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Friday, May 18, 2012 11:00:00

David Axe headshot


Snipers are an infantry soldier’s worst nightmare. They can strike with no warning, often when you least expect it, almost always firing at long range and from concealment. The only thing that protects the average grunt from the sniper’s killing prowess is the sheer difficulty in hitting a man-sized target at extreme ranges with a tiny projectile. Sniping is deadly, but luckily for a shooter’s targets, it’s also really hard.

But that could change. New, guided “smart” bullets, in development for nearly 15 years, are primed to make the long-range, single-shot kill a routine affair for US military snipers. Smart rifle rounds are an important part of the player’s arsenal in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier™. In the game, as in real life, there’s no running or hiding when a bullet can follow you. “Once the target has been acquired and is visible, [guided] rounds will always hit their mark,” says Tray Epperly, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier’s weapons designer.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has been working on maneuverable bullets since the late 1990s. The military has possessed modern guided bombs and missiles since the 1970s, but it took another 20 years for computers and sensors to get small enough to fit inside a bullet.

In 1999, DARPA estimated a guided bullet could double a sniper’s effectiveness. But it wouldn’t be cheap. The agency estimated just one smart round would cost up to $1,000, compared to pennies for a traditional cartridge. But the Pentagon determined that the prospect of a can’t-miss supersniper was worth the expense.

It took another eight years for the technology to mature. In 2007, DARPA launched the $22-million EXtreme ACcuracy Tasked Ordnance initiative (EXACTO). In January this year, Sandia National Laboratories, based in California and New Mexico, began testing a smart, .50-caliber round that uses a highly sensitive laser detector to follow a laser pointer. The bullet corrects its course 30 times per second using tiny fins.

The Sandia Corporation claims its smart bullets reliably hit within eight inches of their laser aim points over a distance of a mile, compared to unguided rounds that usually miss by nine yards. That’s precise enough to strike fear in the hearts of any enemy. DARPA expects to produce the first combat-ready guided sniper rounds by the fall of 2012.

In Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, US and Bodark commando scouts use EXACTO rounds in a wide range of sniper weapons. Technically, the game’s smart rounds are no different than the real-world models, with few couple exceptions. “Because of the physical requirements of including a system that adjusts the trajectory of the projectile, EXACTO rounds deal less damage than standard ammo types,” Epperly says.

The other major difference is their cost. The high price of guided bullets will likely force the Pentagon to save them for the most critical missions. In Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, players don’t have to worry about receiving a million-dollar invoice every time they burn through a case of EXACTO rounds. “The Ghosts and Bodark are elite forces,” Epperly says. “Whatever equipment they need, they get.”

The elite forces’ arsenal of special equipment even includes cutting-edge virtual-reality displays that can decode battlefield chaos. More on that “augmented reality” in a later dispatch!



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