Precision-Guided Weapons Come to the Infantry


Precision-guided weapons have revolutionized American airpower, enabling the kind of devastating strikes first seen in the 1991 Gulf War. To date, however, this revolution has largely happened outside the realm of ground combat. Especially for the infantry soldier, combat has changed little since World War II. With a brief introduction to the M4 carbine’s operation and night vision goggles, a D-Day soldier could be ready to fight in today’s infantry squads. Soon, that may no longer be the case. Precision-guided weapons are beginning to filter down to the squad level — a trend that could usher in the most dramatic changes in infantry tactics since the invention of the machine gun. Like the machine gun, this technology is likely to increase lethality on the battlefield dramatically. The United States must begin to prepare for these changes now.

On the morning of July 1, 1916, 11 divisions of British troops marched forth, hoping to break the German lines entrenched north of the Somme in France. By the day’s end, 20,000 British soldiers lay dead, their largest single-day loss in the war. Sixty percent of all British officers in the advance were killed. Their deaths resulted from a mismatch in tactics and technology. The British were still employing infantry tactics from a previous era, but the invention of the machine gun had changed the rules of the game. While the British had used an early version of the machine gun, the Maxim gun, to great effect in colonial wars around the world, they had not yet faced an adversary similarly equipped. This single day mirrored the larger pattern of the Battle of the Somme and World War I. New technologies such as machine guns and railroads changed the rules of the game in surprising ways, and the result was a protracted, bloody stalemate.

Today, early signs of a new revolution in infantry combat are apparent. Improvements in computer processors and sensors are enabling smaller, lower-cost, and more ruggedized electronics. These, in turn, are putting the same game-changing advances in precision-guided munitions that revolutionized American airpower into the hands of the infantry soldier. The beginnings of this revolution can be seen across a range of first-generation precision-guided infantry weapons. While these weapons have limitations in their current form, such as weight and cost, they hint at the potential of what is to come. Just as early arquebus matchlock guns had limitations, but signaled the firearms revolution that followed, these first-generation weapons similarly show the nascent potential of precision-guided weapons in ground combat.

The Switchblade

At only 5.5 pounds, this small, single-use drone can be easily carried in a rucksack on patrol. Launched from a tube, it can stay aloft for up to 10 minutes, sending video footage down to troops on the ground. The Switchblade does more than surveillance, however. Its nose incorporates an anti-personnel warhead. Once the Switchblade operator designates a target, it moves into an attack profile where it dive bombs the target, detonating its warhead from only a few feet away. The Switchblade — and similar future lethal miniature aerial munitions (LMAMs) — bring organic close air support to the infantry squad.

The XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System

This handheld grenade-launcher takes away the enemy’s most valuable defensive asset in a firefight: cover. The XM25 incorporates a laser range-finder to determine the distance to an enemy hiding behind cover. The XM25 gunner fires the weapon just above or around the rock, building, or whatever is hiding the enemy. The round incorporates electronics that enable it to determine the distance of flight precisely. Just past the enemy’s cover, the grenade detonates. Effectively, the XM25 gives infantry troops the ability to shoot around corners.

The EXtreme ACcuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO)

This DARPA program has developed a laser-guided .50-caliber bullet that can maneuver mid-flight to hit a designated target. This allows extreme accuracy at long range, including against moving targets.

The TrackingPoint Precision-Guided Firearm

This rifle features a built-in fire control system that times the release of the bullet to counteract the effects caused by the shooter’s movement. The result is that an untrained shooter can hit within a half-inch of his or her aimpoint at 1,000 yards, nearly an order of magnitude more accurate than world-class shooters. Unlike the DARPA EXACTO laser-guided round, the “smarts” of the TrackingPoint Precision-Guided Firearm are in the rifle, not the bullet. This means that the bullet itself is unguided once released and cannot adjust mid-flight to hit maneuvering targets. However, the advantage to this approach is that the cost per shot is extremely low because ordinary bullets are used. All of the electronics are in the gun, which is reused for multiple shots, rather than in the bullet, which is expended.

The Pike missile

Weighing under two pounds and with a range of over two kilometers, this M320 and FN-EGLM-launched miniature laser-guided missile dramatically improves the effective range of an individual soldier. Since the M320 grenade launcher can be carried as an attachment underneath an M4 rifle, the Pike missile puts unprecedented range, precision, and lethality in the hands of an individual soldier.

Collectively, these nascent hand-held precision-guided weapons represent just the beginning of possible future weapons designs. Most significantly, much of the underlying technology that enables this precision is commercially driven. Precision-guided weapons that rely on tightly packed sensors and microprocessors into the round itself, such as the XM25, EXACTO, or Pike, are likely to be costly and require advanced state development. Weapons similar to the Switchblade drone or the TrackingPoint rifle, on the other hand, leverage technology that is likely to be widely available.

This suggests that while U.S. troops may employ precision-guided infantry weapons first, they may not have a monopoly for long. Just as the British had to adapt to an era in which the enemy also acquired machine guns, U.S. troops should begin thinking now about infantry tactics in a world where the enemy has squad-organic surveillance, close air support, and long-range precision-guided weapons at its disposal. The result is likely to be engagements at much greater distances with even greater lethality. If U.S. troops can be found, the enemy is likely to be able to hit them. This places a premium on hiding through camouflage, concealment, and deception. However, ubiquitous information technology and radical transparency will make hiding even more challenging, especially in urban environments.

Just as experimentation through exercises such as the Louisiana Maneuvers in the interwar period between World War I and World War II was central to discovering the best tactics for using tanks, experimentation will be key to adapting to a world of infantry precision-guided weapons. Innovation cannot be directed from the top when the best tactics to fight in this new operating environment are unknown. Nor can innovation occur in canned unit qualification exercises, where the “right” tactics are already known. Innovation must come bottom-up by letting warfighters try new tactics and fail in a safe environment, before learning lessons the hard way on the field of battle.


Paul Scharre (@paul_scharre) is a senior fellow and Director of the 20YY Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security. He is a former infantryman in the 75th Ranger Regiment with multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. This article is adapted from his forthcoming CNAS report, Uncertain Ground: Emerging Challenges in Land Warfare.


Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht, U.S. Air National Guard

Correction: This article originally and incorrectly stated that the Pike is compatible with the M203 grenade launcher, when in fact it is compatible with the M320 and the FN-EGLM grenade launchers. The text has been corrected.