Privacy SOS

DHS to make a “self-guided bullet” available to local law enforcement?

The militarization of the police continues apace. A self-guided bullet that can stalk its prey for over a mile before striking.

The Department of Homeland Security maintains a website containing information about thousands of technologies state and local law enforcement, as well as DHS sub agencies, can purchase with federal dollars. The website advertises a wide variety of military, law enforcement and first responder technologies available to departments large and small — boasting everything from spy drones and covert surveillance cameras to bio-chemical detectors and oxygen tanks for firefighters.

Another feature of that FEMA site is a page advertising technologies still in some stage of R&D, tools that will become available to agencies after they are commercialized. Among the developing technologies the Department of Homeland Security is keeping a close eye on is a four-inch long "Self-Guided Bullet" that can chase down a target more than a mile away, making "up to thirty corrections per second while in the air."

While developed by the government’s Sandia research laboratory for the military, DHS seems to think the magic bullet will come in handy at home, too. A law enforcement shield at the top right of the webpage listing the tool, shown in a screenshot from the FEMA website below, indicates that it is "Part of the Law Enforcement Focus Area."

Sandia describes the bullet as follows:

Sandia researchers Red Jones and Brian Kast and their colleagues have invented a dart-like, self-guided bullet for small-caliber, smooth-bore firearms that could hit laser-designated targets at distances of more than a mile (about 2,000 meters).  Officials say the self-guided bullet can make up to thirty corrections per second while in the air.

Researchers have had initial success testing the design in computer simulations and in field tests of prototypes, built from commercially available parts.

Sandia’s design for the four-inch-long bullet includes an optical sensor in the nose to detect a laser beam on a target. The sensor sends information to guidance and control electronics that use an algorithm in an eight-bit central processing unit to command electromagnetic actuators. These actuators steer tiny fins that guide the bullet to the target.

Most bullets shot from rifles, which have grooves, or rifling, that cause them to spin so they fly straight, like a long football pass. To enable a bullet to turn in flight toward a target and to simplify the design, the spin had to go.

The bullet flies straight due to its aerodynamically stable design, which consists of a center of gravity that sits forward in the projectile and tiny fins that enable it to fly without spin, just as a dart does.

Sandia is seeking a private company partner to complete testing of the prototype and bring a guided bullet to the marketplace.

It’s not hard to see why the Department of Defense would want this self-guided bullet, particularly given the US military’s interest in cutting edge technologies that remove its soldiers from mortal danger while executing lethal missions. 

But like so many tools developed for military use overseas, this magic bullet is sure to come home to roost. That’s increasingly the case for all sorts of military weapons and surveillance tools, but in this case DHS has explicitly articulated that the magic bullet will be useful for domestic agencies. 

We have a pretty serious problem in this country concerning disproportionate and often racially biased police violence. Should we add fuel to that fire by giving law enforcement a bullet that can kill someone from a distance of over a mile, while that person is running away? Sure, someone could probably come up with a scenario in which this bullet would be useful to domestic police, for example a hostage situation. Departments could probably come up with seemingly logical reasons for having armed aircraft or grenade launchers, as well. But should these civil agencies have those kinds of advanced killing tools under any circumstances?

Do we want our police departments to have every weapon or piece of surveillance equipment available on the market? If not, where are we going to draw the line?

If DHS has its way, it won't be at the magic bullet. 

Concerned about the militarization of the police in your area? Get involved at the local level to push back.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.