Tactical Tailor

Commander, may I engage?

“Commander, may I engage?” is a winning essay for the United States Army Writing Excellence Program By SSG Christopher Rance and was published in the NCO Journal. We have shared it, at his request, in hopes of fostering professional dialogue.

It discusses the restrictive nature of contemporary Rules of Engagement and how that can hinder a sniper from performing his or her mission. The author offers a sound solution for the commander that he or she can employ, especially in stability operations. This essay arose from past experiences and from After Action Reports from other snipers serving in recent combat operations.

Commander, may I engage?

In stability operations(1), there are no enemy lines to speak of. The enemy blends in with the general population. When faced with having to engage targets with direct fire while avoiding collateral damage, the commander should regard his or her snipers as a vital asset. Using their precision weapon systems, snipers can effectively eliminate targets while minimizing the collateral damage associated with other weapon systems or maneuver elements. The solution seems fairly straightforward, yet snipers still struggle with successfully employing precision fire when it matters the most. The culprit lies in the fact that bottom-line rules of engagement (ROE) do not work when snipers act on pre-event indicators to disrupt an enemy action. The sniper uses his/her ability to observe and understand the pre-event indicators that suggest that a critical incident is about to occur. One significant perceived problem with current ROE is their restrictive nature. Often, such ROE will specify enemy personal as only those presenting a direct threat to friendly forces, which may be engaged only to prevent compromise of the sniper team’s position. The paradox is that a sniper’s modus operandi is to engage targets that are not a direct threat to him or her, or their unit at the moment, but which might later be. The intent of this essay is to examine the variables that will help commanders construct the rules of engagement for snipers in irregular war and against state-sponsored hybrid war(2) as seen today in Ukraine and Syria. This essay will also provide snipers a method to assess pre-event indicators to assist them in making a quick and accurate decision to engage or not to engage.

Specific Rules of Engagement Developed for Sniper Operations

Issuing the proper rules of engagement is one of the most central and critical areas in successful sniper operations. ROE specifically developed for sniper operations are needed. The greatest utility can be gained from snipers if they have distinct and separate ROE that are both sniper and mission specific. These ROE should be written as a collaborate effort between the commander, the brigade legal officer, and the sniper employment officer. If a sniper team is sent out to observe and engage an IED (improvised explosive device) emplacer or triggerman or an enemy mortar team and its equipment at a POO (point of origin) site, the sniper team should be authorized to engage these targets without recourse to a sometimes complex and time consuming “Commander, may I” sequence of radio conversations with the battalion or brigade tactical operations center. Restrictive ROE prevents the sniper team from accomplishing their dangerous mission. The commander needs to:
o Evaluate the variables
o Assess sniper capabilities
o Develop ROE and execute the sniper operation

Evaluate the Variables
Within a sniper operation, there are two serious errors that leadership needs to avoid. These errors are:
o Error that results in the death of a non-combatant individual.
o Error that results with the targeted individual escapes the situation and the threat or potential threat remains active.

After establishing the errors to avoid, the Commander and Sniper Employment Officer (SEO) will assess the operational environment, the social and political context of the operation, the risks within the operation and the individual capabilities of the sniper.

The Operational Environment
The environment is critical to a complete understanding of the proper execution of a sniper shot. Command needs an accurate assessment of the:

A. Physical Environment
The two principal components of the physical environment that the enemy will use in their favor are terrain and weather. The enemy knows that less complex and open environments, such as Afghanistan, favor U.S. forces, especially snipers with their long-range, precision weapons and sophisticated reconnaissance capability. So they will try to avoid the types of operations and environments for which such U.S. forces are optimized. The enemy will attempt to conduct operations in urban areas and other complex terrain(3) and in weather conditions that may adversely affect U.S. military operations and mitigate technological advantages.

B. Relational and Cultural Environment
The use of media, especially social media, can make sniper operations transparent to the world, especially if that sniper team causes any civilian casualties, which are highly mediagenic. The enemy will seek out and exploit any mistake that the United States Military makes and use that propaganda to sway the local population to support their cause.

The Social and Political Context of the Operation
Every sniper operation has a social and political reverberation, the point being that these results can and will affect the operation, where it is in a positive or negative context. The social and political effect can place a tremendous amount of pressure on the conduct of the operation.

The Level of Risks Within the Operation
The stakes of the target have a distinct impact on the operation as a whole. The importance or popularity of the targeted individual can drive the nature of the operation. This variable plays into the perceptions of individuals that are looking or observing the operations from the outside inwards.

