US Forces Prepare ‘Shock and Awe’ Capabilities with Directed Energy Laser Weapons

Contributor: Richard de Silva
Posted: 09/15/2010 12:00:00 AM EDT

A host of next generation Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) have been unveiled by global forces in recent weeks, highlighting the significance that militaries are now placing on this rapidly progressing sector.

US Navy moves forward with LaWS

In July, Raytheon Systems appeared at the popular Farnborough Airshow in the UK to introduce the Laser Weapon System (LaWS), an anti-air platform designed to be deployed as a stand-alone asset or as an integrated component of a wider artillery network.

The laser is a solid-state 50 kilowatt beam and a version of the upgrade has already been tested on loitering unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as an initial trial – ahead of its intended future employment against fast-moving mortars and small armoured ships. The tests, reportedly using 32kw beams, were performed in a maritime environment off the coast of California with input and guidance from the US Navy.

The LaWS has been attached to the Phalanx CIWS, a radar-guided anti-air platform with a proven operational track record in the US Navy and British Royal Navy, among various other NATO contingent forces. Its tactical advantage over traditional kinetic systems, such as artillery, includes a longer range and an “unlimited magazine”, although it still requires a large amount of energy to operate.

Raytheon believes that the traditional impediments that have degraded the efficacy of lasers in a combat environment – chiefly inclement weather and reflective material – are near resolution as scientists and engineers look to ramp up the power output of these weapons.

Arming the international market

Peter Felstead, editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, highlighted several practical uses of such technology in the near future. He also cited several examples – Afghanistan, Baghdad and the Gaza Strip – of potential theatres that would likely witness the deployment of laser technology in a battlefield scenario.

While Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (IBMs) are still out-of-bounds for now, Felstead claims “we are on the path to that," making reference to rising concerns about the re-emergence of the IBM threat as worldwide nuclear weapon stocks face gradual cutbacks.

Earlier in the year, the experimental US Airborne Laser Test Bed (ALTB) became the first airborne DEW to successfully down a dummy ballistic missile in a test range.

India has also revealed that it is making it a priority under its advanced weapons research to develop laser defence systems that can effectively counter the ballistic missile threat.

The Director for the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) Laser Science and Technology Centre, Anil Kumar Maini, said that the power of the beam would be half of that of Raytheon’s CIWS, but would be able to intercept missiles at a range of 7km.

The system is projected for possible use on the US Air Force’s strike fighter and transport platforms, as well as the Navy’s destroyers and submarines.

Defining scales of escalation and capability

In June, the US Army recalled an unused and very different type of DEW from Afghanistan, just weeks after shipping it to theatre. The Active Denial System (ADS), a vehicle-mounted focused beam of electromagnetic radiation aimed at human targets, has created widespread controversy since its debut due to its unique method of engagement.

The energy beam heats the fat and water molecules within the skin, causing their temperature to climb to an unbearable 50C, at which point the target instinctively retreats and the effect quickly disappears.

While such a device sounds ideal for efficient and safe crowd control and checkpoint security, concerns have been raised about practical application and the long-term physiological damage this could cause to a human body.

Although testing for the system has been detailed and extensive, people volunteering to undergo the effect had 15 second intervals of recovery between short bursts of the device. In a live combat scenario, there is no guarantee that the weapon could be regulated to avoid targeting the same person too frequently. This means that the infliction of third degree burns or death would be entirely possible if the weapon were to be misused.

The Army has not discussed in much detail the official reasons for recalling the ADS from Afghanistan, but the importance of non-lethal defence systems will remain high on the agenda of coalition forces following the recent outline issued by General David Petraeus. In it, he highlighted the renewed effort to defeat counterinsurgency by winning the trust and partnership of the civilian population.

Whether it is in dissuading aggressor elements with the threat of advanced air and ground defence systems, or in incapacitating opposing groups with non-deadly force, DEWs may well aid this ambition.


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