Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko requested.

But just a few days later, the State Department also announced it was licensing $48 million of Javelin missiles—which amounts to 35 launch units and 220 missiles. In both cases, the authorization of the sale does not necessarily confirm that the transfer will occur.

Why did the Trump administration authorize nearly as many millions of dollars for purchasing giant sniper rifles as it did for sophisticated anti-tank missiles?

There are two explanations, one tactical—and the other political.

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Pro-Russian separatists consolidated their position in early 2015, capturing key Ukrainian government strongpoints at Donetsk International Airport and Debaltseve using Russia-supplied tanks, artillery and mercenaries. Afterward, both sides settled into defensive positions. The Minks Accords led to the partial withdrawal of tanks, missiles and artillery from the front line.

Though that front line has remained largely static for two years, there are nearly daily outbreaks of fighting involving snipers, artillery and the occasional anti-tank missile. These have caused at least 3,000 deaths on all sides in this frozen conflict, with the violence reportedly intensifying the second half of 2017.

In positional warfare between entrenched defensive lines, snipers have plenty of time to settle into well-hidden nests and wait for opposing combatants to expose themselves to a clear shot. They can also scan for concealed troop concentrations and call in heavy weapons to destroy them. Effective sniper fire can pin troops down—fixing them in position until a heavy artillery strike rains upon them and inflicts heavy casualties.

According to the U.S. Army’s Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook, which is based on observation of combat operations in Ukraine, Russian-trained forces employ snipers on a larger scale than is done in NATO militaries, including platoon-size sniper formations.

Often, three lines of snipers deploy. The forward line is likely to involve local proxy forces with basic assault or sniper rifles, while progressively better-trained mercenary or special forces snipers with high-power rifles make up the middle and rear lines.

According to the handbook, there are only two effective tactical responses when coming under sniper attack. Either immediately disengage when coming under sniper fire to avoid getting pinned down, accepting that a unit will likely “take at least two casualties” in the process—or return accurate fire with heavy weapons or one’s own snipers to neutralize the attacker.

Ukrainian forces, until recently trained according to Russian doctrine, are doing their best to improve their counter-sniper game, but mostly are limited to using Dragunov SVD rifles. While the Soviet-era weapons are ubiquitous and reliable, they are not ideal for extra long-range shooting, especially due to lower-quality sights.

Recently, Russian snipers have been photographed using T5000 sniper rifles, which use the Lapua .338 round. Due to precision manufacturing and the high power it generates for each shot and, the T-5000 boasts an effective range of up to 2,000 meters and can reliably penetrate body armor at a distance.

Enter the Barrett
The M107A1 is perhaps better known as the Barrett M82, the commercial designation of a .50-caliber anti-material rifle in use with the armed forces of more than 60 countries. The U.S. military has been using the M82 since 1990 on a special-issue basis and even tested a bolt-action variant called the XM107.

However, the Army instead decided to stick to a semi-automatic version formally designated the M107A1 for standardized issue. The M107A1 also differs from the standard M82 in being five pounds lighter at only 28 pounds unloaded, uses a cylindrical titanium muzzle break and is designed to be used in conjunction with noise- and flash-suppressors.