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How Military 'Smart Rifles' Could Change Modern Warfare

<p>What happens when every soldier is an expert marksman?</p>
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In the future, soldiers in the U.S. military might be able to snipe enemies from 1,000 yards away without any special training, thanks to technology purchased from "smart rifle" maker TrackingPoint.

This isn’t classified technology. The Austin-based company’s “precision-guided firearms,” which sell for between $10,000 and $27,000, made headlines when they first hit the market in spring of 2013. Pairing a Linux-powered scope with a guided trigger, the rifle allows even amateurs to hit far-away targets, something confirmed by journalists with little experience using firearms. The scope also works as a camera, letting viewers see a live feed on of whatever the shooter is looking at on their smartphone or tablet.

Now the U.S. Army has purchased six rifle kits from TrackingPoint. The military didn't buy the entire guns; instead, it will test the scope and trigger with its own XM 2010 Sniper rifles.

“This won’t replace the trained soldier who has to be comfortable under fire,” Oren Schauble, director of marketing for TrackingPoint, told NBC News. “But it does add a degree of accuracy that can be the deciding factor in complicated combat scenarios.”

A typical soldier, Schauble said, can hit a target that is 1,000 yards away with 20 percent accuracy. With TrackingPoint technology, that jumps to 70 percent, he said. That could lead to shorter training times. It could also let soldiers connect digitally on the battlefield, letting them coordinate, track multiple enemies, and “hand off” targets to each other. TrackingPoint even released a “trailer” showing what that might look like.

TrackingPoint has given around 30 demonstrations to military and law enforcement officials, Schauble said. Police departments could use the streaming function to get approval of shots before they are taken, he said, while video recorded from the scopes might be useful in the courtroom.

The military was likely already working on similar technology, Schauble said, but he claims that TrackingPoint's system is the most advanced on the market. So if the military did adopt this technology, how might it affect modern warfare?

"If soldiers are more accurate in hitting their targets, that means they are less likely hitting something else — like a civilian," Bradley Jay Strawser, assistant professor of philosophy at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, told NBC News. "That would be a massive improvement."

The downside, he said, is the same with any technology that removes solidiers from battle. The increasing use of drones has led critics to decry the rise of "riskless" warfare that can sometimes create "collateral damage."

"Because it becomes so easy for us to use force, and to do so with so little risk to our guys, it becomes very tempting to use it when we shouldn’t," he said.

Overall, Strawser said, we should probably be more worried about unstable civilians becoming instant snipers than we should about trained soldiers becoming better shots — especially when those rifles come with cameras that could be used to increase accountability on the battlefield.

"There is this initial response, ‘Man, this is giving inexperienced soldiers a lot of power,'" he said. "I would say that we give them a lot of power as it is. You can do a lot of damage with an M4."