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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Economist November 21, 2015

Enemy at the gates

New technology is improving military sharpshooters' range and accuracy

FOR so long as there are wars to fight, the contest to have the best weaponry will continue. The attacks in Paris on November 13th, and their aftermath, will only reinforce this quest. Sniper technology is an area of particular interest to Western commanders. Where those faced by the armed might of the world's great powers prefer the tactics of insurgency, military types particularly value the ability to hit a picked target at distance. And, unlike other forms of "precision" attack, such as drone strikes, sniping rarely kills nearby civilians.

Nor are sniper bullets merely anti-personnel weapons. At the moment, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a think-tank in Virginia, one of the best of them is the Raufoss MK211, made by Nammo, a Norwegian firm. This can penetrate 15mm of steel at a range of more than 500 metres, even when fired at an oblique angle of as little as 30° to the target. Moreover, once it has penetrated, a fuse sets off both an explosive charge (to spray shrapnel) and an incendiary one (to ignite any leaking fuel). According to Vegard Sande, one of Nammo's engineers, a single MK211 shot can destroy a helicopter.

For all its sophistication, though, the MK211 is still a dumb round. Once it has left the gun's muzzle, its destiny is determined. In many ways, it is yesterday's weapon. In ballistics, as in so many other fields of technology, the fashion is now for introducing "smartness."

Snipers like to create an aura of lone-wolf mystique around themselves–an image reinforced by their portrayals in books and films. In fact, a sniper almost always relies on a spotter to feed him information about a target's location. He may also need assistance in dealing with the long list of things that could cause him to miss–from crosswinds to the rotation of the Earth. Coping with them can require complex mathematical calculations. One way to simplify matters would be to make bullets that know where they are going and can change course in mid-flight to get there. And one such has been designed at Sandia National Laboratories, an American government establishment in New Mexico.

No hiding place

In one sense, this new bullet takes a step backwards. Rifled barrels–which have helical grooves that impart flight-stabilising spin to a bullet–turned muskets from things useful only when fired en masse into instruments of assassination, and thus ushered in the profession of sniper. In a reversion to 18th-century practice the new bullet, which has not yet been given a name, is fired from a smoothbore barrel. But its resemblance to a musket ball ends there. Rather, it is a pointed projectile with fins, actuators that can change the trim of those fins, an on-board computer to control the actuators, an optical sensor in its tip that tells the computer where the target is, and a lithium battery to power the lot. To protect the fins it is cradled for firing in structures called sabots. These fall off once the bullet has left the barrel.

The sensor knows where to steer the bullet because the sniper's spotter is shining an infrared laser at the target. Infrared is invisible, so the target cannot see this, but the laser's reflection lets the computer adjust the bullet's trim 30 times a second, so even a moving target cannot escape.

Designing such a device is not, in fact, that hard–except for one thing. All the kit within it has to survive an acceleration 120,000 times that of the Earth's gravitational pull when the gun is fired. But Sandia's engineers have managed to make that happen, and licences to manufacture the device are now available.

A second dodging-and-weaving bullet, EXACTO, is also under development in America. Its design is being overseen by DARPA, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the defence department. Unlike the Sandia bullet, EXACTO is spin-stabilised and can thus be fired from a standard 12.7mm rifle.

How such a finless projectile is steered is one of DARPA's secrets. Another is how it is told where to go. Unlike the Sandia bullet, EXACTO relies on a signal coming from its controllers rather than a reflection from the target. Spin-generated air turbulence would be expected to interfere with this. In the case of EXACTO, though, it doesn't. DARPA's engineers have also, according to Steve Sampson of Cubic Global Defense, a contractor working on EXACTO, managed to harden the electronics involved to withstand the centrifugal force imparted by the spin, as well as the force of the initial acceleration. No announcement has been made about when this bullet will be deployed. Indeed, no announcement may ever be made. It may just happen, to the discomfort of America's enemies.

A third type of smart round, which is guided in another way again from the Sandia bullet and EXACTO, is the XM25, developed by Alliant Techsystems, a weapons company that is now part of OrbitalATK. This is designed for times when a sniper does not have a clear line of sight to his target–if the man is dug in, for example. It is spin-stabilised, and its internal computer counts the number of revolutions it has made. That tells it how far it has travelled. When it is directly over the target it explodes, scattering shrapnel. It has already been combat-tested in Afghanistan and, though there have been problems with it (an American soldier was slightly injured by one misfiring in his gun during training), the idea is that it will be deployed in earnest in 2017.

Guided bullets of this sort promise to transform sniping. Increased accuracy means a marksman can be farther from his target when he fires. He need not even have a clear line of sight, so long as his spotter does. And guided bullets will also make snipers' own lives safer. One of the biggest threats they face is the use by potential targets of arrays of microphones that feed the sound of incoming bullets to a computer which triangulates the sniper's position. Such detectors can aim a machine gun at the apparent source of incoming rounds. But this works only if the apparent source is the real source. Guided bullets can arrive from an angle that deceives the equipment into wasting its fire on empty landscape.

Nor is making bullets smart the only way to increase accuracy. Making guns smart works too. This is the approach taken by TrackingPoint, a Texan firm. Its system collects and crunches almost all the variables (distance to target; air temperature and pressure; compass bearing, to allow for the Earth's spin; and even the size of the area on the target that will produce a kill) which might cause a dumb round to miss. The sniper has only to add wind speed and direction, and then pull the trigger. The gun waits until its calculations suggest all is well before firing the bullet. According to John McHale, TrackingPoint's boss, a marksman can "close his eyes at this point and just wiggle his gun" until it fires. If that is even approximately true, it raises an interesting question: is the job of sniper, which was created by technological advance, about to be abolished by it?

That question may be answered soon. Unlike the Sandia bullet and EXACTO, TrackingPoint's system is now available–and more than 45 of the world's defence ministries would, indeed, like to avail themselves of it. At the moment, unless their address is in Arlington, Virginia, they cannot; the American government has forbidden the system's export. This, though, has not stopped people trying. TrackingPoint has suffered so many cyber attacks that details are now kept strictly offline. Yet sooner or later, the secret will out. When it does, the mystique of the sniper may simply evaporate, as every infantry grunt in an army that can afford it becomes a sharpshooter in his own right.

Copyright 2015, The Economist Newspaper Limited