Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Evolution of Military Technology: LASERS!

As many of the Pentagon's defense projects get axed due to budget concerns, one area of research is receiving renewed interest and funding: Lasers. Lasers made international news in early April of this year when the Navy's Chief of Operations announced that 2014 would see the deployment of a naval ship to the Persian Gulf equipped with laser technology that allows the vessel to burn drones out of the sky. The Navy released footage of a prototype demonstrating those very capabilities seen here (it's without sound, sorry. It's also from Fox News ... double sorry). In other laser technology news, the U.S. Marine Corps recently contracted Cubic Corporation to create a laser defense called "Ground-Based Air Defense Directed Energy On-the-Move" to destroy incoming mortar and artillery rounds and enhance surveillance. 

New laser technology on display 

The prospect of incorporating laser technology into all branches of the military is appealing on many levels. Lasers theoretically provide an inexhaustible amount of "ammunition" and operational costs would be minimal compared to other types of weaponry. Also, lasers can be placed on relatively small weapons and can engage the enemy at a much faster pace than onboard guns. The lasers are also capable of simply “dazzling” attackers, knocking out their communication and navigation equipment. While the Pentagon has been funding research into laser technology for the last several years, scientists and military researchers are claiming that technology has improved drastically since initial inquiries into the utility of lasers. Essentially, the power of the lasers are increasing, the weight of the systems are decreasing, and the quality of the beams is improving. Maybe most important, the aim of laser beams is getting better. "We've made great progress in target stabilization, of getting the beam at exactly the right spot at the right time," Klunder, chief of naval operations, claimed last month. But don't give up on conventional munitions yet. Directed-energy researchers and scientists are among the first to acknowledge that more progress needs to be made before energy beams completely supplant traditional military weapons. 

An engineer adjusts a mirror in the "wall of fire," a zigzag-shaped optical path used by the Airborne Laser Test Bed's missile-killing high energy laser, during a test at the Lockheed Martin facility in 2003. 

One of the major difficulties at the moment with lasers is the lopsided ratio between the amount of energy needed to power the weapon and the amount the weapon produces. To retrofit existing ships with laser weapons would require a significant amount of batteries. Having powerful, densely packed batteries on board leads to concerns about safe storage and charging. One solution would be to make lasers more efficient (they waste abut 70 percent of the energy that produces them) which would cause the amount of power they require to diminish as well. Another problem is that the integration of these powerful lasers onto ships could interfere with other electrical systems or sensors, what engineers call electromagnetic interference. A further issue with the technology is the residual heat a laser blast leaves in its wake. The Navy is experimenting with ways to mitigate the damage caused by the blast, including cooling the lasers with seawater immediately after they’ve been “fired”. Another important consideration are environmental factors; saltwater, fog, and rain could all hamper a laser’s effectiveness. Researchers hope that better beam quality and propagation (how far the beam reaches) will ultimately overcome these challenges.

Lasers have been used on battlefield before, mainly for designating targets and determining the range of objects. Future uses could raise potential policy questions. For example, the Geneva Convention prohibits use of weapons designed to blind its targets. Since lasers have the potential to damage vision, this could be a legal sticking point. What the “rules of engagement” allow for may restrict the scope of a laser weapon's use on the battlefield in the future.

An infrared image of the Missile Defense Agency's Airborne Laser Testbed destroying a threat representative short-range ballistic missile, left, Feb. 11, 2010.

Hypothetical uses of laser technology in the military range from interesting to downright badass. Researchers are proposing that lasers could be used as the backbone for secure line-of-sight communication or in variety of circumstances to disable hidden explosive devices. Additionally, lasers could continue be utilized as “range finders”, but with more precision. A range finder calculates the distance, or range, to a desired target by measuring how long a small burst of laser light takes to travel to the target. This practical tool can be either handheld or mounted on a tank. Obviously, if a soldier knows the exact distance to his target, he has a much better chance of hitting it. Lasers could also be used to locate and destroy explosive devices without placing any military personnel directly in harms way. New technology has yielded a laser prototype capable of detecting tiny traces of explosive vapor which, even in its formative stages, carries vast potential. Lastly, military lasers have the potential to be used underwater in the area of submarine communications. Submarines often patrol in enemy waters, and in the past the only way an admiral could get a message to a sub was by using an ordinary radio. I don’t understand the exact intricacies of the technology, but researchers believe that laser beams of a certain monochromatic tone could transmit messages from a submerged military vessel to a satellite orbiting high above the ocean equipped with a special receiver that only accepts that certain color of light. Pretty amazing.

The wars of the future will certainly be fought very differently from the wars of the past as technology continues to evolve. Lasers have a clearly established presence in that evolution and research into their military potential will undoubtedly continue. 


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