Sometime in early June, a US Army Apache AH-64 attack helicopter rose over the parched earth at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Attached to one of its weapons pods was strange white colour cylindrical device that looked resembled no munition currently in service anywhere in the world.
Once in the position, the two-man crew aboard the helicopter activated their strange weapon system. The white device then emitted a laser that according to its manufacturer Raytheon, hit an unmanned target 1.4 kilometres away. According to Raytheon it was “the first time a fully integrated laser system successfully shot a target from a rotary-wing aircraft over a wide variety of flight regimes, altitudes and air speeds, proving the feasibility of laser attack from Apache.”
To be sure, the laser pod is not ready for prime time. While Raytheon says the laser hit its target we don’t know if it was powerful enough inflict significant damage. However, as Tyler Rogoway notes, the laser pod was of manageable size and appeared to be ‘surprisingly well integrated for an experimental bolt-on device.’
Furthermore, Rogoway noted that even if such laser pods don’t pack tank-busting power for a while, they’ll still be able ‘to do everything from silently cutting power lines and melting generators to starting diversion fires and disabling vehicles’.
Of course, lasers already have several uses for militaries around the world. They bounce through fibre optic cables carrying data, designate targets for guided munitions, and light up reticles on rifles and heads up displays. But lasers have not been used for offensive applications until recently.
The first programme to systematically envision laser-borne destruction was US President Ronald Reagan’s fanciful Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), first announced in 1983 and appropriately dubbed ‘Star Wars’ in the popular press (The third film of the Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi released that year).
Among other things, SDI envisioned a network of space and ground-based lasers that would be capable of intercepting Soviet ICBMs during their vulnerable launch and mid-course phases, making, as Reagan dreamed, nuclear weapons ‘impotent and obsolete.’
In reality, budgetary problems, the end of the Cold War and the laws of physics all conspired to put an end to SDI. Since then, research into powerful lasers has been focused on more modest and practical goals. In 2008, the US Army fielded a prototype laser mounted on a Humvee that could destroy improvised explosive devices at ranges of up to 300 metres.
The US has also run several programmes to explore the possibilities of ground and ship-based lasers for air defence as well as airborne lasers that are meant to destroy missiles. Not all of these projects have been successful, but a few have exceeded expectations. One US Navy laser tested from the USS Ponce in 2014 destroyed a small boat and a target drone.
The US may be the only country to have made real progress in developing laser weapons. Though the Russians claim to be keeping up, no solid information has been forthcoming.
While much of Reagan’s SDI involved lasers, another experimental weapon proposed for the programme was the electromagnetic rail gun. Now, more than three decades after development began, the rail gun is slowly maturing into a usable weapon system. Both BAE Systems and General Atomics are currently on contract with America’s Office of Naval Research to develop these fully electric firearms.
Rails guns are probably the most significant development in firearms technology since the first practical cannons were invented in China some 800 years ago. They work by creating a magnetic field which causes an armature to fling a projectile through a barrel at terrifying speeds- theoretically up to 7,200 kilometres per hour or six times the speed of sound. It is, as some call it, ‘a weaponized meteor strike’.
It’s possible the first rail guns will be deployed on ships in about a decade. If successful, they’ll eventually be employed in a number of roles- air and missile defence, ship-to-ship combat, and shore support/land attack.
The promise and limitations
Among seaborne forces facing China’s PLA-Navy- whether in the US, India, Taiwan or Japan- one worry frequently crops up: The missile swarm. In particular, navies worry about certain Chinese capabilities- the DF-21D ballistic missile, and new cruise missiles. The US and South Korea may also face a new Scud-inspired anti-ship missile being developed by North Korea. More generally, the technology for ballistic and cruise missiles is proliferating.
Lasers and rail guns could offer some of the most effective counters to these threats. Lasers are potentially so effective because nothing can outrun or evade a beam of light. Similarly, rail guns offer a combination of high speeds and immense destructive power that could rip apart the hypersonic missiles currently being developed around the world.
Lasers and rail guns also offer a serious cost advantage. You could knock out a million dollar cruise missile with a light beam or shell that only costs a few tens of thousands of dollars.
Then there are the crucial questions of logistics and safety- and it is here that lasers and rail guns really shine. Lasers derive their power entirely from electricity, which means no ammunition has to be supplied to the ship or stored in it. Rail guns also rely on electricity for propulsion, and their projectiles are typically solid pieces of machined steel with no conventional explosives.
But while these features could make a ship thus armed easy to supply and safe from internal explosions set off by an enemy munition, they also hint at the limitations. Lasers and even more so, rail guns, need enormous amounts of electricity, which realistically means the ship needs a powerful engine- or perhaps in the future a nuclear reactor. (Other solutions could come from emerging technologies for storing energy produced from renewable sources.)
Furthermore, lasers are also line of sight weapons. If you can’t see a target, you can’t hit it. Lasers can also be hampered by bad weather. All testing of laser weapons has so far been conducted in sunny conditions. Even a regular squall would seriously hamper performance.
Finally, while lasers and rail guns will be critical in defending ships and some land-based installations from missile threats, it’s unlikely they will be able to bring down strategic ICBMs in the foreseeable future. Being based on land or sea, the lasers or rail guns will have to attack the ICBM’s warhead during its terminal phase- precisely when it is least vulnerable. Current technology gives rail guns a maximum range of 200 km or less, which means their shots may never reach the target. As for lasers, they may reach their target but may not do any damage. As it hurtles earthwards, an ICBM warhead is essentially an atmospheric re-entry vehicle with a heatshield that can withstand searing temperatures. Even a powerful 500 KW laser will take several tens of seconds to burn through such a warhead’s shield. It’s a task made all the more more difficult by the fact that the warhead will probably screaming through the atmosphere at Mach 5.
Laser weapons and rail guns are obviously at their infancy and its hard to predict what sort of roles they will actually end up fulfilling. For the moment, they will see more modest applications. In 1993, DRDO developed an experimental rail gun that could shoot 3 gram projectiles, but that programme seems to have since been shelved. More promisingly, DRDO’s Centre for High Energy Systems and Sciences is working on a 10 KW laser. That is at least a start.