The anti-psyker solution that Tau have been asking for all these years- Sniper Drones! What, you thought they weren’t going to solve all their problems with bullets? Click to read the updated CA2018 article, or check out the Tactics Corner for more reviews and strategies.
Sniper Drones are one of the many types of unique drone servitors employed by the Tau Empire in battle; like all drones, their A.I. is able to act independently of any outside command, but they work most efficiently when slaved to the greater targeting networks of a full cadre. With their long-range weaponry and advanced targeting sensors, a unit of Sniper Drones can pick out enemy leaders or the weak points on a vehicle at extreme distances and drive a pulse-bolt dead into the heart of them. Like many snipers, they employ advanced camouflage to hide themselves from the enemy- though in the Tau’s case this means sensor-baffling ECM suites and holographic stealth fields rather than merely draping themselves in greenery.
On the tabletop, Sniper Drones have a pretty typical statline for a drone. 8″ movement (with Fly) means that they can get across the battlefield reasonably well in a pinch, and toughness four with 4+ armor makes them more resilient than a lot of Tau units. Strength three and weapon skill 5+ are terrible, of course, but we can expect that from Tau generally; ballistic skill 5+ isn’t great, but since there are several ways to buff that (which we’ll discuss later) we can’t really hold it against them. Leadership six is pretty average, and since they come in small units it won’t typically be a problem- though it’s worth remembering that even a single casualty has the potential to send other models skittering off the table. At eighteen points per drone (with a unit size of three to nine), Sniper Drones aren’t particularly cheap and come in a bit more than most snipers from other factions do, but have some benefits to match.
Special Rules and Wargear
Each Sniper Drone is armed with a Longshot Pulse Rifle (48″ S5 AP0 Rapid Fire 1, 6s to wound are mortal, can target characters), which is a bit unusual in terms of overall statline but is better than a standard sniper rifle in almost every way. Not only is it higher strength (and thus forces more armor saves onto those often weakly-armored support characters), but it also has a longer range, can get multiple shots, and can fire on the move without penalty. All in all, we have to call it one of the best sniper weapons in the game.
Beyond that, Sniper Drones have the For the Greater Good ability (allowing them to support nearby units that are charged) and Savior Protocols (allowing them to take wounds for models in their vicinity), both of them quite standard. They also have Sniper Drone Stealth Fields, which force the enemy to subtract one from hit rolls when shooting if the Sniper Drones aren’t within 12″ of the shooter- this is a very nice defensive buff to have given how pricey they are, so we can call that a win as well.
Sniper Drones have an interesting place in the Tau arsenal; though a bit pricey overall (coming in about half again as expensive as other race’s snipers) and needing significant support in order to be functional, they are very flexible compared to other units of the same type and have a number of unique advantages that can easily see them take a place in many a Tau army. Although they haven’t gotten a ton of play in tournaments overall, they are certainly poised to do so if the meta changes sufficiently.
The first thing we should probably note about Sniper Drones is that they absolutely must be supported properly in order to work well. With only BS5+ native, they are laughably inaccurate without any help- but this can change significantly with the aid of the right units. Like all drones, Sniper Drones can benefit from a Drone Controller on a nearby battlesuit, giving them +1 to hit. (Note that this is a bonus to hit, not a change to their ballistic skill, which can make a big difference in terms of rerolls or when shooting a Culexus Assassin.) Additionally, if a friendly Firesight Marksman from the same sept can see the target they are shooting at, the Drones get a further +1 to hit with their shots- in other words, they can be buffed to functionally be hitting on a 3+, which is quite good for a Tau army. If you are really going all out, you can even get Markerlights onto their target, allowing them to reroll 1s or even get a further +1 to hit, potentially making them the most accurate unit in the Tau codex.
So all of that is obviously pretty great, in theory. It does mean you need to find a caddy for your Drone Controller, though, and this can often be a bit awkward. The ideal carrier would be a character, but the only characters who can legally take a Drone Controller are Commanders, and the hardpoints on a Commander’s battlesuit are always in high demand due to their excellent ballistic skill and other features- so while we can do this, the opportunity cost is rather high. Other battlesuits run into similar problems; Riptides and Ghostkeels all have really strong uses for their hardpoints, for example, and Crisis do as well (although they tend to be more plausible than the other options.) Our most likely candidates are typically Stealth Suits (who don’t have much need of other support systems and are tough enough to be an unwelcome shooting target) and Broadsides (which have similar weapon ranges and can potentially function without any support systems, depending on loadout.) Both have disadvantages of their own (range, mobility, etc), but can work fairly well as inclusions in an army and thus are well worth considering. Accepting the hit and putting it on a Commander is also sometimes worthwhile, especially if you are running enough other drones to warrant heavy use and are using the Commander in a role that will keep them in range of the drones consistently.
Sniper Drones also have another advantage that isn’t obvious to first glance: they occupy the heavy support battlefield role and are the cheapest unit in that slot by a long stretch. For a Tau player looking to fill out a brigade, this is an extremely crucial feature, as many of the other heavy support units don’t sync well with the typical Tau army’s battle plan and Sniper Drones can fill a critical niche when it comes to dealing with enemy characters that might otherwise be problematic (such as psykers.)
