Weapons: Computerized Scopes Evolve


May 27, 2019: Since early 2018 Israel has been seeking weapons capable of taking down fire kite and fire balloon attacks from Gaza. The latest weapon to take down these wind-driven incendiary devices is a modification of the SMASH computerized sniper scope the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) adopted in 2018 and renamed Dagger. The firm that developed SMASH quickly modified the Dagger software to go after moving fire kites and fire balloons. It worked and troops with the new software could use Dagger take down a kite or balloon several hundred meters distant with one shot.

Thousands of these kites and helium balloons have been launched towards Israel since early 2018. Each one is equipped with a lightweight incendiary device that goes off (most of the time) when it lands on the Israeli side of the border. The kites and balloons are more of a nuisance than a threat but have started over a thousand fires. Most of these are small brush fires that do not spread, but several have destroyed crops or trees and required firefighters to put out. Israel has used air strikes to destroy over a thousand of these kites and balloons on the ground (at launching, storage or manufacturing sites) as well as several hundred in the air using UAVs operated by civilians who had developed similar skills for UAV “battles”. The special Dagger scope adds one more weapon that makes the fire kite/balloon attacks less successful.

Meanwhile, the SMASH scope has quickly convinced the IDF that with this device it could now turn just about any soldier into a sniper. First offered the SMASH scope in 2017, the IDF tried it out with the infantry and special operations troops and at the end of the year approved it for use. Based on that success, in early 2018 SMASH was offered to foreign militaries (and police organizations). Now, in early 2019, the SMASH scope has demonstrated its flexibility by how quickly its software could be modified to handle wind-blown targets like fire kites and balloons.

There were several major innovations in SMASH compared to the earlier computerized scopes pioneered by American firm TrackingPoint. SMASH could be mounted and used on any weapon with a Picatinny rail which allows the scope software to work with the trigger. The scope puts a visual block around potential targets the user is aiming at. When the user has the intended target in the block a button is pushed and that target is locked and a precise firing angle calculated and shot fired unless the user intervenes. Other computerized scopes use the same basic concept but more recent models do it more reliably and cheaper.

The most convincing test of the SMASH scope was to have new recruits while getting their first rifle training, use it. Some 70 percent of these novice shooters made accurate shots the first time they fired the rifle. A few dozen shots later and they were performing like expert snipers. In the hands of snipers and experienced troops SMASH enabled difficult (moving, obscured by smoke) targets to be hit with the first shot. The IDF was sufficiently impressed to order 2,000 SMASH scopes, mainly for use by snipers. For snipers, hitting a target with the first shot is important because the second shot will often be impossible as the target was alerted by the first one and taken cover.

An American firm (TrackingPoint) pioneered this tech and in 2013 introduced its first computerized shooting system, the XS1. These initially cost $27,000 but the price has since come down to less than half that as the firm introduced more models and sales increased. These scopes were still expensive because they are sensor equipped and computerized to the extent that initial tests showed that over 70 percent of first-time users could hit a target over 900 meters distant with the first shot. For a professional sniper first shot success averages about 25 percent and 70 percent on the second shot. Second shots are not always possible as the target tends to duck after the first one. The army tested the XS1 and found it worked but did not try to adopt the system for a lot of military sniper rifles, even though it would be a major improvement for snipers. The major obstacle was the wear and tear of battlefield use and the fact that most snipers were satisfied with their existing scopes. Snipers are trained to take good care of their rifles, scopes and the growing number of electronic gadgets they now use, but the XS1 was a major leap in terms of electronics, sensors and especially required maintenance. It was recognized that the XS1 technology was the future and just as the many new (since the 1990s) sniping accessories have become rugged and reliable enough to be standard items, so will the XS1 approach or something similar to it. Meanwhile, the TrackingPoint tech was adopted for a small number of sniper rifles that could make good use of it as is.

In 2016 TrackingPoint introduced another version of its computerized scopes; NightDragon. This version allows for using an IR (infrared) spotlight with a range of nearly 200 meters and a scope with a sensor that makes the IR light visible to the shooter. Normally IR is not visible to human (or animal) eyes. The computerized scope tracks the target in the crosshairs and fires when the computer determines that a hit will be achieved. Targets can be moving as fast as 24 kilometers an hour. Costing $13,000 each, this is one of the few TrackingPoint scopes available for the civilian market. Most of their computerized aiming systems are only for military or police organizations. The manufacturer sells TrackingPoint equipped rifles mainly to police organizations or a few wealthy hunters who don’t like to miss. TrackingPoint now provides a growing list of computerized scopes for ranges of 350-1,300 meters. Prices range from $10,000 to $17,000.

SMASH costs much less than the cheapest TrackingPoint system and can be used on a large number of rifles and pistols. SMASH is more rugged and has been quickly adapted to shoot down small UAVs, be used at night, make videos and have 4x magnification. That version was modified to take down fire kites and balloons. There are other firms developing computer-controlled scopes and as time goes by these scopes will have more features, become cheaper and more reliable.




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