Assess Sniper Capabilities
Commanders and SEOs can assess a sniper’s probability of successfully hitting the intended target by using the zone confidence table and the snipers training and qualification records to establish the snipers baseline of performance.


o The crosswind confidence level is defined as High (Experienced sniper, great downrange wind indicators) Medium (easy environment i.e. flat range) and Low (challenging environment i.e. valley in Afghanistan).
o The Range estimation confidence level is defined as High (sniper using a laser range finder) Medium (expert use of ranging reticle) and Low (average use of ranging reticle).
o The rifle estimation is represented by the mean group size that the sniper is capable of at close range (100 meter zero) expressed in Minute of Angle.
o The variation in Muzzle Velocity of the ammunition is characterized by the standard deviation. This metric can be obtained by the sniper using a chronograph for his respected rifle/ammo.

By testing the sniper in crosswind estimation, range to target estimation and by assessing his rifles precision (grouping ability) and ammunition velocity consistency (Chrono-graphing current lot of ammunition), you’re now able to put that sniper in one of three confidence zones.

Example: Sniper can read wind and range estimate with Medium confidence. He can maintain a High confidence for rifle estimation (.5 MOA group when zeroing) and by chrono graphing his ammunition, he annotates that current lot has an SD in the Low zone (20 SD). Sniper would be assigned a MEDIUM CONFIDENCE LEVEL. Commanders and SEOs can use the confidence table to address the various uncertainty components. This approach can show what element(s) of the environment or system (sniper/rifle/ammo) is most limiting the sniper to hit targets. Leadership can also do a comparison of several systems under the same condition in order to see what sniper weapon system they should employ.

Develop Rules of Engagement
Commanders and SEOs can analyze certain questions that will assist in selecting the right sniper and establishing an ROE;
o Is deploying a sniper team the right course of action for a particular operation?
o How far a sniper weapon system may be successfully employed against specific targets(4)?
o Do the variables limit the sniper team?
o Can the sniper be expected to a high degree of confidence, eliminate a threat without incurring civilian casualties(5)?

Left-of-bang principles help snipers observe, analyze, and decide before the enemy acts. This is called “left-of-bang” thinking. Snipers look for indicators after an incident occurs so that they can prevent the next occurrence—that is, acting before the next bang.

Pre-Event Indicators
For the sniper to act, he or she must be able to understand and observe the pre-event indicators that would suggest that a critical incident is about to occur.

Examples of what the sniper can do, left-of-bang:
o Sniper creates a baseline of what he or she perceives to be “normal” for the area of operation
o The sniper observes potential suspects to help establish their daily patterns
o The sniper conducts a recon of possible locations of enemy activity
o Sniper detects anomalies from the baseline
o Sniper identifies behaviors from the population that is out of place
o Identify suspicious environmental signs (e.g., stack of rocks, marking material hung)

Examples of what the sniper can do, right-of-bang:
o Sniper can identify tracks leading away from a scene
o Sniper can identify behavioral anomalies of nearby people
o Sniper can identify environmental effects, such as odd crowd reactions
o Sniper can analyze a site for clues to the enemy’s tactics or motivations

In conclusion, two priorities need to be established. First, snipers need to be selected based on their confidence zone when planning for a sniper operation. Second, commanders need to provide the sniper with specific, lawful ROE that describe acceptable conditions for engaging enemy personnel who are participating in defined hostile activities; the snipers should be trusted to follow the commander’s guidance and the ROE and take a shot.

1 United States Army FM 3-07 states stability operations encompass various military missions, tasks, and activities conducted outside the United States in coordination with other instruments of national power to maintain or reestablish a safe and secure environment, provide essential governmental services, emergency infrastructure reconstruction, and humanitarian relief.
2 Hybrid forces can be characterized by their capabilities. Hybrid forces such as the ones operating in Ukraine and Syria have the same characteristics of irregular forces, such as small formations, but they also have additional capabilities such as anti-tank guided missiles, man-portable air defense weapons, and longer-range, larger-caliber rockets.
3 United States Army FM 7-100.1 states complex terrain is a topographical area consisting of an urban center larger than a village and/or of two or more types of restrictive terrain or environmental conditions occupying the same space. (Restrictive terrain or environmental conditions include but are not limited to slope, high altitude, forestation, severe weather, and urbanization.) Complex terrain, due to its unique combination of restrictive terrain and environmental conditions, imposes significant limitations on observation, maneuver, fires, and intelligence collection.
4 When going from relative sea level to 10,000 feet in mountainous terrain (higher the altitude; the better the muzzle velocity is retained), a system (sniper/rifle/ammo) and the combination of high altitude and long line of sights, can make sniper employment in mountainous terrain a much more efficient tactic. The higher elevations extend the effectiveness of a sniper weapon system substantially. The effect can be on the order of 10% increase in hit percentage for every 5,000 ft. gained from sea level.
5 A sniper with a high confidence rating can be expected to deliver a more accurate shot than a sniper with a low confidence rating. Commanders must assess their snipers on a routine basis to successfully gauge their effectiveness.

