The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DARPA’s new experimental sniper bullet can turn in mid-flight

The Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program, funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, recently conducted the first successful live-fire tests of its new, experimental .50-caliber sniper ammunition. As shown by the green path above, its flight path can be adjusted while in mid-air. (YouTube screen grab)

For as long as armed marksmen have stalked the world’s battlefields, they have been celebrated for their cunning, their expertise and their toughness. But snipers always have had weaknesses, especially when it comes to hitting targets when the weather is bad or the rifle in hand isn’t equipped to get the job done.

If the Pentagon has its way, U.S. snipers may get a boost, though. Scientists working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, are working on experimental .50-caliber ammunition that can adjust flight paths after being fired from a weapon. Check out this new video, which the agency recently released:

The test flights were conducted earlier this year, DARPA officials said, and are part of an effort known as the Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance program, or EXACTO. It isn’t clear whether that’s meant to be any kind of reference to X-Acto, a brand of precision knives that are used by craftsmen and produced by Elmer’s Products Inc.

DARPA says on its EXACTO Web site that the goal is to improve sniper effectiveness and troop safety by allowing for greater shooter standoff ranges.

“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,” DARPA said. “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.”

Program officials have released few details about their plan so far. EXACTO ammo uses an undisclosed guidance system to track and put the rifle round on target, allowing it to change path during flight to compensate for unexpected factors, according to DARPA.

U.S. snipers use multiple kinds of ammunition, but the .50-caliber round is the most common large one. While I was embedded with a Marine sniper unit in Afghanistan in 2012, they told me they were frustrated with the capability gaps between their rifle and ammunition options. The massive .50-caliber M107 rifle they used could knock down targets at 2,000 meters, but it was not accurate enough to consistently hit a target at that length through the foot-wide holes in building walls that Taliban machine gun teams used to fire on U.S. troops, they said.

The smaller rifles those Marines had — the 7.62mm M40A5, in particular — are more accurate, but the rifle rounds slow down through the air after about 800 meters, making it more difficult to strike enemy fighters at more than 1,000 meters. Taliban machine gun teams frequently engaged the Marines at about 1,200, they said.

DARPA has several other projects that it released new information about last week. In one, it is working with the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Pennsylvania to develop programmable devices that can be implanted in the brain to help with post-traumatic stress. UCLA received $15 million, while Penn received $22 million, DARPA said.

The organization also is working on a program to better integrate infantry squads — rank-and-file combat troops — with the military intelligence that already has been gathered. DARPA released this image to help describe it:

In particular, Squad X calls for digitized electronics that allows combat troops to quickly share information about their environment and potential threats with one another through electronics, including sensors and streaming full-motion video. The organization is taking informational “white papers” from private companies through Aug. 4, and will accept full proposals by Oct. 3, DARPA officials said.