Doctor Evil’s technological dreams, not to mention Auric Goldfinger’s and Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s, are inching closer to reality. That’s the only possible conclusion an avid movie-goer will draw from a fascinating Bill Sweetman article in Aviation Week.
In fact, Sweetman deploys a bunch of pungent prose that sounds like something out of The Strategy Page, but with the essential difference that Sweetman knows what he’s talking about and has been wired into defense RDT&E since the second coming of laser weaponry (and the first serious, non-Bond-villain one) in the 1980s. Sweetman starts with a dismissive swipe at US and USSR laser weapons programs of the 1980s (“The only thing of consequence that any of them destroyed was confidence in laser weapons”), and then leaps into “that was then, this is now”-ville.
New HEL [High-Energy Laser] weapons are smaller than the 1980s monsters, with a goal of 100-150 kw, and powered by electricity rather than rocket-like chemical systems. Modest power permits more precise optics and—in some cases—the use of commercial off-the-shelf fiber-laser sources, improving beam quality (that is, focus) and reducing cost.
Star Wars lasers were intended to hit things that missiles could not touch. The new generation exploits different characteristics: a magazine as deep and easily replenished as the fuel tank, and a low cost per shot (about $1, says Rheinmetall). The idea is to deal with targets that missiles cannot engage affordably.
A mini-UAV is a threat because it can target ground forces for artillery. It is cheaper than any surface-to-air missile, but a laser can blind it, destroy its payload or shoot it down. Rocket and mortar defense is another application. Rafael’s Iron Beam laser is a logical follow-on to Iron Dome, which is practical and affordable only because it ignores rockets that will fall on open ground; that will no longer work when weapons are guided.
Hmmm. Thinking about the implications of what Sweetman is saying here, there are several paths around Iron Dome which the Palestinian terrorists may choose to adopt: they could try overwhelming it with quality, overwhelming it with accuracy (by guidance, as he suggests, or simply by increased ballistic accuracy and precision of aim), or overwhelming it with speed by using gun artillery instead of relatively-slow rockets.
No doubt the cagey Israelis (has any nation’s paranoia ever been more justified?) have already thought this through and have counter-countermeasures in development (one of which certainly is a laser system). The Palestinians, in their ongoing attempts to outsmart the smarter Israelis, are the Wile E. Coyote of weapons development.
Anyway, let’s return to Sweetman’s rundown of current and very-near-future directed energy weaponry.
Close behind the systems already shown by Rheinmetall, Rafael and MBDA—certainly not a technological leap away—is the new Gen 3 HEL being developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to fit on an Avenger unmanned air vehicle (AW&ST Feb. 16-March 1, p. 30). If what we hear is correct, it combines an output as high as 300 kw with high beam quality; it can fire 10 times between 3-min. recharges; and a version might fit in the 3,400-lb. pod that Boeing designed for the Advanced Super Hornet (see photo). A bomber or a special-operations C-130 could carry it easily.
This is a tipping point, because what you can do with 300 kw also depends on what you are trying to protect. If the goal is to knock down a supersonic antiship cruise missile (ASCM), there are two problems: water in the atmosphere (which attenuates laser energy) and the fact that a damaged ASCM can still hit the target. But if the target is an evasively maneuvering aircraft, it will often be in clear, dry air; and it is enough to destroy the missile’s seeker, put a hole in the radome, even at well-sub-kilometer range or weaken the motor tube to cause a miss, even at well-sub-kilometer range.
This is one where you’ll find it rewarding, we think, to open the mind and Read The Whole Thing™. Sweetman is no more infallible than any of us, but he is a more informed aerospace analyst than almost any of us, and bears close watching.