We’ve been pretty high on precision guided weapons technology since the first time we saw a TOW do its thing. (And Javelin and other current weapons have answered most of the complaints about TOW since then). But in recent years, the promise of PGWs has migrated down into the small arms world, thanks to the same combination of Moore’s Law, free-flying science and nitty-gritty engineering that gives us everything from rapid genome sequencing to haptics and 3D printing.
We’ve been pretty impressed with the precision-guided rifles and Tag / Track / XACT technology of Tracking Point. So what comes after that? DARPA says: precision-guided, steerable bullets. They call the program, in a felicitous acronym, EXACTO, Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance. Like the Javelin and the Tracking Point PGW, it seems to tag a target and then pursue it relentlessly.
DARPA recently released the above video, along with this blurb:
DARPA’s Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program, which developed a self-steering bullet to increase hit rates for difficult, long-distance shots, completed in February its most successful round of live-fire tests to date. An experienced shooter using the technology demonstration system repeatedly hit moving and evading targets. Additionally, a novice shooter using the system for the first time hit a moving target.
This is not too different from what TrackingPoint does now, in terms of results. What is different is how the EXACTO round functions.
This video shows EXACTO rounds maneuvering in flight to hit targets that are moving and accelerating. EXACTO’s specially designed ammunition and real-time optical guidance system help track and direct projectiles to their targets by compensating for weather, wind, target movement and other factors that can impede successful hits.
You can see from the video that they’re getting hits on their e-type silhouette, but they don’t appear to be getting center of mass hits. Still, it’s an admirable case of the dog walking on his hind legs, and this suggests that the science is licked, and what remains from here on out is simply engineering. (Not trivial, engineering, but once the science has shown that something is possible, it’s up to the engineers to find elegant and practical ways of doing it).
One significant difference between this and Tracking Point’s technology (so far) is that TP uses a bespoke or customized weapon; according to DARPA, EXACTO works with an ordinary rifle, only the optoelectronics and ammunition are changed.
It’s not rifle-caliber, as usually designated, yet; this demo is with a .50 caliber smart projectile.
“True to DARPA’s mission, EXACTO has demonstrated what was once thought impossible: the continuous guidance of a small-caliber bullet to target,” said Jerome Dunn, DARPA program manager. “This live-fire demonstration from a standard rifle showed that EXACTO is able to hit moving and evading targets with extreme accuracy at sniper ranges unachievable with traditional rounds. Fitting EXACTO’s guidance capabilities into a small .50-caliber size is a major breakthrough and opens the door to what could be possible in future guided projectiles across all calibers.”
The EXACTO program developed new approaches and advanced capabilities to improve the range and accuracy of sniper systems beyond the current state of the art. The program sought to improve sniper effectiveness and enhance troop safety by allowing greater shooter standoff range and reduction in target engagement timelines. For more information, please visit the program page.
OK, so let’s visit the program page, shall we?
Turns out, there’s not all that much there. We do get an uninformative 3D rendering of an EXACTO projectile, but that’s about it. There is a suggestion that the steering of the bullet is aerodynamic in principle.
The EXACTO 50- caliber round and optical sighting technology was developed to greatly extend the day and nighttime range over current state-of-the-art sniper systems. The system combined a maneuverable bullet and a real-time guidance system to track and deliver the projectile to the target, allowing the bullet to change path during flight to compensate for any unexpected factors that may drive it off course.
Technology development in Phase II included the design, integration and demonstration of aero-actuation controls, power sources, optical guidance systems, and sensors. The program concluded with a system-level live-fire test.
In 2009, the project was described as follows [.pdf]:
Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO)* *Formerly Laser Guided Bullet.
(U) The Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program is developing a system that provides sniper teams with the ability to identify and engage targets with heretofore unobtainable range and accuracy against stationary and moving targets under difficult environmental conditions, either day or night. The system uses a combination of a maneuverable bullet and a real-time guidance system to track the target and deliver the projectile to target. Technology development includes the design and integration of aero-actuation controls, power sources, and sensors. The components must fit into the limited volume (2cm to the third power) of a 50-caliber projectile and be designed to withstand a high acceleration environment. When integrated and tested, this system will greatly increase the effectiveness of two-man sniper teams, regardless of the environmental conditions and the time of day. The EXACTO technology is planned for transition to the Army by FY 2012.
FY 2009 Plans:
– Design guidance system.
– Design maneuverable projectile.
– Construct all novel 1x scale components.
– Measure component and subsystem performance in appropriate environments.
An Air University paper said this of EXACTO, comparing it to aviation precision guided munitions programs:
Foot soldiers are often left out of consideration when money is spent on precision weapons. The DARPA Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) is a command-guided .50 Cal sniper round designed to put long range, pinpoint precision in the hands of a common soldier. The system works by tracking a target with an infrared spotter’s scope that doubles as a command- guidance tracker. The .50 Cal bullet is fired and responds to trajectory commands sent by the scope (which tracks the target and bullet). The system accounts for wind, moving targets, and provides accuracy at range that normally requires years of sniper training to achieve. The EXACTO program not only gives sniper capabilities to common foot soldiers, it ensures a kill on the first shot, and enables moving target capabilities that have until now only been available to tactical aircraft and UAVs. In this case, the range is far shorter than HTV-21 or T32, but the strategic implications of super-sniper-battalions may prove even more deterring to an enemy force. For years, the real practical advantage US soldiers held over adversary soldiers came in the form of the air power watching over. EXACTO aims to enable America’s soldiers to enjoy technological advantages its airmen have enjoyed for decades.3
Although EXACTO was indeed scheduled to conclude in 2012 [.pdf], and some DARPA pages refer to it in the past tense, but the live fire test video shown here was shot in 2015 and only released in April (in-house, 10 Apr 15, to the public, 27 Apr 15).
- HTV-2: Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2.
- T3: Triple Target Terminator-3, an experimental missile that combined a ramjet sustainer with a rocket booster in the form factor of a pre-existing missile.
- Nielsen, Michael B. (Maj., USAF). Addressing Future Technology Challenges through Innovation and Investment . March, 2012: Air University, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.