Since conventional weapons are not able to deliver the kinetic punch, leading militaries are now looking for a more potent weapon that can travel near to the speed of light.
In the process global militaries are investing heavily in the future R&D of laser weapons that will be precise, lethal and swift.
Currently US is the leading country in manufacturing laser weapons and it plans to invest further in developing advanced laser weapons for all its forces.
The US Navy is looking to deploy futuristic laser weapons sound like something out of “Star Wars,” with lasers designed to shoot down aerial drones and electric guns that fire projectiles at hyper-sonic speeds.
The solid-state Laser Weapon System is designed to target what the Navy describes as “asymmetrical threats.” Those include aerial drones, speed boats and swarm boats, all potential threats to warships in the Persian Gulf, where the Ponce, a floating staging base, is set to be deployed.
Last year US Army also tested High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD). All these developments show that in coming decade more focus will be given on manufacturing and acquiring latest laser weapons which can stealthily deny any detection and prove fatal for the adversary.
Since lasers were first developed over 50 years ago, the defence industry has consistently explored their varied uses. Lasers have since found many applications on the battlefield.
Since its invention in 1960 by Arthur Shawlow and Charles Townes, the US military has been interested in applying laser technology to military use.
For defence purposes, lasers could be implemented in ships, planes, or in ground-based systems to destroy missiles or rockets. Lasers could also be used to destroy satellites in space, or conversely, space-based lasers could attack targets on the ground. Lasers could also be built into army vehicles or even planes as offensive weapons that could target large areas.
Prior to the development of practical lasers, the notion of using lasers or ‘ray guns’ as weapons had been widely explored. Accuracy over distance and the ability of lasers to damage a target have remained attractive features to the defence industry and forces to date they have been widely used in targeting and range-finding.
Laser weapons, which date back to Vietnam War, work by a designator laser illuminating a target with a laser beam using encrypted pulses so that the ordnance can follow the signal without being misdirected by another beam.
While scientists are struggling to successfully incorporate chemical lasers into missile defense systems, solid-state lasers are holding much more promise. Solid-state lasers hold several advantages over chemical lasers. Because they are powered by electricity, there is no need for expensive and bulky chemical fuels. They can also produce wavelengths of light that transmit well through the atmosphere, unperturbed by interference. However, solid-state lasers can only operate at a fraction of the power of chemical lasers.
The laser technology certainly is promising, far exceeding its current use for target designation to improve the accuracy and performance of costly precision bombs. Defense experts believes that new generation laser weapon systems could be mounted on warships, large aircraft, fighters, tanks, land vehicles, and even on space vehicles because weapons based on the power of the laser will prove to be faster, more precise, and cheaper. High-power lasers have the potential to change future military operations in dramatic ways.
High-energy lasers (HEL) have the potential to benefit a variety of military missions, particularly as weapons or as high-bandwidth communications devices. However, the massive size, weight and power requirements (SWaP) of legacy laser systems limit their use on many military platforms.
Even if SWaP limitations can be overcome, turbulence manifested as density fluctuations in the atmosphere increase laser beam size at the target, further limiting laser target irradiance and effectiveness over long distances.
Advancements in available laser components, along with the maturity and quality of innovative beam-combining technology, support the goal of providing lightweight and rugged laser weapon systems for use on military platforms such as aircraft, helicopters, ships and trucks.
While the possibility of a transportable, durable and affordable ultra-precision energy weapon system is still a long-term vision, several recent demonstrations by leading industry players signify considerable progress in the field.
Recently, DARPA’s Excalibur program successfully developed and employed a 21-element optical phased array (OPA) with each array element driven by fiber laser amplifiers. This low power array was used to precisely hit a target 7 kilometers-more than 4 miles away. The OPA used in these experiments consisted of three identical clusters of seven tightly packed fiber lasers, with each cluster only 10 centimeters across.
DARPA is planning tests over the next three years to demonstrate capabilities at increasing power levels, ultimately up to 100 kilowatts-power levels otherwise difficult to achieve in such a small package.
In addition to scalability, Excalibur demonstrated near-perfect correction of atmospheric turbulence-at levels well above that possible with conventional optics. While not typically noticeable over short distances, the atmosphere contains turbulent density fluctuations that can increase the divergence and reduce the uniformity of laser beams, leading to diffuse, shifted and splotchy laser endpoints, resulting in less power on the target.
The recent Excalibur demonstration used an ultra-fast optimization algorithm to effectively “freeze” the deeply turbulent atmosphere, and then correcting the resulting static optically aberrated atmosphere in sub-milliseconds to maximize the laser irradiance delivered to the target.
In addition, these experiments demonstrated that OPAs might be important for correcting for the effects of boundary layer turbulence around aircraft platforms carrying laser systems.
