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DARPA “Gunslinger”: Gun-Armed Tactical Cruise Missile

Included in DARPA’s 2021 budget request is funding for a program called “Gunslinger,” in which the research agency hopes to mount a gun system on a cruise missile.

The impact of a system with these capabilities could be huge, especially considering the increasing threat of hypersonic missile systems.

A-10 Thunderbolt II cannon, the GAU-8 Avenger

… high maneuverability of a missile system coupled with a gun system…

Although DARPA funding requests can at times be pretty vague, “Gunslinger” is relatively transparent about the agency’s aim with the program. According to the budget request, “[t]his system will utilize the high maneuverability of a missile system coupled with a gun system capable of scalable effects and engagement of multiple targets.“

Hypersonic threat?

While some current types of cruise missiles fly faster than the speed of sound, DARPA doesn’t specify if this system is intended to be subsonic, supersonic, or hypersonic. However one interesting characteristic of this system will be that it essentially has a variable-stage thrust mechanism powering each bullet fired.

The US is generally seen as lagging overall behind both Russia and China with regards to hypersonic missile technology. This effort is potentially a move by DARPA to help close that gap, by increasing deterrence against hypersonic weapons with a creative twist on current technology.

In today’s political landscape, hypersonic weapons with a non-nuclear warheads can deliver incredibly powerful blows against an enemy without the fallout (both literal and figurative) and negative international reactions of a nuclear weapon. If Russia and China develop capable hypersonic technologies without a similar capability in the West to match and therefore deter it, both of those aspiring world players would be at a relatively strong advantage.

There’s a long shot possibility with this proposal, though, that involves DARPA aiming to integrate a gun into a hypersonic platform. Imagine a missile soaring through the atmosphere at Mach 5+, that then turns and spits supersonic bullets in multiple directions. The overall system is essentially a variable-stage platform capable of firing numerous additional-stage projectiles at multiple targets.

Sounds like a great option to pick if you’re hoping to hunt down some enemy hypersonic missiles.

Watch Current Gun Systems

GAU-8 Avenger on the A-10

The A-10 Thunderbolt II wields one of the most powerful cannons ever integrated into an attack plane. Its gun, the GAU-8 Avenger, is capable of firing 30 mm rounds tipped with depleted uranium, at an astonishing rate of more than 3,000 per minute. The above video shows the A-10’s cannon in action during a training mission.

Phalanx CIWS on US Navy Ship

The US Navy uses auto-cannons as defense systems on many types of ships. Called a CIWS (Close-In Weapon System), and pronounced see-whiz, the guns are usually integrated with a tracking radar and are used to shoot incoming missiles and projectiles out of the sky before they can impact the ship.