Military & Aerospace

The Ray of Death: Directed-Energy Weapons
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Issue Vol. 28.4 Oct-Dec 2013 | Date : 25 Dec , 2013

Advanced Tactical Laser, attached to C130-Hercules

All at Sea

The US Navy is making great strides in the development of DEW with its Laser Weapon System (LaWS) now in the final stages. After installation on an operational warship, the USS Ponce, LaWS is slated to undergo field trials or what the Navy calls an “at-sea demonstration” in the Persian Gulf in early 2014. A solid-state laser weapon, it is claimed to be effective against targets such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and speedboats and has reportedly destroyed at least one test UAV. Since the weapon needs neither propellant nor explosives, it can continue firing so long as power is available. As compared with hundreds of thousands of dollars expended by a single missile launch, a laser shot might cost just a dollar. With unmanned devices proliferating across the globe, a device like LaWS that could destroy enemy UAVs cheaply would be a huge advantage.

The US Navy is making great strides in the development of DEW with its Laser Weapon System (LaWS)…

LaWS is designed to be plug-and-play. It can be retrofitted on warships with minimal modification, using existing targeting systems and power. To begin with, it is envisaged that LaWS would be employed only against small boats and slow-flying UAVs. The intruder might first be illuminated by an intense beam of light to warn it to turn away. If that doesn’t work, high power can be selected to destroy the offending craft. A significant advantage would be the system’s reduced logistics trail since refuelling would also serve to replenish laser power, thus ‘rearming’ it.

Most laser weapons are flexible. At the flick of a switch they can be used for less-lethal applications such as weapon targeting or to heat objects so as to make them easier for infra-red trackers to acquire or merely to dazzle pilots. Electronic systems, electro-optical sensors and infrared systems on enemy aircraft, surface vehicles, ships and submarines can all be degraded.

However, the system may be easily overwhelmed because the rate of ‘fire’ is restricted by the time needed to illuminate one target before turning to the next. The environment at sea may also be unfavourable. Heaving seas, saltwater, sea spray, fog and rain – all impede a laser weapon’s accuracy and effectiveness. Most current lasers are inadequate against a variety of threats because they are not powerful enough. That is why laser weapons are intended to supplement rather than replace conventional weapons onboard a ship. Lasers also need to become much more efficient. They currently waste about 70 per cent of the energy they consume as useless heat, heat that needs more power to dissipate. These enormous quantities of power can only come at the cost of the engine and other onboard systems unless the ship is redesigned from scratch.

An attacker with an airborne laser weapon has several advantages…

Beamed Terror

A top terrorist is out on an evening walk. The area is remote and there are no potential threats in sight, so the heavily-armed bodyguards maintain a discreet distance from their leader, allowing him a few moments of privacy – perhaps to mentally plan his next attack. Suddenly the guards hear a scream and see their chief writhing on the ground in flames. While some run to his assistance, the rest quickly scour the surrounding area and scan the clear sky. They see nothing, hear nothing. Then it is all over. Their leader appears to have been felled literally by a bolt from the blue. The only clues on the body are smouldering clothing and intense burn marks akin to a lightning strike. High up in the sky, a distant plane turns away and relays a ‘mission successful’ message to its command post thousands of miles away.

Such a fictional attack using a directed-energy beam may not be possible today. But the US Air Force has long been exploring laser weapons. In 2008, the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) that generated infra-red light of lethal intensity was fitted on a C-130 Hercules transport plane. It was succeeded by a larger version, inside a modified Boeing 747-400F, that was intended against missile launches. The Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed (earlier known as Airborne Laser) was meant to destroy Tactical Ballistic Missiles (TBMs) while in boost phase. It was claimed to have destroyed at least two test missiles in 2010. However, the US financial crisis took its toll and the programme was cancelled in December 2011. According to experts, to be operationally effective against a missile being launched, the laser would need to be 20 or 30 times more powerful than the tested which clocked in at about 100 Kilowatts. Although the YAL-1 was abandoned as financially unviable, the possibility of mounting the same laser on high-flying Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAV) is being considered.

An attacker with an airborne laser weapon has several advantages. To begin with, although the beam is silent and invisible, it enables a terrifyingly precise attack that can leave a deep impression on eye witnesses. The spectacular effects on a human target include instantaneous burst-combustion of clothing and rapid death through violent trauma. Whenever a shock attack happens, especially such a mysterious one, quick evaluation and decisions are demanded. For instance, after the alleged chemical attack in Syria in August, investigators were expected to deliver a swift verdict on whether the attack was indeed chemical and who the perpetrator might be. However, a doctor or investigator arriving at the scene of a directed-energy strike would be unlikely to have any previous experience of ‘death by laser attack’. There would be no bullet or weapon fragments to identify the originator of the attack. The investigators might not even categorically conclude that a laser was involved. This would give the attacker the added benefit of plausibly denying involvement in the attack.

