By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Before a highly trained team of Navy SEAL snipers opens fire on multiple targets, one of their team members takes a deep breath and begins a countdown.
"Standby. Three, two, one . . . ," goes a standard order.
"There is a countdown, a tempo. It gets everyone on the same sheet, and they release their shot at the same time," said Scott Tyler, who led a SEAL sniper cell in Iraq and now works as a contractor protecting ships from piracy.
"You don't want to drop one guy and have two others with weapons who can start shooting, especially when there is a hostage involved," Tyler said.
In this way, with deadly accuracy, three SEAL snipers fired their rifles in synchrony on Sunday, instantly killing the three pirates who held a ship's captain, American Richard Phillips, at gunpoint, according to military officials and experts familiar with SEAL sniper operations.
The snipers' pinpoint accuracy -- firing from one moving ship onto the bobbing lifeboat after a split-second decision -- was perhaps the main factor in keeping Phillips, 53, alive, giving President Obama a successful resolution to one of his first international crises.
"It's extremely difficult" to execute such a mission, said one 23-year member of the Navy SEALs who was a sniper and a sniper instructor.
Becoming a Navy SEAL sniper requires at least five years of experience on a SEAL team. SEALs must pass a marksmanship test, undergo psychological testing and compete for the positions.
"It takes a person of great patience and mental tenacity. . . . The ones who have proven themselves get to go" to sniper training, said Cmdr. Greg Geisen, a spokesman for Naval Special Warfare Command in Coronado, Calif.
Only after many months of honing skills in shooting and surveillance do the SEALs take the job of sniper on teams, the officials and experts said. They train to hit two-inch targets from long distances. "Aim small, miss small" is the philosophy, said the former SEAL instructor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his current work.
"We pay a lot for their training and . . . we earned, got a good return on their investment tonight," Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, commander of U.S. naval forces in the Middle East, said after the rescue.
As the threat to Phillips grew imminent on Sunday, Cmdr. Frank Castellano of the USS Bainbridge ordered the rescue action. Then, a tactical SEAL commander on the scene who was observing the targets through binoculars or a spotting scope probably called out the countdown to coordinate the sniper fire, experts and officials said.
The SEALs, probably using MK11 sniper rifles, had to disable the pirates simultaneously to make sure none of them was able to fire back. To achieve this, the three snipers each had to have a pirate in the rifle cross hairs at the same moment.
"They didn't have a huge window of opportunity," Tyler said. "SEALs are very intelligent, very capable of making decisions."