Every once in a while, when I'm looking to learn something completely new and random, I head over to DARPA's website, to browse around and see the possible technologies of the future. And today I found a little gem: the Extreme Accuracy Tactical Ordinance (EXACTO) program.
By way of a brief summary, DARPA paints the picture of an extremely accurate 50 caliber rifle with maneuverable bullets, which it claims will radically increase the range and accuracy of two-man sniper teams. It vaguely mentions a 'real-time guidance system', but understandably doesn't say more. There's no mention, of course, of how close this technology is to full development. (I'm not the only one to find this fascinating, it also received a write-up at WIRED.
My initial guess is that DARPA hopes to create something like the laser-guided smart bombs that have been used in our recent wars. In this case, I can imagine a spotter who gets much closer to the target and lights him up with a laser (the range of the laser obviously becomes important here). Then the bullet would have some sort of fins that allow slight adjustments to hone in on the spot. However, its also possible the technology would allow the target to be marked in advance (imagine a James Bond type sticking something to the back of a jacket) so the spotter can get away before the shot is fired.
According to a quick web search, the farthest shot to kill a human target ever was about a mile and a half. If this technology can double that and make such long-distance shots more accurate, assassinations would become easier by an order of magnitude. (Imagine being in charge of securing all the possible firing positions within over 20 square miles.) But the interesting question is whether and how we would use this technology if we had it available. Right now, we're using Predator drones to kill a lot of Al Qaeda types. In the future, will we once again opt for the bullet over the bomb? Or is ordering a person shot, instead of a target bombed, a little too real for leaders detached from the fight?