The successful demonstration helps advance Excalibur’s goal of a 100-kilowatt-class laser system in a scalable, ultra-low SWaP OPA configuration compatible with existing weapon system platforms. Continued development and testing of Excalibur fiber optic laser arrays may one day lead to multi-100 kilowatt-class HELs in a package 10 times lighter and more compact than legacy high-power laser systems.
The US Army High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) underwent multiple tests last year, engaging more than 90 mortar rounds and several unmanned aerial vehicles in flight.
It was the first time the US Army has tested this vehicle-mounted high-energy laser in the open, employing the system’s high power laser source and beam director, both mounted on a truck. Beside the laser system, an unspecified enhanced multimode radar supported the engagement by queuing the laser. The demonstration and testing confirms the capability of a mobile solid-state laser weapon system to counter mortars, UAVs, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors mounted on the UAVs, officials said.
The HEL MD is being developed to show directed-energy force-protection capabilities against rockets, artillery and mortars (RAM). It is also intended to protect against unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and cruise missiles. These present a broad target set for the system’s target acquisition system, considering the wide variability of target velocities, maneuverability and radar signatures. The Boeing Company is the prime contractor for the HEL MD program.
Lockheed Martin has demonstrated the feasibility of generating 30-kilowatt electric fiber laser, the highest power ever documented while retaining beam quality and electrical efficiency. The successful demonstration marks a significant milestone on the path to deploying a mission-relevant laser weapon system for a wide range of air, land and sea military platforms.
Prior laser weapon demonstrations in the industry showed target acquisition, tracking and destruction. However, these solutions were limited for tactical military use because their laser inefficiencies drove significant size, power and cooling needs not readily supported by key military ground and airborne platforms. The laser demonstrated by Lockheed Martin’s scientists combined multiple sources of high power lasers, into a single, near-perfect quality beam of light-all while using approximately 50 percent less electricity than alternative solid-state laser technologies. This unique process, called ‘Spectral Beam Combining’, sends beams from multiple fiber laser modules, each with a unique wavelength, into a combiner that forms a single, powerful, high quality beam.
Lockheed Martin has specialized in directed energy laser weapon system development for the past 30 years and purchased Aculight in 2008 to further strengthen its offerings at every level- from expert advice and pioneering research to solid prototyping and flexible manufacturing.
Israel plans to implement a fifth ‘active defense’ layer in its national multi-layered air and missile defense system, aimed to provide an affordable countermeasure against threats at ‘very short range. The new capability will be able to protect border communities and military installations, offering point defense against various aerial threats.
These elements could consist of the new ‘Iron Beam’ system, a mobile High-Energy Laser Weapon System (HELWS) developed by Rafael. ‘Iron Beam’ is designed to destroy targets by irradiation with a directed High Energy (HE) laser beam. The system will have a wide range of applications-from engagement of airborne targets, acting as a Counter Rocket, Artillery, Mortars (C-RAM) to Counter-Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (C-UAV) or surface-based targets. It is designed for operation as part of air-defense system or as a stand-alone system, at day or night-time.
As a weapon system, Iron Beam is designed to have minimal collateral damage, minimal environmental impact and no risk to friendly air traffic around the attacked target.
The Israeli project is not the first to enter testing. Development of similar programs was accelerated in recent years in the USA and in Europe, addressing urgent needs for better protection of NATO forward bases in Afghanistan.
The High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defence System (HELLADS) is a US defence program to develop a high-energy laser-based weapon system to defend against surface-to-air threats. The programme aims to develop a 150kW laser system to counter ground threats such as rockets, artillery and mortar (RAM), and surface-to-air missile attacks.
With a weight goal of less than five kilograms per kilowatt, and volume of three cubic meters for the laser system, HELLADS seeks to enable high-energy lasers to be integrated onto tactical aircraft, significantly increasing engagement ranges compared to ground-based systems.
Since laser beams work at the speed of light, it’s effectively impossible for aerial targets to dodge them. The use of laser beams against land targets is complicated by line-of-sight issues, but the miniaturization of laser technology makes them perfect for use against aerial and naval targets.
HELLADS is a diode-pumped, liquid-cooled solid-state laser weaponry system. The system will be ten times lighter and compact in comparison to other similar high-power laser systems.
The order of magnitude will facilitate integration of the system with aircraft, ground vehicles and UAVs. It is expected to have a maximum weight of 750kg and volume of two to three cubic metres.
Earlier Raytheon had revealed its next-gen directed energy weapon, Laser Weapons System (LaWS)-a six-laser weapon that focuses on a single target-engaging and then destroying an unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) from the deck of a Navy vessel at sea.
The tests conducted show the LaWS illuminating and then heating the underside of a drone aircraft shortly before it goes up in flames and loses trajectory, plummeting into the ocean below. Guided by Raytheon’s Laser Close-in Weapon System (CIWS), a sensor suite that locks onto and guides the energy weapon, LaWS shot down three similar drones during the tests, which marked the first time a solid-state laser has shot down an aircraft on the wing over open seas.
