16 January 2014

Smart Rifles Exemplify The Threats Our Forces Will Face In The Next War

What Are Smart Rifles?

In a nutshell, a smart rifle is a targeting system for sniper rifles that allows total novices to shoot with more than twice the accuracy of military snipers and sharpshooters at ranges of about 1000 yards (e.g. about seven city blocks in central Denver) at a cost of about $27,000. This cost is in the same vicinity as the least expensive and smallest guided missiles and guided artillery rounds, but can be used over and over again for negligible ammunition costs using rounds that can be purchased at any Wal-Mart, Big Five, or gun shop.

The component parts and software languages used are basically commercial, off the shelf items, and much of the process, of assembling them into a completed targeting system is simple enough for amateurs to assemble from kits in their own homes. It is easily integrated with a wide variety of underlying rifles. At this point, they systems can be purchased by anyone who can legally buy a rifle. In contrast, small guided missiles and guided artillery rounds are generally available only to military and paramilitary forces.

Smart Rifles Could Be Game Changing

A couple year old start up company with fewer than a hundred employees without any government R&D funding has made one of the most significant developments in the rifle since the laser target identifier for a fairly affordable price for a cutting edge weapons system.

In new conflicts, smart rifles could rival the importance of the IED in recent counterinsurgency operations. 

Historically, using rifles accurately at ranges of a thousand years has been a skill limited to an elite subset of soldiers (and assassins) who have honed their skills through years of Olympic class training. These sharpshooters have been particularly scarce in armies made up mostly of draftees with short one or two year tours of duty and in armies in the developing world and Third World with inferior resources for both training and equipment. Moreover, even the elites miss targets at thousand yard ranges seven or eight times out of ten on their first shot.

With a smart rifle system and an expenditure of just a few million dollars, comparable to the cost of a single modern tank, and enough training to bring soldiers to above the novice level, a country or rebel group could field a full company of soldiers who miss targets at thousand year ranges less perhaps one time out of twenty on their first shot. Ambush tactics for units like that could easily shift the balance of military power in a war like the one currently being waged in Syria.

Also, smart rifles are small and portable enough that they could not immediately be purged by a more advanced military force that could leverage control of the airspace and a monopoly on heavy and hard to hide weapons systems from insurgents.

Alternately, a rifle equipped with this kind of targeting system allows anyone with enough funds to buy an new mid-grade SUV or sedan or pickup truck for cash, intent on assassinating someone or going on a killing spree, to have the shooting accuracy that in 2010 was restricted to the best U.S. military snipers with minimal practice. From the perspective of someone like a Secret Service agent, the increased accuracy at long range of a smart rifle means that the area that needs to be checked and cleared of potential snipers other than true professionals is increased by a factor of 25 to 100 relative to the situation before smart rifles were available. 

The relative simplicity of the system and ordinariness of the components that go into it mean that preventing it from proliferating worldwide is almost impossible. The design could probably be reverse engineered and converted into a shopping list for common parts, software file, assembly manual and set of 3-D printer part designs in a matter of days by a properly trained professional and then transmitted in a single encrypted e-mail anywhere in the world where production could be set up locally. Even without truly reverse engineering it, a knowledgeable person given a few hours or couple of days with one could probably gain enough of an understanding of how it works conceptually to create a comparable system in a matter of weeks, rather than the years that went into designing the original.

Selected Data Points From The Source Story
The U.S. military has begun testing several so-called smart rifles made by the applied technology start-up TrackingPoint Inc., company officials said. The Army is rumored to have acquired six of the precision-guided firearms, which cost as much as $27,000 apiece. Oren Schauble, a marketing official with the Austin, Texas-based company, confirmed the military bought a handful of them in recent months for evaluation. . . . 
With only a few minutes of instruction on the weapon, this correspondent was able to hit a target almost 1,000 yards away on the first shot. Of the 70 or so reporters and other novice shooters who tested the weapon on Monday at a range in Boulder City, Nev., only one or two missed the target, which was located about 980 yards away, according to Schauble. “That is a better day than usual,” he said. “I would say we’re at about 70 percent first-shot success probability at 1,000 yards … with inexperienced shooters.” By comparison, military snipers and sharpshooters have a first-shot success rate of between 20 percent and 30 percent, said Schauble, a relative of the firm’s Chief Executive Officer Jason Schauble. They usually reach about 70 percent on subsequent shots, he said. . . . 
When asked whether the product has encountered resistance from military marksmen, Schauble said, “This is not necessarily for them. This is for guys who don’t have that training who need to perform in greater capabilities. This is more for your average soldier.” 
While the company built the rifle for the commercial market, it quickly realized the potential applications for the military and defense sector, especially as battlefields become more networked, Schauble said. “Rifles can communicate with each other,” he said. “We can enable a more information-driven combat in the sense that you can tag targets. You can pass off those targets to someone else with a scope. There’s a whole layer of communication that comes with having a rifle that can designate and track targets.” 
The system includes a Linux-powered computer in the scope with sensors that collect imagery and ballistic data such as atmospheric conditions, cant, inclination, even the slight shift of the Earth’s rotation known as the Coriolis effect. Because the computer is wireless-enabled, information can be streamed to a laptop, smart phone or tablet computer for spotting or to share intelligence. “The only way to guarantee accuracy is to control all the variables,” said Scott Calvin, a company representative who demonstrated the rifle at the range. The only variable the system doesn’t account for is wind speed and direction, which must be entered manually, he said. 
The rifle operates far differently than its traditional counterparts, though the process is quite simple. After looking through the scope, a shooter pushes a red button near the trigger to tag a target — similar to the way a Facebook user tags a friend in a photograph. A reticle then appears based on the bullet’s expected trajectory determined by the computer. The shooter then arms the scope by squeezing the trigger back, lines up the reticle with the painted target and releases the trigger to fire a round. 
The rifle may take the art out of marksmanship, but its apparent accuracy is virtually guaranteed to continue to draw interest — not just from customers in the U.S., but around the world. The company has already sold about 500 of the rifles, mostly to wealthy safari hunters and elderly hunters, Schauble said. Officials from the Agriculture Department stopped by the company’s booth at the show to look at the products for possible use in a program to better control the rising population of feral pigs. 
The guns range in cost, from about $10,000 for scope-and-trigger kits installed on semi-automatic Daniel Defense rifles accurate to about 750 yards, to between $22,000 and $27,000 for those installed on bolt-action Surgeon rifles accurate to about 1,250 yards, according to Schauble. The kits can also be installed on other types of firearms, he said. 
TrackingPoint was launched about a year ago by John McHale, a founder of multiple technology start-ups, and has about 75 employees, more than half of which are engineers, Schauble said.
From Defense Tech.

