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Snipers - Cowardly assassins, or surgical soldiers?

DARPA takes aim at guided smart-slug

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DARPA, the Pentagon boffins, reckon they have the answer - a smart bullet which adjusts course in flight, steering itself onto target. Like a smart bomb, the EXtreme ACcuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) slug will fly ballistically, without any propulsion of its own: but it will have steering.

According to DARPA:

The EXACTO Program is an advanced technology development and demonstration program to create a guided, actively controlled 50-caliber sniper rifle system with significantly improved range and accuracy over the current systems. Specific system performance objectives (e.g. range, accuracy, and target speed) are classified.

Technologies of interest may include: fin-stabilized projectiles, spin-stabilized projectiles, internal and/or external aero-actuation control methods, projectile guidance technologies, tamper proofing, small stable power supplies, and advanced sighting and optical resolution technologies.

The use of an actively controlled bullet will make it possible to counter environmental effects such as crosswinds and air density, and prosecute both stationary and moving targets while enhancing shooter covertness. This capability would have the further benefit of providing increased accuracy and range while reducing training requirements.

DARPA won't let anyone but those with security clearance know what range it's after, but does specify that the energy and momentum of the EXACTO slug must be equal to current .50 bullets. Given a working smartslug, there seems no reason why the full ballistic potential of cal-fifty rounds couldn't be achieved. Heavy .50 machine guns can pepper an area randomly with bullets from as far off as 7400m - three times as far as even Rob Furlong could shoot.

DARPA announced the EXACTO requirement in March, and this week has inked a $12m deal with US weapons giant Lockheed and another for nearly $10m with California firm Teledyne Scientific & Imaging, indicating that credible proposals have been received. (Of course, this is "credible" in the DARPA sense, meaning - in this case absolutely literally - "it's a hell of a long shot, but it just might work".)

It would seem, then, that the snipers of tomorrow might lurk four or five miles from their targets, illuminating them with targeting lasers and then squeezing off a casually-aimed smartslug to home in inevitably on the pointer dot. From DARPA's talk of "target speed" requirements, it seems certain that even if the victim moved away there might be no escape - as the dot moved, so the guided bullet would curve its flight path to follow.

Whether that means the end of the true sniper or just a logical progression is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

One thing's for sure. In an era where Western forces need to move about safely in hostile territory while causing the minimum amount of destruction and without killing people by mistake, better tools for snipers could be an excellent idea. ®

*The first figure is the calibre, or bullet diameter. The one after the "x" is the length of the cartridge, giving you some idea how powerful the powder charge is. It's included here to avoid confusion with other, less powerful cartridges of the same calibre. (The R on the Russian sniper round signified "rimfire" rather than the more common centre-fire round with the cap in the middle of the case base.) These figures are in millimetres.

**Hathcock remains probably the most famous sniper ever, certainly to other snipers. He logged 93 kills confirmed by independent witnesses, but most accounts agree that the majority of his tally were not confirmed and he probably surpassed two hundred in reality. He was said to have been dubbed "white feather" by the Viet Cong and People's Army of Vietnam, after a signature feather he wore in the band of his bush hat. It has also been said that the PAVN set a special bounty of $30,000 on his head, and that Hathcock killed many enemy snipers intent on collecting this prize. In one incident, shooting at one of these men, Hathcock's bullet flew down the other sniper's scope and killed him. When the enemy rifle was later recovered, Hathcock theorised that for this to happen the other man must have been zeroing in on him when hit - and had surely been just about to shoot. This incident was recycled in the Tom Berenger movie, Sniper.

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