Staff Sgt. Christopher Rance

“I have been serving the United States Army as an Infantryman (11B) for almost twelve years, and I have had the privilege to work in a variety of positions. I served as a sniper team leader when I was assigned to the 4th brigade, 10th Mountain Division. During my tenure, I successfully led a sniper team during a 15 month combat operation in Iraq, from 2007 to 2009. My next assignment was a volunteer assignment to the prestigious 3rd Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard. While there, I served as the Presidential Color Bearer on a variety of missions, to include President Obama’s 2012 Inauguration. My essay discusses the restrictive nature of contemporary Rules of Engagement and how that can hinder a sniper from performing his or her mission. I offer a sound solution for the commander that he or she can employ, especially in stability operations. This essay arose from past experiences and from After Action Reports from other snipers serving in recent combat operations.”

39 Responses to “Commander, may I engage?”

  1. Ure says:

    Was in something called ‘Hero Squad’…
    Lots of words…
    He had me at Bang Zone.

  2. d says:

    “…hinder a sniper from performing his or her mission…”

    The sniper mission. His or hers. I guess we’re doing this. This is a thing now.

    • SSD says:

      Welcome to 2016.

      • Jack Griffin says:

        The inclusion of the sniper’s sex is unnecessary. The mention of it in these type of documents is both unnecessary PC filler and a sign of things to come. He, she, he/she, furry, etc. Kinda like how the Justice Department is no longer using felon/convict and has moved to “formerly incarcerated” or whatever.

        Microaggressions. Safe spaces. #I’mOffended.

        Cultural atrophy – GO.

      • Mike Nomad says:

        Conceptually, great article. As I am currently reading Jody Mitic’s book, the points in SSG Rance’s article hit home in a big way. With regard to wordsmithing…

        “…hinder a sniper from performing their mission…” works just fine. As Strunk & White tell us:

        Omit needless words… A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

        • Steve says:

          Except that by using ‘their’ you run into a singular/plural conflict. One would need to make ‘sniper’ plural, or have to employ the singular pronoun he or she.

          • Kevin says:

            They and Them have been picking up singular contexts the last couple years.
            It feels wired coming off the tongue for a couple weeks but everyone seems understand based on the context.

          • Mike Nomad says:

            There is no singular/plural conflict. To shamelessly quote dictionary.com’s second definition of the pronoun “their”…

            Used after an indefinite singular antecedent in place of the definite masculine form his or the definite feminine form her):

            Someone left their book on the table. Did everyone bring their lunch?

            To maintain the economy and clarity, the original line could also go:

            “…hinder snipers from performing their mission…”

            or if you want to get truly lean:

            “…hinder a sniper’s mission…”

            With regard to Kevin’s comment below, I was first taught to use “their” as a replacement for clunky his/her blah blah while in a US public school in the late ’70s.

    • Chimichanga says:

      Except this has nothing to do with PC bullshit and everything to do with grammar. “Their” would be incorrect as “sniper” is singular. The proper way to refer to a genderless noun like “sniper” with a singular pronoun is “his or her.”

      It’s just the English language, not some crazy conspiracy. The more you know.

  3. Timothy says:

    The high/medium/low confidence ratings remind me of Applied Ballistics’ WEZ analysis. Seems like that could be a really useful tool in creating sniper specifc ROE.

    • Christopher Rance says:

      I used Bryan Litz’s WEZ as an example. It’s an excellent piece of software and their Applied Ballistic Tactical App has an integrated WEZ that allows the sniper to compute a hit probability for a target. The USMC and other service components have integrated this excellent piece of kit into the force and hopefully the big Army will follow suite. Gentleman like Bryan Litz and Nick Vitalbo have done some amazing things for the sniper community.

  4. DAN III says:

    “May I engage ?”

    Hmmmm….no less a sympton of:

    1. The emasculation of the American male.
    2. Women admitted to West Point circa 1976. Not to win wars but, to insure social justice.
    3. Homosexuals now allowed to openly pervert the US military. Courtesy the usurper soetoro-obama.
    4. Women now alllowed in combat arms MOS’ affecting a combat unit’s efficiency to literally fight. Again, courtesy of the usurper soetoro-obama.
    5. Bayonet training, long gone.
    6. Most of all….the continuing engagement of our pitiful military in more than 19 undeclared conflicts since the end of WW2. No declaration of war. Just incessant and unnecessary wars of imperialism.

