Friday, October 9, 2015

The Future of Warfare

Lasers are employed so ubiquitously as weapons in science fiction movies that it may come as a surprise to read that they really haven't been applied that way in the military. They're used as targeting devices, to be sure, but, with the exception of a laser weapon on a naval warship, the USS Ponce, not as the instrument that does the damage. According to an article in The Week, however, that's soon going to change:
This week Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor behind the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, announced it was exploring ways to put a laser on the controversial fighter. The U.S. Navy has already fielded a laser weapon on the USS Ponce. And the U.S. Army is looking for ways to use lasers to protect troops in the field from artillery shells, missiles, and drones.

All of this is just a start. As lasers grow smaller and more compact, eventually they will be mounted on everything from bombers to tanks. A quiet killer at the speed of light, lasers may some day dominate the battlefield as we know it.

A laser inflicts damage with heat produced by focused light. This heat can burn a hole in the skin of airplanes, set a pickup truck's gas tank on fire, and even burn holes in people. Pointed at an artillery shell in flight, a laser can heat the shell until the explosive inside detonates. Engineers have known how lasers work for decades but have been held back by various problems, chief of which are power generation and storage. A laser needs a lot of energy — in the tens of kilowatts range or higher — to be usable as a weapon. And it needs it instantly.

Despite the technological hurdles, there are reasons why research has persisted. Lasers have many advantages over conventional projectile weapons. A laser moves at roughly the speed of light, or 186,000 miles per second. Unlike a missile, an accurate laser beam can't be avoided. Lasers aren't affected by strong winds and can't be blown off target.

Laser weapons are invisible, operating at an optical wavelength the human eye cannot discern. They are also silent and unlike bullets and shells, do not produce miniature sonic booms. Unlike conventional weapons, which utilize a controlled explosion to generate energy, lasers have no recoil.

Lasers are also affordable. A single Griffin short-range missile costs at least $115,000. A shot from a laser costs usually costs less than a dollar, the price of the energy used. The actual laser system is more expensive — the laser on the USS Ponce cost $40 million, including six years of research and development — but expect the price tag to fall as they become more common.
The article goes on to discuss a few more pros and cons of laser weapons and the military's plans to use them. The article doesn't mention it, but for years the military was researching ways to mount lasers on high-flying aircraft to shoot down attacking nuclear ICBMs while they were still in their boost phase. With the North Koreans and Iranians developing ICBMs to deliver nuclear weapons against the U.S. homeland, and a few other nations like China and Russia already having this capability, it would be nice if we had a way to protect ourselves from such a horrific possibility.

The Democrats in general, however, and the Obama administration in particular, have been reluctant to develop such a capability fearing that it would lead to another arms race. This argument may have made some sense when the only real nuclear threat was the old Soviet Union, which was led by men who, whatever else they were, were at least not lunatics. Given that we can't say that about the North Koreans nor the Iranians it makes eminent sense to do what we can now to defend ourselves from the psychopaths who have their fingers on the nuclear button in these countries.

Of course, it would've also been helpful had the president not seen fit to release $150 billion of frozen Iranian assets so that the fanatic mullahs in Tehran, who keep declaring their devout wish to incinerate us, could fund their nuclear dreams of mushroom clouds filling American skies.