New .50-caliber bullets that can change direction after they have been fired could make soon make U.S. military snipers more deadly.
The EXACTO program — or Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance — is being developed by California's Teledyne Scientific & Imaging, LLC at the behest of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, according to a DARPA video posted on Youtube.
"The objective of the EXACTO program is to revolutionize rifle accuracy and range by developing the first ever guided small-caliber bullet," DARPA officials said in a July statement accompanying the video. "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 specially designed ammunition can change direction in midair.
How that is done remains a tightly held secret. The Defense Department and its related agencies declined to comment.
DARPA's statement announced that testing had been successful, a historical first. The video shows two rounds of testing, in February and April. A bullet was deliberately fired off target both times, then changed path. In the second test, it appears to have struck the intended target.
Snipers generally operate in two-man teams — a shooter and a spotter — who have to make adjustment for a number of factors once they're in position.
For instance, DARPA says sniper teams find places like Afghanistan, with its high winds and dusty terrain, extremely challenging. The Defense Department believes it is "critical" that snipers engage targets faster and more accurately, which will likely increase safety by concealing their location longer.
DARPA hopes to give them EXACTO soon.
The program's second phase, completed over the summer, provided a number of improvements, and the current phase will focus on a system-level live-fire test and further refinements, the statement said.
Weapons experts applauded the breakthrough, but they wonder if the technology will translate to success in the field.
Ted Gatchel, professor emeritus at the Naval War College and expert in amphibious warfare, fortifications and small arms, said he doesn't see a moral dilemma, as guided artillery and bombs are already staples of a modern military, but he has reservations about feasibility. Sniper teams already carry a large amount of gear with them. Gatchel didn't see how it would be possible to add to that load.
He also saw potential issues with getting off a fast second shot.
After a miss, a team's spotter generally counsels the shooter on adjustments based on where the first shot hit, or if they are successful, they move to a secondary target. They then take an almost immediate second shot.
Inserting technology into the process could potentially impact that speed.
He also wondered if a person's reflexes in guidance, as high-velocity rounds travel faster than sound, would be an issue.
"I don't know if you push a button and it takes over," Gatchel said. "I just couldn't find out enough about the system to know how it works."
Gatchel also saw potential pitfalls in inserting technology into an arena marked by rough terrain, rain and sand. He used the analogy that a map will still work with a bullet hole in it, while a tablet or a computer might not.
"You still need to train these snipers in the traditional methods," he said. "Right now, sniping is a real precise art."
Gatchel said if the program truly works, there is good reason to keep it highly classified, which led him to several other considerations that will likely be taken up by military officials.
Concepts generally precede the ability of technology to execute them, Gatchel said. He pointed to Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of a multibarreled gun that foresaw the invention of the machine gun but couldn't be realized until the perfection of the self-contained metallic cartridge.
The ability of the enemy to come up with effective countermeasures must also be taken into consideration.
In World War II, the Germans employed a radio-controlled bomb called the Fritz X, Gatchel said, that sank the Italian battleship Roma and damaged a number of ships during the Allied landing at Salerno. Within just a few months, the Allies had developed a means of jamming the radio controls, thus rendering the bombs ineffective.
And some weapons are so lethal that fears over the enemy capturing them and either reverse engineering or developing countermeasures can limit, or outweigh, their use.
Iran recently claimed to have successfully reverse engineered a RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone that it captured.
Taking all of that into account, technological advances such as EXACTO can often contribute to or improve existing programs — or perhaps be used for something else altogether, Gatchel said. So even if it doesn't find its way to the battlefield, it can still be beneficial.
"I never think it's a bad idea to try something out," Gatchel said. But "if it works, you can't argue against that."