LaWS is a solid-state laser rather than a chemical laser, which means it’s not quite so hazardous to handle and requires less energy to use. It’s also smaller, which makes it a lot more feasible to pack onto a naval vessel.
The US military have successfully, developed, tested and installed the new Laser Weapon System (LaWS) to Navy ships which is capable of taking down unmanned enemy drones and other platforms, making for more efficient management of weapons resources on a limited sized ship. The weapon uses directed laser energy to burn targets, which could be used to expose fuel lines in an enemy plane or ship, damaging it critically or even destroying it.
A laser weapon capable of engaging incoming rockets and mortars could offer an important improvement in the capability to protect forward operating bases. Yet, developing an operation system must overcome some significant technical challenges-the wide variety of threat types-high speed artillery munitions, small, low signature mortar munitions, and simultaneous threat posed by rocket salvos dictate target intercept at ranges beyond 1,000 meters. Operating at the speed of light, the laser weapon offers the optimal solution addressing different facets of the challenge with highly responsive, adaptive engagement process.
Rheinmetall had also successfully tested a new 50kW high-energy weapon technology demonstrator. The test comprised three types of targets representing hardened targets, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and ballistic threats and successful a steel ball representing a mortar round target, travelling at approximately 50 m/sec was also intercepted.
The tests proved how multiple HEL weapon stations can irradiate a single target in a superimposed, cumulative manner. This modular technology approach makes it possible to maintain the very good beam quality of the individual laser modules, while increasing overall performance several times over. Thus, from the technical standpoint, nothing stands in the way of a future HEL weapon system with a 100kW output-considered the optimal power level for C-RAM weapon.
The five-fold increase in laser power was demonstrated how such high-energy weapon can effectively perform Air Defence (AD), Counter Rocket, Artillery, Mortar (C-RAM), and Asymmetric Warfare operations.
For this test Rheinmetall used its using HEL emitters employing the company’s Beam Superimposing Technology (BST).
As UAVs are playing a significant role in the modern battlefield and they protect human lives, it the responsibility of militaries to also provide sufficient protection to the UAV to be able to avoid direct hit be weapons of adversaries.
So, in a bid to keep drones protected, DARPA is funding research into drone-mounted laser weapons.
The project, called Endurance, is referred to in DARPA’s 2014 budget request as being tasked with the development of “technology for pod-mounted lasers to protect a variety of airborne platforms from emerging and legacy EO/IR guided surface-to-air missiles.” The budget explains that it will be the first application of DARPA’s much-discussed Excalibur laser defense system, which developed lasers powerful enough to use as weapons.
With the new program, DARPA is focused on miniaturizing the technology, as well as “developing high-precision target tracking, identification, and lightweight agile beam control to support target engagement. The program will also focus on the phenomenology of laser-target interactions and associated threat vulnerabilities.” In other words, DARPA hopes that drone-mounted lasers will soon be able to shoot missiles out of the sky.
The US Air Force has also released a new request for a high-powered laser weapon that could be mounted on a next-generation air dominance fighter in the post-2030 era. The emphasis of this effort is to identify potential laser systems that could be integrated into a platform that will provide air dominance in the 2030+ highly contested Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) environments.
Many US, European and Israeli companies are working towards enhancing the capabilities of laser weapons so that maximum destruction can be achieved while maintaining low collateral damage.
The level of India’s laser weapons development is still at the early stage. The laser-based weapon, laser dazzler, emerged in the 1980s, which were used to spot snipers and impair their vision. China also displayed its T-99 tanks with a laser-based system in its 50th anniversary military parade in 1999, which is said to be capable of impairing tank aimers’ vision over one thousand meters away and causing possible damage to tanks’ aiming system.
The current laser anti-ballistic technology of US ranks the leading position in the world. Meanwhile, the US and Russia have shifted their focus to solid-state directed energy weapons with higher effectiveness, smaller size and lighter weight.
But the Indian military, with MoD’s “technology perspective and capability roadmap’’, now identifies DEWs and ASAT weapons as thrust areas over the coming decade. While conventional weapons use kinetic or chemical energy of missiles or other projectiles to destroy targets, DEWs decimate them by bombarding with subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves at the speed of sound. Apart from the speed-of-light delivery, laser DEWs cause minimal collateral damage.
The aim now is to develop laser-based weapons, deployed on airborne as well as seaborne platforms, which can intercept missiles soon after they are launched towards India in the boost phase itself.
DRDO has developed a laser-based weapon that will impair vision temporarily to control unruly crowds, useful for para military forces. When turned on, the gadget, called laser dazzler, sends out radiation to immobilize individuals or crowds without causing permanent injury.
