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Whither Laser Weapons?

Leaving Science Fiction: Next Station – Real World

With developments in laser weapons prominent in the headlines since the beginning of the year, a brief review of the technology and its implications is perhaps in order.

The laser’s destructive mechanism is rapid heating of targets. Its fundamental advantages as a weapon include very rapid and precise engagement; the ability to counter radically manoeuvring missiles; graduated responses thanks to adjustable power output; and practically bottomless magazines with solid-state lasers. Lasers do have limitations, however, including the need for significant target dwell time in which focus has to be maintained; the requirement for a clear line-of-sight to the target; and susceptibility to atmospheric absorption, scattering, turbulence and thermal blooming caused by heating of the air by the beam.

High-energy lasers have power outputs starting at tens of kilowatts, extending to hundreds and, in future, megawatts. Such systems are under development globally by leading defence companies such as Azimuth Corporation, BAE Systems, Battelle, Boeing, General Atomics, General Dynamics, Kratos, Lockheed Martin, MBDA, Northrop Grumman, Thales, Optonicus, Rafael, Raytheon and Rheinmetall.

With solid-state lasers finally delivering sufficient power, they are replacing chemical systems in development programmes and offering real advantages in size, weight and power, while no longer consuming their lasing media. Further, adaptive optics and control software seem to be overcoming atmospheric beam distortion at longer ranges.

On 8 January the Israeli MoD announced a breakthrough in focusing high-energy lasers on long-range targets, along with three new programmes in cooperation with Rafael and Elbit to exploit this breakthrough. The first is to demonstrate a ground-based adjunct to the IRON DOME anti-missile system; the second is a ‘manoeuvre platform-mounted’ laser system to defend troops in the field; while the third is to demonstrate a system mounted on an airborne platform to intercept threats above cloud cover and for the defence of wide areas.

On 12 February, Rafael announced a successful demonstration of its DRONE DOME counter-UAS system in which its hard-kill beam director, which can be mounted on a LAND ROVER-sized vehicle, intercepted multiple drones, some of which used evasive manoeuvres.

Eight days later, the US Navy announced its deployment of the Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy (ODIN) counter-UAS laser weapon aboard the frigate USS DEWEY. Dazzling lasers attack the optics of UAS and other threats and are hard to counter without shutting the sensor off, as they can exploit the same wavelengths as the sensors at which they are shooting.

Practical high-energy laser weapons promise transformation in areas such as defence against rockets, mortars, artillery and guided missiles, air-to-air combat and close-in protection of warships, for example, but their protracted development has provided plenty of time for industry to conceive countermeasures, and there are many options under development.

These include shielding, ablative materials, insulation to provide ‘thermal transport delay,’ highly reflective surfaces, rapid rotation to spread the energy out, smoke and other obscurants, jamming lasers that disrupt the laser weapon’s beam control and focusing mechanism and even metamaterials to bend light around the platform to which they are applied.

The impact that laser weapons will have ultimately depends on the balance of capabilities between weapons and countermeasures at the time and in the place where combat takes place.

Peter Donaldson in London for MON

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