Outside of those differences, Sniper Drones are a fairly standard sniper unit in the game and thus have a lot of the same functionality that can be found across many factions. Though their range is a bit longer, they actually want to get closer in than most sniper units do in order to take advantage of rapid fire- without it, they end up being somewhat overcosted in summation, so you’re going to want to be moving them towards the enemy if the enemy doesn’t come to you. They often end up being an early target for the opponent’s guns due to the ability to pick off important characters, but when benefiting from cover and their innate -1 to hit, they are actually rather obnoxious to remove- though shots in bulk (from, say, Hurricane Bolters or the like) will still do the job handily. And, of course, like all Tau units and all snipers, they are quite vulnerable in melee, though the advantage of Fly shows through if they happen to survive the fight, as they can easily fall back and pummel their attackers with shots at no penalty.
We should take a moment to talk about those shots in particular here, as Sniper Drones at their ideal range are actually quite deadly, especially with the expected suite of buffs. Strength 5 means that they will put more saves than your average sniper onto a target, which is excellent against your Company Commanders, Warbosses, and Farseers out there which have middling armor saves to begin with, and the twinned shots stack up damage quick indeed. For times when you absolutely must kill a character (and have a good number of drones shooting), the Focus Fire stratagem from Tau Sept adds +1 to wound rolls on a target, which means you will be wounding on 2s and triggering mortal wounds on 5s in most cases- all but certain to do the job, though a rather expensive way to accomplish it. Still, sometimes the situation warrants, and in those cases the option is nice to have.
Sniper Drones are also useful even outside of killing characters due to the fairly flexible profile on their guns; though it’s not an ideal use, the ability to inflict mortal wounds makes them reasonable at taking down larger targets such as vehicles and monsters, even the T8 ones or those with invulnerable saves. Focus Fire, as mentioned above, is a common tactic against such targets and Sniper Drones benefit heavily from it; a couple squads of them can do a scary amount of work on a Knight or the like given how cheap they are and make themselves a priority in very short order. You certainly shouldn’t rely on them for such duties, as they can’t compare to “real” anti-tank shooting such as Railguns or Missile Pods, but as a supplementary option they certainly are no slouch.
We also shouldn’t underestimate the usefulness of their mobility; where most sniper units are limited to sitting in one place for the majority of the game, Sniper Drones can keep pace with your other units as needed and can even reposition themselves to take better advantage of firing lanes or to hop back out away from an incoming threat. The combination of a higher-than-average movement value with Fly makes them quite maneuverable (able to keep up with any suit of Crisis size or smaller) and they are wholly capable of taking or constesting objectives, getting secondary objectives such as Recon, or otherwise making their presence on the battlefield felt as needed.
Finally, it bears noting that Sniper Drones are, in fact, still drones and thus can protect your infantry and battlesuits in their vicinity in a pinch. While you won’t want to do this terribly often, since they are one of the most expensive drones around and thus probably not your first choice for sacrifices, the situation will often come up that you will have a critical model that you need to protect from a hit and Sniper Drones will be the only ones nearby- and in these cases, you shouldn’t feel at all bad about doing so. While their mortal wounds are nice to have, keeping a Riptide alive when it gets slammed by that Lascannon is far more important- to say nothing of stopping an Oathbreaker Missile that is trying to assassinate your warlord.
Like any sniper unit, facing down Sniper Drones can seem very frustrating at first, as their ability to target and eliminate your characters can be incredibly problematic for some armies. However, there are a number of ways you can mitigate this, arguably even more so than most sniper units, so it shouldn’t be a cause for despair. The easiest solution is simply not to let them shoot at you- which might seem like a silly thing to say, but we should keep in mind that they are still subject to all of the normal shooting restrictions outside of the character rule. Your characters can still hide behind walls (or other units like a Rhino), which can limit or eliminate their ability to fire at you. As many characters are used mostly for their auras or support abilities, they can function perfectly well without needing to see anything- and you can often string out members of a squad to keep them in range of an aura at a surprisingly long distance.
Sniper Drones are also not excessively difficult to kill, when it comes down to it- though that minus one is annoying, if you keep throwing your Lasguns, Heavy Bolters, and similar weapons at them they will go down without too much hassle. The threat of such anti-infantry weapons (which typically function best at shorter ranges) can also force the Sniper Drones to stay further back from you, preventing them from taking advantage of their rapid fire- and if you can halve the number of shots the enemy is getting, you’re already well on your way to winning the battle.
Although they aren’t one of the standout units of the codex, I think that Sniper Drones are arguably the best unit in their slot and certainly one of the most commonly-taken. With Tau being so hungry for command points, you’ll continue to see them used to fill out that all-important brigade detachment, especially anytime we see characters and their buffs become a significant part of the meta. Although they are acquired in perhaps the most awkward way possible in the Sniper Drone Team box, you’ll want some of those Firesight Marksmen to go with them (and to fill out your other Tau armies) regardless, so it’s not as though you’re being saddled with anything you don’t want.
As always, remember you can get your wargaming supplies at great discounts every day from the Frontline Gaming store, whether you’re looking to start a new army or expand an existing one.