A vehicle-mounted weapon system for engaging mobs at nearly 250 metres would be ready soon. What makes the laser effective is that it doesn’t have to be aimed and shot, it moves like a large circle with a spread of almost 20 metres. It will allow security forces to disperse crowds without inflicting life-threatening injury.
The DRDO is also working on a laser-based ordnance disposal system to detonate explosives from a safe standoff distance. Also in the pipeline are vehicle and airborne laser systems to engage hostile targets such as aircraft and missiles.
DRDO is now also focusing on “space security”, with special emphasis on protecting the country’s space assets from electronic, or physical destruction by “direct-ascent” missiles, in the backdrop of China developing advanced ASAT (anti-satellite) capabilities.
Work is also in progress to develop several directed energy weapons, including a 25-kilowatt laser system to destroy incoming missiles in their terminal stage and a 100-kilowatt solid-state laser system to take out missiles in their boost phase itself.
The KALI (Kilo Ampere Linear Injector) is a linear electron accelerator being developed in India, by DRDO) and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC).
The KALI, which is sometime commonly believed to be a laser weapon, emits powerful pulses of electrons (Relativistic Electron Beams-REB). Other components in the machine down the line convert the electron energy into EM Radiation, which can be adjusted to x-ray (as Flash X-Rays) or microwave (High Power Microwave) frequencies.
This has fueled hopes that the KALI could, one day be used in a High-Power Microwave gun, which could destroy incoming missiles and aircraft through soft-kill (destroying the electronic circuitry on the missile). However, weaponizing such a system has many obstacles to overcome.
Earlier, DRDO developed an ultra-compact, hand-held laser sensor capable of giving warning in the form of an audio beep as well as a visual indication to the user of any impending laser threat. The device can be used by infantry soldiers in the battlefield and also can be configured as a helmet-mounted system in a modified package.
Indian defence scientists are also developing a strong laser source to kill enemy missiles and rockets on the one hand and perfecting the technology to control the laser beam for effectively utilizing the source as a weapon on the other.
While LASTEC and Solid State Physics Laboratory are developing the source, in a parallel development bulky carbon dioxide and chemical lasers are being used to produce a high-energy beam using which the beam control technology can be developed.
The scientists working on the direct energy weapon project, Aditya, will take a minimum of three years to come out with a beam control technology, which is absolutely essential to have a laser weapon in hand.
Weapons of future
Lasers are weapons of the future. While these laser-based technologies will take time to develop and be deployed, the DRDO along with Laser Science & Technology Center (LASTEC) has mapped out the future course of action in these areas.
China also has been developing anti-satellite missiles and lasers designed to damage or destroy satellites. China is working on the Shenguang (“Divine Light”) laser project for inertial confinement fusion, which aims to use high-powered lasers to produce a sustained nuclear fusion reaction.
The program-officially designated as an alternative energy project-could have two military applications: improving China’s next-generation thermonuclear weapons and advancing its directed-energy laser weapon programs. Not only is the Chinese military advancing rapidly in the field of anti-satellite, anti-missile laser weapon technology, but its technology equals or surpasses US laser weapons capabilities currently under development.
According to reports, Beijing’s effort to develop laser technology encompasses over 10,000 personnel-including 3,000 engineers in 300 scientific research organizations-with nearly 40 percent of China’s laser research and development (R & D) devoted to military applications.
China’s DEW research is part of a larger class of weapons known to the Chinese as ‘new concept weapons’, which include high power lasers, high power microwaves, railguns, coil guns, and particle beam weapons.
The two most important organizations involved in R&D of DEW are the China Academy of Sciences and the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.
China see directed energy weapons and laser technology as important for China’s air defence and counter space efforts.
Lasers tend to lose their effectiveness if it is raining, if it is dusty, or if there is turbulence in the atmosphere, and the rail gun requires vast amount of electricity to launch the projectile.
Since laser beams travel at the speed of light, evading an accurately aimed laser weapon is impossible. The range of a laser gun is much greater than that of a conventional weapon. And although practical range is subject to atmospheric conditions and power availability, even long-range laser ‘firing’ needs hardly any compensation and wind velocity has negligible effect.
Further lasers are also capable of great flexibility. For instance, their focus can be changed to select an effective area either much smaller or much larger than bullet or projectile-based weaponry. Since laser beams produce neither sound nor visible light, the user’s location would not be compromised.
Enemy surface-to-air threats to manned and unmanned aircraft have become increasingly sophisticated, creating a need for rapid and effective response to this growing category of threats. High power lasers can provide a solution to this challenge, as they harness the speed and power of light to counter multiple threats.
Laser weapon systems provide additional capability for offensive missions as well-adding precise targeting with low probability of collateral damage. For consideration as a weapon system for future battlefield, the laser weapon systems must be lighter and more compact.