No, they’re not “Star Wars”-like. With these weapons, the key word is “defense.” In other words, you won’t see them mowing down enemy infantry or human targets.
In fact, the U.S. Defense Department bars it.
“AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command) intends to use directed energy weapons (DEW) for anti-material purposes, not anti-personnel,” Bill Lane, chief of strike and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance requirements for AFSOC, told the New York Post.
Instead, the military wants to see them mounted on aircraft in the form of a weapon that will be used for shooting down missiles, as well as disabling key enemy structures, such as vehicles and communications infrastructure. In the past, lasers were too bulky to be employed in this way, but nowadays laser systems are shrinking all the time. In fact, they will soon be small enough to fit on a drone.
Let’s discuss the basics. What is a laser beam? How do laser weapons work? And why would the military want to use them? Simply put, a laser beam is a focused ray of light, emitted by a certain material, called lasing medium (a special glass, crystal or gas) after it has been stimulated with energy. Before it can be strong enough to cause damage, the beam needs to be amplified.
This is done by bouncing it back and forth through the lasing medium between a set of mirrors (or other reflective surface). Each pass further excites the lasing material, causing it to emit more light, thus increasing the power of the beam. Finally, the beam is further focused and released through a set of lenses at an unsuspecting target, causing energy-based damage.
But how powerful is such a weapon? The amount of damage caused by the laser beam depends on the strength of an individual laser system and can be further adjusted, as its purpose dictates. The system can be used to “paint the target” for another laser-guided weapon, without causing any direct damage, or the beam can be powerful enough to melt through metal plating and disable vehicles and missiles.
Why should we use laser weapons? Unlike guns and other regular firearms, laser beams cannot be outmaneuvered — there’s (virtually) no delay between firing a beam and having it hit a target. This alone is a game changer. Laser beams are also much more accurate than conventional projectile-based weaponry. Finally, other than the energy source, they don’t require ammunition.
So why aren’t they already standard equipment on military airplanes?
Imagine you’re aiming your defense laser at an air-to-air missile that’s speeding fast toward your plane. To take it down, you need to keep your laser beam pointed at it for three seconds. It will take around four seconds for it to collide with your jet, giving you just one second to neutralize the projectile. However, your plane is vibrating as it flies through the sky — flight dynamics, mechanical vibration and equipment noise cause the laser beam to deviate. Clouds of dust, particles and air moisture also weaken the beam, and before you know it, you’re out of time. The beam jitters and doesn’t heat the projectile enough to detonate it midair, and you’re forced to eject. Boom!
So there are many issues that need to be solved before these lasers can actually be mounted on airplanes — noise- and vibration-dampening being one, and atmospheric distortion and compensation being another. Another problem to be worked out is the power versus size ratio of the laser itself.
Despite the hurdles to be overcome, and the cancellation of one such plan some years ago, the U.S. Air Force remains unfazed. It still wants to mount a 200-kilowatt laser cannon on a Lockheed Martin LMT, +0.03% AC-130 gunship by 2020. To accomplish that goal, it needs to produce a powerful enough laser that can actually fit on that particular gunship, preferably replacing an existing M102 howitzer.
LaWS is one such cannon. Too bad it takes the U.S.S. Ponce, a 16,500-ton amphibious transport ship, to carry it. So making it smaller is a goal.
And now PopularMilitary.com reports that the U.S. Marine Corps has been enticed with the idea as well. They too want to start with larger planes (such as Lockheed’s KC-130), and later expand not just to smaller airplanes, but also to helicopters. Potential platforms for the upgrade are F-35 fighter jets, Cobras and V-22 Ospreys.
That makes sense for many reasons. First, firing a laser is dirt cheap, with prices being about $1 (yes, $1) per shot. That’s because an airplane’s engine generator supplies all the power required for the laser to fire. Excess energy produced by the generator would be harnessed and deposited in a special battery, ready to be discharged by the laser at a moment’s notice.
Second, unlike projectile weapons, lasers make no noise, rendering them ideal for stealth missions and covert operations. Finally, being able to shoot down most air-defense missiles before they reach their targets means battlefield superiority.
Still, laser-based weaponry isn’t perfect, and there are many ways to disrupt laser targeting and mount a viable defense. As laser-based weapon systems proliferate, so will these strategies and accompanying technologies.
What do you think about lasers on airplanes and helicopters? Is it a viable technology, or yet another expensive flop? Please let me know in the comment section below.