Military Snipers Could Soon Be Using “Guided” Bullets

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Key Point: DARPA has been quiet on the project since 2014.

One of the most chal­leng­ing roles in ground units is that of a mil­i­tary sniper. Military snipers must take long dis­tance shots with pre­ci­sion rifles, often doing a fair amount of math in their heads to make a bullet reach its target. A new guided-bullet tech­nol­o­gy, how­ev­er, promis­es to make longer dis­tance shots a little easier by installing guid­ance sys­tems in bul­lets.

The mis­sion of the sniper is to take out tar­gets at ranges far­ther than your typ­i­cal rifle­man, from five hun­dred yards out to two thou­sand yards. Snipers rely on spe­cial­ized train­ing, accur­ized, high power rifles and qual­i­ty optics to reli­ably hit tar­gets that are often mere specks on the hori­zon. These tar­gets typ­i­cal­ly include any­thing from spe­cial­ized enemy troops (engi­neers, heavy weapon oper­a­tors) to com­mand, con­trol, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tar­gets (radio oper­a­tors, offi­cers.) Snipers may also engage mate­r­i­al tar­gets, such as anten­nas, air­craft and light vehi­cles.

In addi­tion to mere dis­tance, snipers must con­tend with the tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions of their weapons and physics to make long range shots. Once they exit the barrel, bul­lets imme­di­ate­ly start slow­ing down as grav­i­ty begins to exert an influ­ence. This causes bul­lets to travel in a grad­ual down­ward arc. Bullets are also vul­ner­a­ble to weath­er con­di­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly wind, and are increas­ing­ly vul­ner­a­ble to envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions as they lose veloc­i­ty.

Snipers, armed with bal­lis­tic data based on pre­vi­ous engage­ments, can often pre­dict how a bullet will travel under local con­di­tions. A sniper, for exam­ple, would know how much a 7.62-millimeter bullet would drop at a range of eight hun­dred yards, and how a six-mile-an-hour cross­wind will blow the bullet off course. Armed with this knowl­edge snipers can adjust their weapons accord­ing­ly to place a bullet on target at ranges of up to a mile — or more.

A sniper can reli­ably over­come the effects of dis­tance, though the act of col­lect­ing needed data (dis­tance, wind speed, humid­i­ty) to deter­mine course cor­rec­tions delays the shot. One method of sim­pli­fy­ing this is to use a bal­lis­tic com­put­er that auto­mat­i­cal­ly col­lects the data and projects an adjust­ed aiming point onto a sniper scope dis­play. Another is to make the bullet itself a guided weapon.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has taken the latter approach. EXACTO, or Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance bul­lets turns .50 cal­iber bul­lets into guided rounds capa­ble of zero­ing in on a target. Although DARPA is mum on how it does this, other sites report that the tech­nol­o­gy involves opti­cal sen­sors in the nose of the bullet and fins capa­ble of adjust­ing the bullet’s flight path in the tail. The opti­cal sensor appar­ent­ly homes in on a spot illu­mi­nat­ed by a laser des­ig­na­tor. The guid­ance system is sim­i­lar to laser-guided weapons such as the Maverick and Hellfire laser-guided mis­siles. The bullet is even capa­ble of making some remarkably sharp course cor­rec­tions.

DARPA claims that the system is so easy to use that during test­ing, “a novice shoot­er using the system for the first time hit a moving target.” This leads us to an advan­tage the EXACTO tech­nol­o­gy has over bal­lis­tic com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy: while bal­lis­tic com­put­ers can turn ordi­nary weapons into pre­ci­sion guided ones, once the bullet is fired the com­put­er can no longer assist the shot. If the target moves during the bullet’s rel­a­tive­ly brief — but not insignif­i­cant flight time — the shot misses. EXACTO, on the other hand, con­tin­ues to guide the bullet toward the target, to the point where it is capa­ble of engag­ing a moving target.

EXACTO tech­nol­o­gy promis­es to rev­o­lu­tion­ize snip­ing. Snipers can now engage tar­gets more quick­ly and with greater accu­ra­cy at longer ranges, allow­ing them to do their jobs more safely and effi­cient­ly. EXACTO is unaf­fect­ed by sudden envi­ron­men­tal changes, such as a sudden gust of wind. A guided bullet capa­ble of hit­ting moving tar­gets could be very useful against drones and unmanned aerial vehi­cles.

The tech­nol­o­gy does have a few down­sides. If EXACTO does use a laser des­ig­na­tor to mark a target that laser is vis­i­ble under the right cir­cum­stances, alert­ing those being tar­get­ed. Even worse, the laser beam will point direct­ly to the the person lasing the target. The system will also need a long-last­ing power supply, as a sniper may need to wait for hours for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to take a shot.

In 2014, DARPA announced it was work­ing toward EXACTO system in a deploy­able weapon that weighs no more than forty-six pounds with a four­teen-hour power supply. The guided round should have the same bal­lis­tic per­for­mance as the M33 .50 cal­iber bullet beyond ranges of three hun­dred meters. The hard­est part of cre­at­ing a deploy­able weapon system may be the cost: DARPA wanted a weapon inex­pen­sive enough to actu­al­ly deploy with the troops.

DARPA has gone quiet on EXACTO and has not released any details since 2014. This sug­gests one of two things: the pro­gram was defund­ed in favor of other projects or it has entered clas­si­fied ser­vice with some arm of the Pentagon, pos­si­bly U.S. Special Operations Command. Given the obvi­ous util­i­ty of such a weapon the latter seems more likely. EXACTO is an ideal weapon for long dis­tance shoot­ing in places such as north­ern Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. It’s pos­si­ble EXACTO, or some mod­ern­ized ver­sion there­of, is in ser­vice right now some­where around the world.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and nation­al-secu­ri­ty writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the  Diplomat, Foreign Policy , War is Boring and the Daily Beast . In 2009, he cofound­ed the defense and secu­ri­ty blog  Japan Security Watch . You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

This arti­cle first appeared in 2018.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps / Flickr

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