A Directed Energy Weapon (DEW) is still in its nascence but there are signs that it could soon bloom into effective reality. India has already made some progress in the use of laser energy for the precision delivery of bombs and is aiming to create a directed energy beam powerful enough and focused enough to be able to knock out enemy missiles, both conventional and nuclear tipped, up to seven kilometers in altitude during the terminal phase of flight.
The use of laser to guide an otherwise ‘dumb’ freefall 1000-pound (450 kg) bomb that could fall anywhere from 300 meters to 1000 meters from target (thereby requiring several aircraft sorties to be able to ensure destruction) is a very desirable military objective. The attachment of a laser guidance kit to the nosecone of the dumb bomb has enabled it to be delivered to as close as a 10 meter circular error probable (CEP) to target. This means that just one or two laser guided bombs can cause the required destruction/neutralization thereby reducing the cost of the air effort manifold.
To qualify for inclusion to a “precision guided weapon”, the Sudarshan, as it is called, will have to reduce CEP to less than three meters. Nonetheless as it is the Sudarshan has made aerial bombardment more cost-effective than it was in the days when means of delivery could be jeopardized by a dense air defence ground environment that could force the aircraft to either deliver the bomb from a higher altitude to escape the surface-to-air weapons or use the “toss bombing” technique to lob dumb bombs on target.
The Sudarshan was created by joint research and development by the Aeronautical Development Establishment, the Instruments Research and Development Establishment of DRDO and the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. They are working on ways of improving the accuracy and range from the current nine km glide-to-target to up to 50 km or more to ensure a stand-off kill capacity for the very first attack sortie.
It is a true ‘Make in India’ product and puts to use the capabilities of many private sector units for components and systems. The whole is put together by Bharat Electronics Ltd. The advantages of converting a very large arsenal of dumb bombs to a more accurately deliverable weapon are obvious. Other improvements that could be incorporated is pre-fragmentation technology on the body of the bomb that will improve the kill possibility of soft-skinned targets. This would be part of the upgradation/modernization project to create a new generation of high explosive weapons. India will also have to start thinking of producing “bunker busting” bombs that are designed to drill their way deep into underground structures before exploding.
As in the case of the Brahmos cruise missile developed jointly by India and Russia which has been lapped up by all the three Services-Army, Navy and the Indian Air Force- as well as being readied for export, the Sudarshan is being studied for deployment as a surface-to-surface weapon as well. Accuracy is to be improved with the introduction of Global Positioning Systems, an indigenous version of which is in the process of being deployed by the Indian Space Research Organization.
For India the use of lasers in military equipment is fast becoming an imperative. There has been in existence since 1950 a DRDO laboratory based in Delhi known as the Laser Science and Technology Centre (LASTEC) which is working on intricacies of using laser technology for military purposes. Created in 1950 as the Defence Science Laboratory which became the nucleus for the Defence Research and Development Organisation it was renamed LASTEC in 1999 and given responsibility for developing laser weapons and systems for military/security purposes.
The laboratory has been working to create a laser beam based on a 25 kilowatt power source that will form a concentrated beam capable of destroying an incoming missile in its terminal phase at an altitude of seven kilometers.
Beginning with a one kilowatt prototype in 2010 LASTEC and the other Delhi based DRDO laboratory Solid State Physics Laboratory announced in late March this year that they were close to creating a 10 kw solid state source that would form a beam powerful enough to knock down a spy drone.
Simultaneously, work is underway on Project Aditya the laser weapon programme to build bulky carbon dioxide and chemical based lasers as test beds for the beam formation and control mechanisms. This parallel programme will generate expertise in prevention of dissipation of beam strength and concentration in varied climatic conditions. It is in the management of bulk of laser systems, the heat created during operation and the ability to concentrate the beam into a lethal spot that will burn through the heat shield of a nuclear tipped missile or deflect it from its target that the efficacy of the system lies.
There is an element of urgency involved given the use of Fourth Generation Warfare and proxy warriors of the jihadi type by the Pakistan-China coalition. This is being done from behind the nuclear shield that China has helped Pakistan create to counter India’s conventional military capabilities.
Things have changed dramatically since the qualitative requirement of being able to intercept an incoming missile at the terminal phase of its ballistic trajectory was enunciated. Pakistan has since operationalized a short-range tactical nuclear weapon known as the NASR. The trajectory of this weapon is almost flat and the time of arrival on target is extremely short. India needs to be able to counter this weapon which Pakistan is keeping on hair trigger alert to deter Indian armour and mechanized forces from invading Pakistan. It is this that an Indian ballistic missile defence (BMD) will have to contend with. India already has plans for a BMD over Delhi and Mumbai but the laser beam weapon would cover a larger segment of India’s territory thereby increasing the deterrence value of the Indian missile arsenal.
Terminal phase interception is the first step towards that larger goal. It does have its risks in that if deflection of the enemy warhead is the intent then India will have to contend with the possibility of a radiation fallout from the missile. If, on the other hand, interception is intended to destroy the enemy nuclear missile as it enters the atmosphere (endoatmosphere), the possibility of a blast effect and consequential firestorm and communications blackout will have to be taken into consideration.
The best option in the use of laser-based weapons is an airborne platform capable of sensing a blastoff of a nuclear missile from its silo anywhere in Pakistan. Depending on the bulk of the missile the liftoff period ranges from 60 seconds to 120 seconds. It is known as the boost phase.
If one is able to react from detection of blast to zeroing in on the boost phase this ‘boost phase interception’ would be the ideal. Conversely, to deal with the quick-reaction NASR India will have to create directed energy weapons that are airborne and ready to swat down the cluster of NASRs Pakistan intends to launch at India.