    Per #6….you want Rules of Engagement that work ? Perhaps you should be more concerned with a Constitution that works ! Then you wouldn’t have to be worried about engaging an undeclared enemy in the shithole of the Middle East.

    • ThatBlueFalcon says:

      I’m gonna go ahead and assume you’re slightly nuts and also possible a racist in addition to being a sexist homophobic bigot.

      None of that is even remotely applicable to the position or article that SSG Rance is advocating for.

      • Bill says:

        Thank you

      • DAN III says:


        How am I “nuts” ?

        You leftists are getting the military and nation you want. And the good ol’ ad hominen attacks are always in use by you folks.

        My remarks have EVERYTHING to do with the narrative written by Rance. His narrative includes all the variables of political correctness he deems necessary to murder foreign nationals in their own country under the guise of “stability operations”. Of course no declaration of war per my #6 above.

        1. “….and also a possible racist….”. Sure, whatever. I’m a racist, he’s a racist, everyone is a racist. So what ?
        2. “….being a sexist….”. Yes Millenial….I AM a sexist. I believe there is a demarcation line between male and female roles in society. Why not petition the Marxist .gov of your POTUS to create a provisional battalion of female light infantry and give them the mission to hump the hills of Afghanistan for 60 days ? No males allowed. Only females. We’ll see how well they perform.
        3. “….homophobic….”. I don’t have fear of homosexuals. I believe it is not only unnatural but a sin in the eyes of the Creator.
        4. “…..bigot.”. Again, so what ? Just more name-calling that means nothing.

        The bottom line to my initial remarks was that Rance interlaced his technical advise/commentary with the political correctness criteria of a nation trying to justify it’s wars of imperialism. Perhaps Rance should have left out the political correctness portion of his sniper advise/procedures/techniques. Then again, he wouldn’t be in keeping with this nation’s continuing imperialism for purposes beyond the defense of the United States.

        • Christopher Rance says:

          Actually I was trying to propose an error avoidance procedure that could help limit the possible chance of endangering the sniper team and civilian populace.

          By empowering the sniper team with a no-shit “criteria” it will prevent any mishap by not having them force a bad shot. Why? Because with the confidence zone, leadership can gauge that sniper team and weapon system effectiveness. Two, the command and SEO have linked up with Legal, S-2 prior to mission to lay down a solid engagement criteria for that team. This takes into account those variables, environment, cultural and stakes.

          For me being politically correct, I simply stated the facts. A sniper can be a he or she or an alien. I don’t care as long as they put forth 100% and can execute the mission.

        • Brent says:

          You managed to invoke religion in a discussion about sniping. Bravo!

    • We get it, you’re a dumbass…

      • DAN III says:


        Is it necessary to call BlueFalcon names ? He is entitled to his thoughts no matter how Alinsky-like they may be.

        • Steak TarTar says:

          You’re so cute not knowing which messages are for you and which aren’t

    • Airborne_fister says:

      So in one of my firefights. There was a female who was attached to our unit. She was a medic. Not in a medic role. She was laying down as much fire power as she could. And when one of our guys got hit she jumped to her job. Then a medic in a medic role jumped on the patient. She then jumped up into the turret and held her own. She might not have been a combat arms female. But she sure as hell could load and shoot a 240 and use the MK19.

      • DAN III says:


        But could your beloved female and an all female rifle platoon successfully assault a trench line filled with Russian airborne troops or Spetsnaz ? Could you depend on an entire rifle company of females-only 11Bs or 0321 to defend a trench line against Russian airborne or Spetsnaz troops and live to tell the tale ?

        There is a place for females. Contrary to your beliefs it is not in combat arms or in support thereof.

        Oh….and the political correctness RoE’s are nothing more than an attempt to justify the unconstitutional “stability operations” this nation has conducted over the last 70 years.

        • SVGC says:

          Haha the gays were the ones that perverted the military huh? Man it sure was a lot more wholesome back before DADT was repealed when it was only straight lcpls and specialists that would pay 900 Baht to watch a banana show. Just isn’t the same ever since those darn gays decided that they want to be patriotic.

      • balais says:

        That doesn’t make her physically equal to males in your platoon.

    • Eric b says:

      Don’t feed the trolls folks. They just keep.coming back if you do. Like a nasty stupid feral cat, with apologies to cats for the comparison.

