The three Navy SEAL snipers who killed the pirates off the coast of Somalia last weekend were lucky the buccaneers were gullible enough to allow their lifeboat to be towed farther out to sea by the U.S.S. Bainbridge. The shortened towline turned what could have been a trio of difficult shots across hundreds of yards of ocean into relatively easy 30-yd. pops. It's a safe bet future pirates won't be so naive. But the Pentagon is drawing up a project to make it easier to hit targets at much longer distances: a super-sniper rifle called the EXACTO, short for EXtreme ACcuracy Tasked Ordnance.
The highly-classified EXACTO program began a year ago, when the U.S. military's band of scientists and engineers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which played a key role in the creation of both the Internet and GPS let the military-industrial complex know it was seeking a supergun. "The ability to more accurately prosecute targets at significantly longer range would provide a dramatic new capability to the U.S. military," DARPA'S solicitation for bids said. "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." (See pictures of dramatic pirate-hostage rescues.)
The new .50 caliber gun and improved scope could employ "fire and forget" technologies including "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, optical resolution and clarity technologies." In other words, bullets that, once fired at a specific target, fly themselves into it by changing shape. The new gun should be no heavier than the combined 46-lb. weight of the current $11,500 M107 sniper rifle and all its associated gear (including ammo, tripod, scope and slide rules for target calculations). (See pictures of the brazen pirates of Somalia.)
In November, DARPA awarded Lockheed Martin $12.3 million and Teledyne Scientific & Imaging $9.5 million to begin work on the new weapon. If various technical hurdles are cleared, it could be available sometime around 2015.
DARPA says the Pentagon needs the vastly improved rifle because the use of snipers has ballooned from 250 to 800 annually. The sharpshooters require extensive and expensive training all of which could be reduced with a better gun. Snipers "are unable to take a shot the vast majority of the time" because of wind or other weather factors, and a lack of confidence in their ability to hit the target or flee if detected. Those shortcomings could be greatly reduced by the new longer-range rifle. How much longer range? "Specific system performance objectives (e.g., range, accuracy and target speed) are classified," the solicitation said. (See pictures of America's gun culture.)
Army Captain Keith Bell, former commander of the Army sniper school at Fort Benning, Ga., can't wait to get his hands on the new rifle. "The EXACTO would be revolutionary," he says. "It will more than double our range and probably more than double our accuracy." Current sniper rifles can regularly hit trucks at 2,000 meters, but not bad guys. (The record kill is 2,430 meters, just over 1.5 miles. It was charted by Canadian army corporal Rob Furlong against a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan's Shah-i-kot valley during Operation Anaconda in March 2002 but his first two shots missed.) "There's no limit as far as I can see so long as the bullet's stable I think 2,000 or 2,500 meters is very attainable," Bell says.
"Right now, anything past around 800 meters is an extremely tough shot," he added during a satellite telephone interview from Mosul, Iraq. "But this EXACTO will take the effects of wind, elevation and humidity all out of play." Bell spends his days training Iraqis as snipers and for other elements of the martial arts. Did he hear about what the Navy snipers did on Sunday? "Sure did," he said. "I'm jealous as hell."