Computerized Rifle Sights To Be Tested By Navy And Marines For Drone Defense

Systems that show shooters where to aim when engaging moving targets could offer another layer of defense against the drone threat on land and at sea.

An individual holds a carbine equipped with the SMASH 2000 sighting system.
Smart Shooter

The U.S. Marine Corps is acquiring a number of SMASH 2000 computerized optical sighting systems, which can be used on a variety of small arms. These "smart sights" are designed to help shooters spot targets and then show them the most optimal aiming point to engage, even when they're moving. The SMASH 2000's manufacturer, Israeli firm Smart Shooter, has also secured a deal to work with the U.S. Navy to see how this technology could be employed on ships. In both cases, the focus is on exploring new defenses against the growing threat posed by small unmanned aircraft

Starting this fall, Smart Shooter will supply an unspecified number of SMASH 2000s to the Marine Corps Rapid Capabilities Office (MCRCO), which is part of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL), for testing and evaluation. A press release from the company did not lay out any specific timeline for the work it will do with the Navy through the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division (NSWC Crane), which will be conducted through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA). A CRADA is a novel contracting mechanism that allows elements of the U.S. military to partner with industry and academia on various projects, and typically involves sharing resources in lieu of traditional payment.

Smart Shooter

A promotional shot showing the SMASH 2000 sighting system on a Heckler and Koch HK416-series carbine.

"We are honored to announce that the US Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and NSWC Crane have chosen our technology to better protect against the ever-growing drone threat at land and sea," Michal Mor, Smart Shooter's CEO, said in a statement. "Featuring built-in targeting algorithms that can track and even hit very small drones, SMASH fire control systems put a precision anti-drone capability at the fingertips of its users."

The SMASH 2000 system, Smart Shooter's flagship product, consists of the core sight unit, which can be attached to various guns via a standard accessory rail, along with components that go into the weapon's pistol grip and onto its handguard. The company also offers lightweight remotely operated gun turrets that utilize the same technology.

Outwardly, the main portion of the sighting system looks very much like an oversized non-magnifying red dot or holographic-type sight. The software-driven system also contains a video camera and laser range finder that allows the shooter to place the crosshairs over a target and mark it with the push of a button. Once "locked on" in this way, SMASH 2000 calculated the optimal point of aim and displays that to the user, even if the target begins to move. Smart Shooter says that the built-in camera, together with the system's networking capabilities, gives it a secondary reconnaissance and surveillance capability, as well.

SMASH 2000 was originally designed primarily to help shooters improve their chances of hitting a target with their first shot, even when tired or stressed. This, in turn, would help improve the effectiveness of individual troops, as well as reduce their vulnerability to enemy forces and potentially help limit collateral damage.

However, the potential utility of guns equipped with SMASH 2000s, as well as broader applications of the underlying technology, in defending against small drones has been readily apparent for some time. Last year, pictures emerged showing U.S. personnel assigned to Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (SOJTF-OIR) in Syria training to use M4A1 carbines equipped with these sighting systems in this exact role. In March of this year, Smart Shooter revealed that it was working on a new smart sighting system derived from the SMASH 2000 for the U.S. military as part of the Pentagon's Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate's (IWTSD) Individual Weapon Overmatch Optic (IWOO) program.

U.S. Army

U.S. personnel assigned to Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (SOJTF-OIR) train with M4A1 carbines equipped with SMASH 2000 sighting systems in Syria in 2020.

Smart Shooter did not say what weapons the Marine Corps might be looking to test the SMASH 2000 on, but the service's own M4A1 carbines, as well as its M27 Infantry Automatic Rifles, would be immediate potential candidate platforms. The M27 is a variant of the Heckler and Koch HK416 rifle, an AR-15/M16 derivative that differs primarily from many other guns in the series, such as the M4A1, in that it uses a physical gas piston as its core operating mechanism rather than what is known as "direct impingement." A gun that works via direct impingement siphons off a portion of the propellant gas generated from firing a round and uses it to cycle the internal action. You can read more about the differences between the HK416 and earlier AR-15/M16 types here.

USMC

A U.S. Marine shoots an M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle on the range.

AR-15/M16 types in Navy service are likely to be at least among the platforms that NSWC Crane will use to explore the applicability of Smart Shooter's technology in the maritime domain as part of its CRADA with the company, too. "This collaboration aims to perform joint integration and evaluation of Smart Shooter’s technology with weapons and ammunition currently supporting the U.S. Navy’s mission. With an increased hit probability for small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) and increased engagement range, Smart Shooter’s SMASH technology has demonstrated the potential to increase the Navy’s ability to engage sUAS at the individual level — using existing weapons and ammunition in inventory," according to the firm's press release.

Whatever the exact guns the Marines and Navy may be looking to test Smart Shooter's systems on, it's not surprising that both services are interested in this technology as a potential way to bolster their counter-drone capabilities. In recent years, the entire U.S. military has been rushing to expand its defenses against various tiers of unmanned aircraft, which present real threats now to American troops fighting abroad and conducting operations on U.S. soil. 

USN

U.S. Navy sailors conduct qualification training with M4A1 carbines onboard the Whidbey Island class dock landing ship USS Germantown.

“These small- and medium-sized UAS proliferating across the [area of operations] present a new and complex threat to our forces and those of our partners and allies," U.S. Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees U.S. military operations across the Middle East, notably told members of Congress earlier this year. “For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority.” 

Reports of small drones flying over or near sensitive U.S. airspace, such as the site occupied by the U.S. Army's Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense battery on Guam, have only been increasing. The potential risks unmanned systems pose to critical civilian infrastructure and other non-military targets continue to grow, as well.

These threats have also been expanding into the maritime domain. It's hard not to see a series of still-unexplained incidents involving drones swarming U.S. warships off the coast of Southern California back in 2019, which you can read more about in this past War Zone feature, as likely being one specific factor behind the Navy's new CRADA with Smart Shooter. 

With all this in mind, Smart Shooter's SMASH 2000, or other systems derived from its core technology, are clearly of growing interest to the U.S. military, as a whole, as part of efforts to establish new layers of defense against small drones — as well as making its personnel shoot more accurately, overall. 

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com