Tom Higgins | The Telegraph | Source URL
When the Israeli military unveiled its new laser weapon system to the world last week, it did so with a video designed to show off its terrifying precision.
In a computer generated warscape, hostile missiles are launched towards an Israeli battery. The "Iron Dome" defence system springs into action, with its latest addition – a roaming eye-like sphere – firing dazzling white light into the sky.
One missile explodes, then comes another and another. A hail of missiles are zapped out of the sky like the 1980s video game Missile Command.
The impressive show of power is just a concept video, but the weapon it is showing off is in an apparently advanced stage, with Israel saying it will perform a live demo this year.
It is the latest advancement in yet another sphere of futuristic warfare – alongside hypersonic missiles – that the world’s military powers are heavily investing in, from Israel, to the US, China and here in the UK.
As the Israeli Ministry of Defence put it: “we are entering a new age of energy warfare in the air, land and sea.”
— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) January 8, 2020
What are laser weapons?
They are not, first of all, the fizzing plasma bolts of Star Wars’ blasters or Star Trek’s photon torpedoes. Current military lasers generally use high-power beams of light -such as infrared- to precisely target and fry mechanical workings or detonate explosives.
Think of them more as sunlight directed through a magnifying glass, used as either a focussed beam of intense heat or quicker pulses. With enough energy behind those pulses firing in a machine gun staccato, laser beams can cut through steel.
While lower-powered beams can also be used to blind and disorientate the enemy, laser weapons are currently being trialled for use as short-range defensive weapons – destroying enemy missiles, drones and, at sea, taking out small boats.
They are invisible, silent and – as they travel at the speed of light – startlingly quick and accurate. Lasers travel in an almost perfectly straight line, as opposed to the natural arc of an artillery round. Nor is there any recoil.
The US tested its own directed energy weapon developed by Kratos Defense & Security Solutions aboard the USS Ponce from 2014 to 2017. The AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System (or XN-1 LaWS) is a large cannon-like weapon, telescopic in its appearance, using an infrared beam that can be scaled from dazzling someone’s vision to a 33kW beam capable of destroying small targets.
It was operated on a flat-screen monitor using a controller much like those used for video game consoles.
Such was the system’s success that the US ordered it moved to the USS Portland following the decommission of the Ponce, before signing a $150m contract with weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin to provide two more advanced laser weapons called HELIOS.
"[The LaWS] is more precise than a bullet," Captain Christopher Wells, commanding officer of the Ponce said in 2017.
"It's not a niche weapon system like other weapons throughout the military where it's only good against air contacts or surface targets. This is a very versatile weapon [that] can be used against a variety of targets."
The pros and cons of laser weapons
As well as that accuracy and versatility – which also means less chance of collateral damage – one of the largest benefits of laser weaponry is its low operational costs.
While development is expensive (the US Navy’s contract with Lockheed Martin could reach nearly $1bn) once installed the cost compared to traditional ballistic intervention is drastically reduced.
As opposed to missile launches that can cost hundreds of thousands if not millions; laser weapons can theoretically cost less than $1 per shot, going up to around $10 for the most powerful laser weapon in testing: Lockheed Martin’s 300kW Indirect Fires Protection Capability-High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL).
And as laser weapons rely on electricity, they essentially have unlimited ammunition as long as they retain access to a power source. As well as the obvious benefit of not needing to reload, this also means that critical space and cost is not taken up by transporting ammo.
The UK’s former defence secretary Penny Mordaunt, upon announcing a £130m investment into British directed energy weapons said in July that the technology has the potential to “revolutionise the battlefield by offering powerful and cost-effective weapons systems to our armed forces”.
But there are drawbacks. While you are saving on ammo space, the generators needed to produce enough energy for laser weapons are incredibly bulky and expel any wasted energy as heat.
And while lasers are remarkably accurate in perfect conditions, they can be foiled by something as simple as a change in the weather.
Smoke and heavy fog can disrupt the beam at short-range – as well as deny operators the line of sight needed – while at longer distances, turbulence in the atmosphere can make the beam "bloom". Vibrations at ground-level where the laser is stationed can also be a factor.
As decades of science-fiction has suggested, this means that lasers are the perfect weapon to be used in the vacuum of space. An advantage that scientists are using to develop lasers capable of destroying the increasing amount of "space junk" in the Earth’s orbit.
As with any weapon of war, there are also ethical concerns over the use of lasers on the battlefield. "Dazzlers" used to disorientate are already used, but lasers that can cause permanent blindness are banned under the Geneva Convention.
But any high-powered directed-energy weapon fired at a human will almost certainly result indeath, leaving a gray area over the use of lasers as lethal weapons.
Who is making laser weapons and what types are in development?
The US remains the most advanced nation when it comes to laser weapon technology, with the Navy continued testing of the LaWS and commissioning Lockheed Martin to provide more options. The US Army, meanwhile, has also committed to fielding 50kW directed energy weapons atop its ‘Stryker’ armored vehicle by 2022.
The UK has also taken a particular interest in directed energy weapons. The £130m fund announced by Mordaunt invited arms companies to provide three demonstration systems for laser or radio frequency weapons.
These are expected to be provided for land and sea based positions, but laser weaponry is also set to be part of the Royal Air Force’s ambitious next-generation fighter jet project, Tempest.
But it is not the first time Britain has looked seriously into the prospect of its own laser weapons. The Dragonfire was revealed in 2017, a 50kW laser system for the Royal Navy designed to protect “maritime and land forces from threat missiles or soldiers from enemy mortars”, according to the Ministry of Defence.
The project was initially awarded £30m to be developed by a consortium of companies including Leonardo, QinetiQ, MBDA, Arke, BAE Systems, Marshall and GKN. Its differentiator is its novel power source, a lightweight flywheel system originally developed by the Williams F1 racing team.
The Flywheel Energy Storage System (FESS), provides pulses of electricity to the Dragonfire laser, reducing the energy demand on the rest of the ship and the risk of fire from lithium batteries.
In Russia, the Peresvet laser was one of the six advanced weapons unveiled by President Vladimir Putin – also including nuclear torpedoes and hypersonic missiles – a secretive laser system believed to be designed for air and missile defense.
China, meanwhile, is looking to take the lead on 'death ray' laser weapons, recently soliciting would-be suppliers for "attack pods" that could be attached to Chinese fighter jets such as the J-15 “Flying Shark or J-20 “Mighty Dragon”.
The US is also interested in adding laser pods to its gunships and Israel is exploring airborne lasers for manned and unmanned aircraft with manufacturer Elbit Systems.
Were the world’s militaries to successfully equip its jet fighters with lasers, it would fundamentally change air-to-air combat, with jets able to instantaneously target missiles or even destroy hostile jets without the chance of return fire; dog-fighting would be a thing of the past.
Indeed, the continued improvement and deployment of laser weapons in theatres of war across air, land and sea (and even space, should it come to that) suggest they are another emerging technology that could change the face of war altogether.