Although laser weapons are becoming increasingly possible, practical military devices may still be some years into the future…

Focus on the Future

Although laser weapons are becoming increasingly possible, practical military devices may still be some years into the future. Significant issues remain to be addressed. For instance, the strength of the beam is greatly reduced by clouding, rain, haze or even dust. Lasers also waste most of the energy they consume as heat. To avoid damage due to overheating, they must be supported by bulky and heavy cooling equipment. A possible way to make a laser weapon more thermally efficient might be to use cheap, high-temperature superconductors. But the device would still need a convenient source of plentiful electricity storage or generation.

According to directed-energy technologists, laser power is increasing, system weight is decreasing and the quality of the beams is improving. Importantly, the aim is getting better. Since overheating needs to be prevented, it may currently be more practicable to deploy laser weapons to defend fixed assets where water and power availability need not be major problems perhaps for the defence of a nuclear plant. At sea, too, a large nuclear-powered carrier would have abundant power and unlimited water for effective cooling.

However, to mount an effective laser device on a combat aircraft, it must be lightweight, compact, not too thirsty for power and easily cooled. This is currently a tall order. And if fitting a sufficiently powerful laser on a plane is still a tough proposition, present techniques are totally inadequate to produce a practical handheld laser weapon – a classic ray gun that can instantaneously beam death and destruction.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt Joseph Noronha

Former MiG-21 Pilot and experienced IAF instructor before he turned to writing articles on aviation.

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3 thoughts on “The Ray of Death: Directed-Energy Weapons

  1. Hello..!

    No doubt that the most needed and abruptly arising threat and danger to all the world’ leading or advancing nations emerges out out of the directed energy weapons and pulsed electromagnetic bomb which has been developed included in defense arsenals of most countries in past 4-5 decades. There has been an unprecedented uprise in weapons which ar centered around the use of wirelessly transmitted pulsed or not electromagnetic, radio or sonic focused beams which is available freely in nature and can be used to focus and direct using satellites or radars to exact and millimeter specif spots causing immense and unimaginable destruction in as little time as few minutes at most.

    However, the very adven of such technology was done with the motive of damaging, controlling, learning and steering brain of human beings. In the process developed computer science and remote wireless technology to network propagation of such signals.

    DEW, HSS, Acoustic weapons, LRAD, EM pulse bombs, Focused USS beams, etc are all to have emerged across the world in past 4-5 decades and although, they have beneficial and medical role and function to use for betterment of humankind, they were invented only for the purpose of destroying or damaging humans at a brain level. The lasers used are all of very advances and engineered type which have very real and specific effect over human body and brain and are all directed using the satellites and directed so effectively that they can reach the specific spot on Earth to a millimeters perfection. Brain targeting has also emerges as a new global threat where in, these same waves are directed and scattered all around the open sky around an entire area to effect every creature live in it at a brain level of operation that leads to their immediate control. GWEN, is an example from America. These can also be used to cause immediate death to all living things in the area it is covers.

    What can stop and halt all further research ordevelopment?

  2. There are different kinds of directed energy weapons which we are already aware of but it is absolutely essential to understand that some of these are already ported on warfare satellites.There are countries who consider directed energies as non-lethal weapons and use it across continents.We know for sure how some of these directed energies feel and work but there are some that are not so well understood.India should definitely have warfare satellites with directed energy capability to counter the global threat from the cash rich and well funded organizations in the west.

    Directed energy from space which feels like being slapped/thrashed when unleashed on the body is not known to the defence forces as it travels in waves making you feel like being slapped umpteen times/second

    Others are more like burning sensation,pricking,crawling,itching which are all possible with electromagnetics.

    Directed energies are being used for biological applications is now emerging.We are moving towards an era when our biological functions will be effected with directed energy weapons.These are done by stimulation of vagus nerve and other nerve branches.It is also possible to use laser beams on nociceptors to induce pain in the targeted region.We are now talking about biochemistry/neurochemistry level of infliction.

    The space applications of directed energies seem to be much more effective in targeting people across the globe as they are designed for causing pain and suffering – torture.

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