If Lockheed Martin and Raytheon succeed in an evolving research effort for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Navy could soon have a new guided munition: the smart bullet.
Last February, DARPA awarded Lockheed and Raytheon a combined $25 million for continued work on MAD-FIRES (the Multi-Azimuth Defense Fast Intercept Round Engagement System), a munition that is intended to defend warships from swarms of small attack craft. Each MAD-FIRES round would be able to alter its flight path in real time to target, track and engage multiple fast-moving targets. On Tuesday, DARPA provided Raytheon a contract modification of an additional $8 million to extend the project into Phase II development, which will include risk reduction demonstrations and additional design work. The contract extends through 2018.
As DARPA puts it, the goal of MAD-FIRES is to develop enabling technologies for a medium-caliber guided projectile that would combine the guidance, precision, and accuracy of missiles with the speed, rapid-fire capability, and large ammunition capacity of bullets. A medium-caliber Mk38 autocannon has a large magazine capacity, offering more sustained fire than precision guided missile systems, and it can reliably fire off two hundred rounds per minute at a single target. The same autocannon equipped with MAD-FIRES would be able to direct this firepower at dozens of targets simultaneously.
This is not the first time that DARPA has experimented with smart rounds. Its EXACTO program (Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance) developed a .50 caliber bullet that was capable of accurately tracking a moving target, even when fired by a novice rifleman. EXACTO uses a photodiode in the tip of each round to track a laser designator beam, much like a “smart bomb,” and small fins on the bullet alter its direction in midair. It is fired out of a smooth-bore gun and does not spin in flight. "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," said program director Jerome Dunn in 2015.
DARPA did not mention the anticipated cost per round of its new guided ammunition. The Navy recently had to scuttle its plans for a sophisticated cannon round, the Zumwalt-class destroyer's Long Range Land Attack Projectile, due to cost overruns: In a limited production run to supply the three ultra-modern ships, the LRLAP's cost would have approached $800,000 per shot.