U.S.A. –-(AmmoLand.com)- In my 30+ year career in Army Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation, (RDT&E), there was some exposure and support of laser weapons. A principle concern with lasers is how the interact with the atmosphere. That is where my old outfit came in.
Lasers have been used in weapons systems since shortly after their development, for ranging and sensing, and information technology.
I am writing about weapons that burn, shoot down, and blow things up.
My team supported a laser weapons test about 1975 as I recall. This correspondent was not an eye witness. Reliable scuttlebutt had told of a helicopter that was shot down with a laser, in a carefully controlled, proof of concept test.
We have been developing laser weapons for over 45 years. In the late 1980s with President Reagan's leadership, we were working on lasers to shoot down incoming InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). My colleagues at White Sands Missile Range had a much greater direct involvement. I was peripherally involved. They did splendid work. They solved problems in very clever ways.
By 2010, the AirBorne Laser (ABL) system had been developed, tested, and was ready to be funded and fielded. It was shot down by the Obama administration, with lack of funds, in 2011. The ability to shoot down incoming ICBMs from tens or hundreds of miles away, at the edge of space, was impressive.
The requirement of 10 to 20 modified Boeing 747s, at $1.5bn apiece, and $100m investment a year had made the maintenance of the ABL YAL 1A not operationally viable, forcing the US Air Force to stop raising funds for the laser. The US Government had spent approximately $5.2bn on the ABL YAL 1A project by February 2011.
The defensive capability, against smaller numbers of ICBMs, launched say, from North Korea, China, or potentially Iran or non-state actors, was significant. The Obama administration did not believe it was needed.
The ABL was a strategic weapon.
There have been significant developments in tactical weapons. It appears the development has been accelerated with President Trump.
In 2018, Artillery soldiers were already testing a Stryker mounted laser, designed to “zap drones out of the sky”, in Germany.
That system used a 5kw laser. The Army is going to field a Stryker mounted system with 10x power (50 kw!) in 2021. 50kw is expected to be powerful enough to shoot down incoming artillery rockets, such as SCUDs.
A few years ago, the goal was a 100kw mobile laser. With what we have learned, it was decided to skip a generation, to go to a 300kw laser. A 300kw laser is believed capable of shooting down incoming hypersonic cruise missiles.
A 300kw system, mounted on a much heavier vehicle, is expected to be demonstrated in 2022, fielded in 2024.
The Chinese are fielding laser weapons as well. They are claimed to be able to shoot down drones, as of 2018.
These are significant capabilities, but lasers are not a magic weapon. They cannot shoot over hills or cover enormous areas. They are precise direct fire weapons. They do not work well through smoke and dust.
They have the potential to solve a lot of air defense problems.
There is the potential to reduce a lot of logistical tail. The logistical tail is all the stuff you need to bring to the battlefield to make your presence effective. Tanks are not useful without fuel. Artillery is not useful without ammunition. Troops become useless without food.
Lasers don't need to haul a lot of large cartridges around to be effective. Instead, you need power. Lasers take a lot of electrical power. If you can generate the power, you have a viable weapon. Much like tanks or aircraft, lasers need fuel. Run out of fuel, they do not work. Fuel is easier to transport and more versatile than artillery ammunition. It takes a much smaller weight of fuel for a laser shot than a round of artillery ammunition. Captured enemy fuel supplies tend to work universally. Not so much for captured artillery ammunition.
These attributes make lasers a natural match for naval shipboard defenses. Water is available for cooling, and power can come from ships engines, even nuclear generators. Lasers are being fielded on naval ships and as missile defenses on aircraft, as well. A ground attack laser is being developed for the AC-130 gunship aircraft.
There is tremendous potential for lasers in space because much of the limitation of lasers on earth has to do with atmospherics.
The problems with lasers in space, is how do you dump the waste heat from their operation? Vehicles dump waste heat into radiators, which dump the waste heat into the atmosphere or water. In space, the heat has to go into the vacuum.
In an article from 2017, a Lockheed Martin spokesperson said over 43% of electricity in their tactical laser was converted into the laser beam. 43% is exceptionally good, but the lasers today are probably even better.
In 2017, 60kw was considered state of the art. It is claimed we will have 300kw systems in 2022, to be fielded in 2024!
As we increase the energy density of batteries and make lasers more efficient, they will eventually reach the man-portable raygun stage.
The Chinese have developed a man-portable laser, for some operations. It is limited by the energy source. It can start fires several hundred meters away. It has some uses.
The main difficulty with man-portable lasers is power. There is not enough portable energy per pound (energy density) in current batteries, to make them very practical. We are not there yet.
But tactical lasers, mounted on vehicles that can shoot down drones, mortars, and artillery shells, are already here. We are very close to those which can shoot down hypersonic cruise missiles.
About Dean Weingarten:
Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.