The agency responsible for developing the Defense Department's next generation, science fiction-like technology is working to bring guided bullets that can change direction mid-flight to the military's most elite marksmen.
After successfully test firing a guided .50-caliber round this summer, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is now conducting "system-level" testing, which will help determine how a guided bullet would work with a service rifle on the battlefield.
In July, DARPA posted a video of testing for its Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance, or EXACTO program, in which several of the steerable rounds were deliberately fired off target. In the video, the bullet changes direction multiple times before striking the intended target, which was located to the left of the test's point of aim.
The new technology would be a welcome and useful development, but wouldn't replace the need for well-trained traditional sniper teams, said Ryan Innis, a former scout sniper with 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion. Innis, who left the Marine Corps as a sergeant in 2013 after serving on the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Units anti-piracy raid force near East Africa, said a guided bullet could make all Marines pinpoint marksmen.
"This is an amazing advancement in sniper technology and it will save countless American lives on the battlefield," he told Marine Corps Times. "It will turn any Marine into a precision shooter at extreme distances."
Still, he emphasized the need for skilled snipers.
"This technology cannot and should never replace the job of the sniper team," said Innis, who has extensive experience with .50-caliber rifles and now works as an instructor for Michigan-based Condition Zero Training Group. "Technology can fail at any given moment and shooters need to adapt to this and respond accordingly."
Not to mention, snipers have an array of other difficult to master skills. Those include getting into position without being detected, and surveillance and reconnaissance. They are invaluable as a commander's eyes on the battlefield.
It is not precisely clear where the current round of testing stands or what it has yielded so far, however. DARPA officials declined a request for an interview on the program and stated that the agency is not posting any updates at this time.
But the program's purpose is clear. To make snipers deadlier.
"The EXACTO system seeks to improve sniper effectiveness and enhance troop safety by allowing greater shooter standoff range and reduction in target engagement timelines," DARPA's website states. "The EXACTO 50-caliber round and optical sighting technology expects to greatly extend the day and nighttime range over current state-of-the-art sniper systems. The system combines a maneuverable bullet and a real-time guidance system to track and deliver the projectile to the target, allowing the bullet to change path during flight to compensate for any unexpected factors that may drive it off course."
Exactly how the bullet works is a closely guarded national secret. But past challenges to develop a steerable bullet have included creating electronics that are robust enough to withstand the monumental g-forces exerted as a bullet explodes from the barrel of a firearm.
The new round could eventually become a significant battlefield advantage for Marine snipers.
"For military snipers, acquiring moving targets in unfavorable conditions, such as high winds and dusty terrain commonly found in Afghanistan, is extremely challenging with current technology," the program's website states. "It is critical that snipers be able to engage targets faster, and with better accuracy, since any shot that doesn't hit a target also risks the safety of troops by indicating their presence and potentially exposing their location."
One novel use for the system Innis foresees is having a robotic setup holding and aiming the actual rifle. All a spotter would do is paint the target. Because the spotter would no long need to be shoulder-to-shoulder with a shooter, the auditory and visual signature of a shot fired wouldn't give up his location.