The Bigger Picture

Smart rifles, together with small drones armed with small firearms, combined present a threat that is effectively impossible to control access to highly accurate deadly antipersonnel weapons that allow the user the kill far enough away from the target to minimize the risk faced by the killer of retaliation from the targeted individuals or people in their immediate vicinity protecting them. These weapons system don't require the people using them to have a great deal of skill and don't require a large scale military-industrial complex to build at prices that even a moderate sized urban gang or insurgent militia in a third world country can afford in small numbers.

Neither of these systems are the most powerful or sophisticated weapons systems that can be built today. But, it is for all practical purposes impossible in the modern era of advanced aerial photography and sensors to hide a tank, a traditional military multiple rocket launcher system, a purpose built armored personnel carrier, a military helicopter or warplane, a large artillery piece, a warship, a submarine, a medium to long range missile, an traditional anti-aircraft gun, or a reasonably busy airstrip or military base. Any military force that can control the air space in a military theater can identify these large military systems and obliterate them with impunity in a heart beat.

Moreover, these physically large military systems also tend to be beyond the budgets of all potential combatants except sovereign military forces, with the more sophisticated of these systems available only to the countries with the fattest military budgets. Only a few dozen countries, for example, can afford navies with submarines or with warships larger than frigates, or state of the art jet fighters with guided munitions. Only a handful have access to aircraft carriers, battleships, blue sea nuclear submarines, long range missiles, or nuclear weapons. And, the military-industrial complexes necessary to produce high end military weapons systems are hard to hide.

Any weapons system that can't be hidden in somebody's garage or barn is useless to an insurgent force. So is anything that can be easily detected by opposition forces with only the thinnest network of local supporters, when transported for a few miles. An insurgency's small weapons systems and systems that can be disguised as ordinary civilian vehicles and equipment, in contrast, can escape detection by opposition forces and remain available to fight wars that can last months and years. These smaller, often off the shelf component weapons systems also tend to be easier to produce covertly and far less expensive than the weapons of a conventional military or paramilitary force.

The more deadly and easily available these systems become, the harder it is for traditional forces to control territory in the face of armed opposition without suffering casualties that first world military forces are likely to view as unacceptable. Thus, these technologies make it dramatically harder to use military force to end revolutions, civil wars, large scale organized crime organizations, and piracy. And, since the vast majority of military conflicts at any given time are revolutions and civil wars (or sustained piracy or organized crime), rather than conflicts between sophisticated near peer sovereign military forces on both sides of a conflict, the development of these kinds of weapons technologies are likely to transform the actually practice of military conflicts on a much more widespread and immediate basis.

Of course, these technologies can be used by traditional military forces of countries with fat military budgets as well. But, since these forces have already long had a decisive edge in conventional warfare, the marginal benefit that they receive from these additional capabilities which can be replicated by larger and heavier and more expensive existing military systems is not nearly as important as the impact that these additional capabilities on their opponents.

We live now and have lived for a long time in an era in which offensive military technologies are generally able to best comparable defensive technologies like armor plating. Smart rifles and drones with small arms present two new "next war" challenges on top of the IEDs and suicide bombing tactics that have plagued counterinsurgency forces in the last decade or so. In principal moderate armor and ballistic materials should be sufficient to stop these small munitions. But, their potential pervasiveness makes it very hard to stop all of these threats from every possible direction all of the time, which is what one needs to do for years and years and years to minimize casualties in long counterinsurgency conflicts.

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