After the pilotless aircrafts, combat drones and the satellite monitored net centric warfare, the laser technology will dramatically change the way the soldiers of two rival nations fight.
The laser has been one of the most fascinating discoveries of 20th Century, which is now being put to use in military domain. The leading armed forces of the world are on the verge of entering laser age, which will determine the superiority of a nation in defending itself from offensive weapons ranging from ballistic missiles to fighter planes, guns and rockets.
The laser age will mimic the Star Wars concept of the eighties, and the US defence industry may probably take a lead in this as billions of dollars is being pumped in by the US armed forces.
Called the ultimate death ray weapons, the laser weapons, already in very advanced stage of development or already delivered to US armed forces, range from anti ballistic missiles to anti-drones and anti-aircraft to anti infantry vehicles and anti- guns on the ground. The rays emitted from the laser weapons will make the offensive weapons totally inactive, immobile and can be eliminated mid air.
High power laser
Since the lasers ammunitions in the form of Light molecules travel at the speed of light, the offensive systems launched by the adversaries will be destroyed in the enemy land itself. Since, the security perceptions in the present Century will be significantly dominated by Space Security and Missile Defence the High power laser will play a major role.
According to Amitav Malik who has directed the DRDO laser program, High Power Laser (HPL) has emerged as one of the very promising technologies that will have major impact on defence and security in the future. Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) using HPL has already converted the ‘Ray-Gun’ of science-fiction into reality. The DEW with its unique features is clearly the new generation weapon that will transform the concepts of defence and deterrence. HPL-DEW technology is very complex, multi-disciplinary and dual-use in nature.
In India work on laser weapon technology is being conducted in various DRDO laboratories like Defence Institute of Advanced Studies, Pune and a dedicated laboratory for laser research and development- Laser Science and Technology Center (LASTEC) has been established way back in 1998 which DRDO claims has achieved many important milestones and has put India in the world map of High Power Laser (HPL) technology.
Though DRDO has not revealed much about its real progress in finally developing a Laser Weapon capable of destroying a fighter plane or disabling a battle tank or destroying a ballistic missile mid way, the US Defence Industries seems to have reached the pinnacle of laser weapon technology.
Considering the lethality and accuracy of the Laser Weapons, the DRDO has identified laser weapon as among four focus areas for research and development. Laser technology is being given top priority and DRDO has given LASTEC the mandate to develop laser weapons for the armed forces. The Technology perspective and capability Roadmap prepared four years ago by the Defence Ministry has identified Directed Energy Weapon and Anti Satellite Weapons as principal focus area for 15 years. LASTEC is reported to be working on a 25 KW laser system which can hit a missile in its terminal phase at a distance of 5-7 kms.
But the US armed forces has already taken a lead as the US Navy plans to deploy its first laser on a ship in 2014 and also plans to test an electromagnetic rail gun prototype aboard a vessel by 2016.
The biggest advantage of laser weapons will be its cost and unlimited ammunition in the form of Light rays. Compared with missiles and bombs, the laser weapons will cost the negligible sum. The laser weapons will have endless stocks of ammunitions and will be able to launch continuous attacks on the enemy.
The first Laser weapons prototype to be deployed this year aboard the warship USS Ponce can be handled by a single sailor. The Ponce forms the part of the fifth fleet in the Persian Gulf. The US Navy plans to use the Rail Guns to replace or supplement the older generation guns which can fire projectile at six or seven times the speed of sound, enough to damage the enemy systems.
Presently the Rail Guns have some limitations due to weather or atmosphere, which loses their effectiveness due to rain or dust in the atmosphere and the Rail Guns need megawatt level energy production sources, which is difficult to mount on smaller warships. However the laser scientists hope to overcome these challenges and produce a killer weapon which will cost a fraction of the missiles deployed on the warships.
For example one missile costs around One Million US dollar whereas the laser weapon operating on a 30 kw of power source will cost only a few dollar per shot. The US engineers are also working on a battery system which can store required power for the laser weapon.
Development of laser weapons was facing major limitations in terms of the requirement for massive size, weight and power which put constraints for the deployment on many military platforms. However recently the prototype developed by Excalibur employed a 21- element optical phased array (OPA) with each array element driven by fiber laser amplifiers. This low power array succeeded in hitting a target at a distance of 7 kms. This technology can be further scaled up for high power testing for longer range kill ability. Due to atmospheric distortions the uniformity of laser beams are reduced which adversely affect the kill ability of the laser weapon.
According to US defence industry reports the US military dream of developing an ultimate ray gun which will very soon become true. The laser weapons developed by various US arms companies have shot drones, aircrafts and ballistic missiles out of the sky and ignited the hoods of trucks and engulfed an unmanned ship in flames.
These include the Airborne Laser Test bed (ALTB), placed on a Boeing 747 which has successfully destroyed three ballistic missiles mid air. The power generation source required for this is in the mega watt class but it is still classified. The laser ammunition can kill a missile target hundreds of kilometers away. This has been developed by the Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. The development of this system took 15 years and cost billions of dollars.
Raytheon has developed a Laser Weapon System (LaWS) which can destroy UAVs, mortars rockets and artillery. This is supposed to replace the US Navy’s 20mm Gattling bullets with photons. This will use a High Power Energy Laser used commercially and having a power source of 50 to 100 Kw, This can be deployed on Phalanx close in weapon systems (CIWS).
Boeing has developed a Free Electron Laser (FEL) which can kill an anti-ship cruise missile with a power source of 100 kw, The platform for this FEL will be naval ships.
The Lockheed Martin has taken a B-1 bomber as platform for the Electric Laser Large Aircraft (ELLA) which will use a 100 kw electric laser weighing over a thousand pounds and will take space of several refrigerators, which is still in the design phase. When finally developed, it will be used in air-to- air and air- to- ground role by the US Air Force.
The BAE Systems and Boeing are developing MK 38 tactical laser system for targeting air and surface maritime systems. Called Fiber Laser, this will use very low 10 kw power source and will be deployed on naval ships.
Thus the laser technology promises a metal and explosive free ammunition, not only for self defence but also to disable a weapon system whether a ballistic missile or a gun system deployed on warships, tanks or fighter planes.
However, the laser weapons will not eliminate the need for fighters or tanks or guns or infantry vehicles or modern well equipped infantry soldiers who will be used to capture an enemy territory.