Lasers: Asia’s Coming “Sci-Fi” Arms Race


True to Newton’s Third Law on Motion, weapons development is a constant battle of adaptation with one side unveiling new technology only for the other to respond with countermeasures. Very few platforms in recent years have been as influential or attracted as much publicity as have unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which have greatly enhanced surveillance capability while giving their owners the ability to target enemies thousands of miles away at relatively little cost.

But just as ballistic missiles are being tested with the development of more sophisticated air-defense systems, so too will UAVs in the not-so-distant future, as arms manufacturers are hard at work — and are indeed testing — laser devices to zap them down.

Science fiction movies aside, laser beams (the technical term is directed-energy weapon, or DEW) have been around, if only in labs — and for much longer in people’s imaginations — for some time now. The Soviet Union first experimented with them in the 1960s. Two decades later the U.S. military explored the technology as part of Ronald Reagan’s much criticized Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program.

A more recent example is U.S.-based Raytheon Corp’s laser close-in weapon system (CIWS). First unveiled publically at the Farnborough Airshow in July 2010, the company demonstrates its ability to disable a variety of objects including aircraft, drones, rockets and surface ships, using a 50kW solid-state laser beam.

Coupled with last-line of defense equipment such as the U.S. Navy’s Phalanx radar-controlled CIWS, which uses a multiple-barreled 20mm Gatling gun to shoot down approaching objects, the laser CIWS has the advantage of longer range and, theoretically, unlimited ammunition.

Northrop Grumman Corp is also developing the Gamma, a high-energy, solid-state laser (HEL) for the purpose of destroying incoming anti-ship cruise missiles, and is cooperating with the U.S. Air Mobility Command and the Air National Guard on a KC-135 Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures-based pod that uses laser beams to disable incoming surface-to-air missiles. The U.S. Navy also has systems under development that are intended to shoot down enemy drones homing in on surface vessels.

Similarly, the U.S. Army announced last year that it was working on a device known as the Laser-Induced Plasma Channel (LIPC), which can fire a laser-guided, 50 billion watt “lightning bolt” at a target.

Now German defense firm Rheinmetall Defence has unveiled its own system that can “shoot down” airborne objects that are thousands of meters away (no altitude was given). Like Raytheon’s device, the German system uses a 50kW beam and uses radar — part of the time-proven Skyguard fire control unit — to track incoming objects. During the latest trial, held at the company’s Ochsenboden Proving Ground in Switzerland, the device successfully shot down “several” nose-diving drones moving at 50 meters per second (mps) at a distance of about 2 km. In a different test, the cannon was used to track and destroy a 82mm steel ball traveling at 50 mps, which was designed to replicate an incoming mortar round.

Tests have also demonstrated that the laser beam can also cut through a 15mm-thick steel girder at a distance of nearly 1,000 meters. Rheinmetall said it had tested the system in a variety of weather conditions, including snow, sunlight, and rain. Bad weather conditions, high humidity and reflective surfaces have long plagued designers’ efforts to turn laser beams into effective weapons.

Rheinmetall says it plans to make the laser system mobile and to combine it with a 35mm revolver cannon. A smaller version is also in development to provide ground troops with protection from air fire.

Of course, the U.S. and Europe aren’t the only countries to see the many advantages of HELs provide for force protection. In recent years, Russian and Chinese physicists have also made major advances in high-power solid-state lasers, and reports indicate that Russia is at work developing a system that can shoot down missiles and aircraft. China, which reportedly first researched laser weapons during the 1960s as part of its Project 640 missile defense program, is now believed to have a state-of-the-art HEL program.

It might be a few years still before laser beams become fully operational, but after decades of research, the day when science fiction becomes reality is approaching. Stay tuned for countermeasures.

The Diplomat