Laser-Guided Bullets: Pentagon Pursuit

By Noah Shachtman EmailJune 27, 2007 | 12:29:27 PMCategories: Ammo and Munitions, DarpaWatch, Guns

American soldiers have been using laser scopes for a long time, to make their shots more accurate.  But what if the bullets themselves were steered by lasers, and able to turn on a dime?  That’s the idea behind a new, $7.5 million Darpa initiative to be a “laser-guided bullet.”

Bullet_from_revolver_1The Pentagon’s way-out research agency has been working hard, lately, to figure out ways to make already-deadly snipers even more lethal — designing scopes that automatically compensate for the elements, for instance.

Similarly, this precision-bullet push is meant to “significantly improve first shot effectiveness in engaging distant enemy forces,” Pentagon budget documents promise.   To make it happen, however, researchers will have to design whole “new guidance technologies, such as compact MEMS-based thrusters” and “initial side-thrust technologies with sufficient authority to move a projectile in flight.”  In addition, the ammo will need “high stress-tolerant electronics in the guided bullet and new compact targeting systems robust to field operations under a variety of conditions.”

In 1998, a North Carolina inventor patented a laser-guided bullet design to do just that.  Ammo-maker Alliant Techsystems was granted a patent last year for radar-directed bullets that promise “improved kills per round, with the potential for reducing the ammunition expended and time-loading on the fire control system and its guns.”

At stake, of course, is more than just a few extra cases of ammo.  It used to take a whole bunch of bombs — causing a whole bunch of civilian casualties — to knock out a single target.  Then came the laser-guided munition. Aerial warfare became more precise.  “Friendly fire” deaths and so-called “collateral damage”  dropped, accordingly.  Now, the Pentagon is looking to bring that kind of accuracy to all kinds of weapons, from  artillery shells to mortars.  Bullets could be the next step, some day.

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