By Staff Sgt. Markus M. Maier, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service
Nov. 19, 2007 - When servicemembers here have to go "outside the wire," they sometimes have an extra set of eyes watching over them. Concealed and sometimes from a long distance away, the members of the 506th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron's Close Precision Engagement Team, also known as the Tiger Team, observes, provides intelligence and, if necessary, neutralizes threats.
The Tiger Teams consist of Air Force security forces counter-snipers whose expert marksmanship and ability to practically stay invisible allow them to sneak up to an enemy undetected.
"A large part of our job here is reconnaissance for the Army and sometimes agents with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations detachment here," said Staff Sgt. Curtis Huffman, CPET noncommissioned officer in charge.
"When they have a mission outside of the wire, we'll set up near that location about an hour or more before they get out there. Concealed and out of sight, we are able to observe the area and give them real-time intel before they even arrive," Huffman said.
Through direct communication with the mission commander, the sharpshooters let the team know how many people there are in the area, their exact location, if there are any weapons, or if the people seem to be hiding anything. That way, they know exactly what to expect before arriving at the location.
"Close precision engagement provides us with the ability to see into the future," said Special Agent Christopher Church, OSI Detachment 2410 commander. "They provide us with a situational awareness that we would not have without them. Having them watch over us during missions makes an enormous difference."
The sharpshooters' skills also help save lives during counter-improvised explosive device and counter-indirect fire operations.
"We respond to routes that get hit by IEDs a lot or an area that is known for launching IDF (attacks)," said Huffman, who is deployed from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. "We'll set up somewhere concealed along that route or that area, where we can watch people setting stuff up so we can get them before they can hurt our guys. We could be there from 24 to 72 hours."
CPE team members also respond to their own comrades. If security forces members on patrol or on a post perceive suspicious activities in the area, they can call on the team to come out and, using their trained eyes, optics and night-vision capability, determine if there is an actual threat.
Each sniper team consists of two people – the spotter and the shooter. The spotter's responsibility is to determine things like the distance to the target, wind direction and then provide the shooter with corrections, which are adjustments on the rifle.
"Spotters do all the mathematical equations for range estimation, windage, everything from start to end," said Airman 1st Class Matt Leeper, CPET member, also deployed from Eielson. "The spotter definitely has the more difficult job. Your spotter has to be quick and accurate when giving the corrections. There is no time for the shooter to think twice. Your spotter is always right."
The Air Force has about 350 trained sharpshooters. To become a counter-sniper, one has to be a security forces member, have proven marksmanship abilities and accomplish three weeks of training at Camp Robinson, Ark.
"The school is physically and mentally very challenging," Leeper said. "You are learning from the first day you get there. The first few days are in a classroom, and then you are on the range shooting."
This is where the students are introduced to the M-24 sniper rifle, the military version of a Remington 700.
"The trigger squeeze on this weapon is a lot lighter than the M-4, and it also has a lot more kick," Leeper said. "Your shoulder gets roughed up at school, where we fire more than 100 rounds a day."
Though shooting is only a small part of their job at Kirkuk, it's often the most important aspect.
"Only about 5 percent of our job is taking that shot, and the other 95 percent is intelligence gathering," he said. "But when you are in a situation where you have to neutralize a threat, you can't really think about anything except you have positive ID on that target, they have a weapon or you know they are placing an IED. You put that target in your crosshairs, you imagine it's just a blank target at your school house and you pull the trigger. You don't have time to think about anything else."
The counter-snipers accomplish many missions at Kirkuk, but they find the most rewarding thing is being able to watch over soldiers or OSI agents.
"This is the reason why I joined," Leeper said. "When we are out there giving them info and providing cover, I feel like I'm doing my job. I don't feel like I deserve a medal -- nothing like that. This is what my job is and what I joined to do. I joined to come to Iraq, and I went through sniper school to be an asset to the Air Force."
(Air Staff Sgt. Markus M. Maier is assigned to the U.S. Central Command Air Forces Combat Correspondent Team.)