  5. SloppyJoe says:

    In my opinion you are talking about engagement criteria and not ROE.

    A commander or PL should absolutely be giving his snipers clear engagement criteria. The whole purpose of engagement criteria is so the guy pulling the trigger doesn’t have to call higher in order to shoot. This isn’t specific to snipers. It applies to a TOW gunner looking through his ITAS at a T-72 driving through an engagement area or anybody that is making a decision that will impact the OE.

    You are right about being proactive and not reactive but again this is not sniper specific. I will say that putting in a sniper reference probably makes readers understand the importance of engagement criteria identified in planning based off of intelligence preparation of the battlefield.

    Was there a reason you used ROE vs Engagement Criteria?

    • Christopher Rance says:

      You make a solid point and your absolutely correct. What my intent was to devise a scheme that looks at the sniper (his capabilities via hit P, confidence zone) the environment that he’s operating in and the blowback (political, mission) if he were to engage. From what I’ve seen and heard, the “Commander, May I”… Radio transmissions that generally occur when requesting a shot on target puts the sniper and mission at risk. I believe you are right in developing an engagement criteria that is set in stone before the team even sets in is the solution and would alleviate this problem of back and forth commo between the TOC and sniper team.

      I’ll definitely re work this to incorporate that.

      • SloppyJoe says:

        I’ve been the guy who has done the “Commander may I” before…and that was the last time. Every engagement after that was being confident in the engagement criteria and having mutual trust with the Commander. If you have to ask it means you are unsure if the conditions are right for your engagement.

        You should read “Strategic Corporal” if you haven’t already Rance.

        • Christopher Rance says:

          I have not but will. Thank you for your feedback and discussion. This is exactly what I wanted and will continue to reshape the argument to make sure “we snipers” have the knowledge in this subject.

  6. Hubb says:

    Did we have this problem in WWII?

    • Hubb says:

      Also, great article…I learned some things.

    • tm says:

      Ah… for a respectful counterpoint this isn’t the 1940s, and the 1940s wasn’t the golden era of Genghis Khan. Doesn’t matter what problems did or didn’t exist in past times, I think “know your operating environment” applies here and the article offers an approach on how to effectively operate in the current environment.

      • Hubb says:

        Good point…different times and operating environments. I just worry that with modern communications and our wars dragging on for so long that our command structure has become too centralized and calcified.

    • straps says:

      Um no, we had a draft and we turned our news and entertainment apparatus into propaganda machines.

      This idealism about WWII is lost on me. One of my grandfathers was the oldest of four men. In October 1941 he became a regional foreman for a sketchy guvmit commie program called the Rural Electrification Administration so no draft for him. One of his brothers is Missing/Presumed Dead because his name was found on the manifest of a thing called a Japanese Hell Ship subsequently sunk by a US sub, another died on Omaha Beach and another came back with a curious condition referred to prior to the 1970s as “shell shock.” Except he didn’t last that long. My grandfather died an only child, consumed by survivor guilt.

      I serve today in tribute to four men who saw the absolute worst of Total War, and will begrudge efforts to contain its precipitating events in perilously dangerous efforts by the best our nation has to prosecute small wars before they become big ones, and discuss decision making strategies that incorporate the strategic implications of tactical operations.

      Awesome to see the author participating here. Chris, to what extent did you apply Probabilistic Thinking (a topic do jour thanks to its inclusion in “Smarter Better Faster”), sort of a mashup between Boyd’s Loop and TLP/MDMP?

      Great piece of writing, thanks to all who produced and disseminated it.

      • Christopher Rance says:

        Actually it was the book Moneyball. I thought that the most inportant stat for the sniper was hit P, similar to how On base % was for baseball. Then shortly after I discovered Litz and his work and it was cool to see him and others before him already bringing Hit P to the discussion.

        With today’s software, such as AB Tac, I can emplace a team, enter in the variables and compute a Hit P. Now obviously it’s only a stat and its finite but it’s a great metric to start a baseline at.

        That metric drives your planning. It makes you rethink your hide site, your weapon system and if operating in a dense population, it can reassure a commander that if that sniper team had to engage that they carry a “high” or “low” confidence metric.

    • straps says:

      More interesting topic for discussion: We didn’t appear to have this “solution” In WWII.


      I get that Wikipedia is a crowdsourced repository of half-truths, but that NO Americans are mentioned during WWII is interesting.

  7. Airborne_fister says:

    As an FO. I have most certainly use that line. But more often it’s because of collateral damage. Such as a building or property.