By Kevin Milne
© Image courtesy of European Southern Observatory
To many people, the prospect of laser technology being used in real life combat situations and even being developed into an effective replacement for projectile weaponry is as futuristic as hand held ray guns in Star Trek or as ambitious as Reagan’s 1980’s Star Wars Strategic Defense Initiative.
As reported by the BBC in April 2011 the US Navy have trialled the use of high-energy lasers in naval operations. Using the laser to disable a boat by setting fire to its engines off the coast of California, the hope being that this technology could eventually be used to protect vessels from small attack boats.
On the 25 of July 2011, Boeing announced that its Directed Energy Systems (DES) division has signed a teaming agreement with BAE Systems to develop the Mk 38 Mod 2 Tactical Laser System for defence of U.S. Navy ships.
"Boeing is committed to developing this directed energy system that will significantly enhance ship defence," said Michael Rinn, Boeing DES vice president. "Combining BAE's engineering expertise with the proven directed-energy proficiency of Boeing's DES division creates a team uniquely qualified to integrate directed-energy technology into the Navy's shipboard armaments."
According to howstuffworks.com a laser weapon works due to it being a focused beam, which creates only one wavelength/colour of light. The peaks and troughs from the light waves are also synchronized peak-to-peak and trough-to-trough. As a result, this means that the different waves don't interfere with each other. The light travels only in one direction and the beam can be tightly focused and remain so over great distances, whilst in addition producing tremendous power.
When asked about this, Thomas Stagliano, senior aerospace engineer who works for ITT Defense, described the many pros and cons of such a laser being deployed and used on an operational Naval warship:
“There are several points that make solid-state lasers a good potential for a ship-board defensive system, for instance, plenty of electricity to generate the laser beam.
"If there is as much as a 20% efficiency, then a ship will need to generate a megawatt of power on short notice to power one to two lasers. That can be done more likely on a ship than on a ground vehicle or an aircraft.
"Additionally, the availability of pointing and tracking systems, take the 25 to 30mm cannon shown in the picture with automatic pointing and tracking. Throw in the existing Phalanx gun system on many ships and merely tie the laser to the gun system and you have added effectiveness.
"And lastly the minimisation of collateral damage, if one is trying to protect a ship in harbour or near the coast line (littoral waters) from rapidly moving light threats, do you want the Navy firing dozens of 25 and 30 mm cannon projectiles, assuming that half may miss?”
It is not all rosy for the laser project, for Mr Stagliano does warn that laser technology does have its drawbacks.
“The down-side is the ability of the laser to be transmitted through that marine atmosphere with lots of laser-fouling crud in the air. Whilst also the overall cost to make the system effective as well as robust enough to survive the various sea-states that Naval ships are routinely exposed to.
"However, I believe that once a rugged 150 KW solid-state laser is produced it will be integrated onto a ship, possibly the Littoral Combat Ship.”
Adding to this Brian Salter, President at Salter Design, brings to light another drawback to this type of weaponry being wholly used as a defensive/offensive weapon, which in essence would prevent a vessel from having a long-range effect, he said:
“This should be obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people forget that lasers are line-of-sight only."
"Mount it higher and you gain distance, and if you are aiming at taller targets you gain distance, but still you can forget about those nifty over-the-horizon shots.”
A strong advocate for this new range of hardware is Drew Byers a Laser Technician, who believes in the potential of laser cannons.
“The Laser Induced Plasma Channel technology is good for the Navy because the needs of the Navy are changing.
“The ability a (LIPC) ‘weapon’ allows for example, is that the Coast Guard can stop ships in a non-lethal way by stopping vessel engines without the need for the usual deadly ordinance.
“In this case the engine is not struck by a laser that heats and damages the motor, instead the motor is electrically deactivated by stopping the motor's electrical system.
“As the modern Navy deals with hazards while in ports, it's best to stop approaching hazards with non-lethal response in many cases. When we think of laser ‘weapons’ by the Navy, I think it should be remembered that the prime mission is to defend life, not destroy it.”
On reflection Debajit Sarkar, an unmanned vehicle system and smart weapons subject matter expert, warns that:
“The technology behind laser weapons or Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) is at a nascent stage. It does however, have the potential to revolutionise many aspects of modern warfare.
“Most of the analysis of DEW pigeon holes a wide array of weapons technologies in the DEW category, these include: a) particle beam weapons; b) high energy laser weapons; c) laser induced plasma channel weapons and d) high power microwave weapons.
“The fundamental problems faced by DEW are the same as those faced by projectile weapons, which is getting the projectile to successfully travel a useful distance and hit the target, and then produce useful damage effects.
“Laser weapons by and large remain inefficient weapons. Lets just say that if a laser could be fitted to an aircraft the size of the F-35 and was able to actually shoot down missiles, as opposed to DIRCMS like MANTA that just dazzle optical and IR guided missiles then you have to wonder what the US Navy is doing wasting its time with SEA RAM and Phalanx.
“A ship has a lot more space and a lot more available power to support laser defence systems yet they don't seem to be working on them, because they are incredibly inefficient in terms of energy use.”
With the leaps and bounds that have been made in laser technology, it seems that the days of fully functioning laser cannon are far from reality. A more realistic visage would be the combination or hybrid cannon, which adopts both strengths of laser and projectile. No doubt as technology advances the day when lasers replace projectile weaponry may yet see the light of day, I am just waiting for them to make a functioning lightsaber.
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