Laser and Microwave Weapons - Directed-Energy Weapon Programs, Potential, and Issues

Laser and Microwave Weapons - Directed-Energy Weapon Programs, Potential, and Issues

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For many, many years now, militaries have been relying on the same basic families of systems for a lot of their offensive firepower. Projectiles, whether they be bombs, bullets or missiles have improved significantly. Whether that has meant becoming longer ranged, more agile, more precise, more destructive or just safer to store.

And for the most part, they very much do the jobs they were designed to do. But just because nations have a system that works, that doesn't mean it works perfectly or that they aren't looking for something better. For decades now the military pursuit of a new generation of destructive, responsive and potentially more affordable weapons systems, has led governments to plough billions of dollars into researching what to the public at least might seem like sci-fi next generation technologies. These are directed-energy weapons, most commonly lasers and high powered microwaves.

On paper, these technologies have enormous potential advantages over more conventional weapons. But with years of development and research having yielded only a handful of operational systems, there is probably value in asking the question: where do directed-energy weapons sit on the spectrum between the future of weapons development and expensive science project? And as they do begin to be fielded in greater numbers, how should we expect militaries to use them? So to do that we are going to follow a pretty familiar pattern. Starting with the history of directed-energy weapons, what their basic characteristics are and promise to do, run through some of the programs we have publicly heard about in the land, sea and aerospace domains.

And then having hyped up the potential of these sci-fi weapons systems, we'll of course throw cold water on the whole thing by looking at potential counter-measures and risks. In the interests of time though, I have got two main caveats. Firstly, that it'll be focussing mostly on destructive systems.

And secondly, that I am going to focus on anti-materiel, not anti-personnel systems. Those tend to look and be used very differently, and so are probably a topic for another day. But before we start working through a light-speed topic at very much sub-light velocities, a quick word from a sponsor. And today I'm once again welcoming back a returning sponsor and my VPN of choice, Private Internet Access.

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OK, so let's start, as we often do, with a little bit of history. As far as we can tell, for basically all of human history people have overwhelmingly relied on kinetic weapons for ranged combat. These are weapons where you transmit energy, where you inflict damage on a target by imparting energy into an object and accelerating it towards the thing that you want to be hurt. In perhaps its most basic configuration, a thrown rock is a ranged kinetic weapon.

Robbo wants to punch a bloke 10 metres away on the other side of a stream or a river, but lacking 10 metre long arms or a desire to swim, he can't do so. So instead of transmitting energy by throwing a punch he picks up a rock, throws it, imparting the energy to the rock, and assuming the rock then hits its target, the energy has been retransmitted and potentially damage done. Over the years, humanity has come up with a huge number of ways and configurations in which this basic principle can be applied.

We've come up with different methods of accelerating things, from mechanical levers and catapults, through to detonating gunpowder behind a projectile inside a tube, or employing systems like rockets or rail guns. We've also come up with all manner of things that you can accelerate, from bullets to fragmentation out of an artillery shell or hand grenade, through to warheads that use an explosive detonation to accelerate a stream of molten metal towards the desired target. But the basic principle is everywhere, to the point where one euphemism for the stage of a fight where you actually start bombing, shooting or inflicting physical damage on your opponent somehow, is "going kinetic", or "taking kinetic action." An energy weapon by contrast, to use a simplified definition for this video, dispenses with the projectile.

Instead of imparting energy into a target by accelerating something else first, you just find a way to beam or transmit that energy directly. Not all concepts for doing that are entirely modern. Whether or not it actually existed for example, the concept of Archimedes using polished mirrors to focus the sun's rays in order to set ships on fire would basically have been a directed-energy weapon. And would have meant, in a way, that the sun was in fact a deadly laser. But for the purpose of this video we are mostly concerned with some technology that came along much later, and which formed the basis for a lot of the modern thought around the potential of directed energy. These of course being the laser and the high powered microwave.

Now I thought long and hard about it, but in the interests of time in this episode I am not going to dive too much into the science of how high powered microwaves and laser weapons work. Instead I want to focus on their characteristics as weapons systems, what can they do, what are their strengths and weaknesses? And what sort of implications does that have for the future of warfare and force design? For now it is enough to say that both types of system use concentrated electro-magnetic energy, not kinetic energy, to do damage to targets. But because one is (unsurprisingly given the name) emitting a laser and the other a microwave, the way they perform and act on targets can be very different.

A laser weapon transmits energy into a target using a beam of coherent light. How exactly the laser generates that beam, what wavelength it operates in, and a variety of other factors can be incredibly diverse across different designs. You have lasers powered by chemical reactions, electrical power, or during humanity's less sober moments, nuclear explosions. But in a destructive military weapon context what you will almost inevitably get, no matter how it is generated, is a concentrated beam of electromagnetic energy that's going to move at the speed of light and apply potentially a lot of particularly thermal energy (heat) to a point target. So if you are talking about damaging a system using a laser and the target is not something vulnerable to light, like optics or the human eye, how resistant it is to thermal energy is probably going to be your second question.

So to be very clear, this thing that fires a visible red bolt which moves slower than a bullet across the screen and then explodes when it hits something is not a laser. The so-called Death Star super laser with its slower than light energy beams is also probably not a laser. And whether this thing is a laser weapon, particle weapon, flash-light, or a funeral prop ultimately depends on the source material in question. The other type of technology we'll be looking at today is the high powered microwave.

And while this might be another directed-energy weapon, the way it behaves compared to a laser is pretty chalk and cheese. As the name suggests you are using microwaves to transmit energy, not coherent light. You are often going to be hitting a wider physical area as opposed to a narrow point target as a laser does.

Meaning that potentially while a laser might operate like a laser pointer, a high powered microwave weapon can be more like waving a torch into the sky. And then beyond that, the method a HPM uses to deliver damage to a target is also fundamentally different. A laser is going to impart thermal energy to a target, it's going to burn it. But the target for most high powered microwaves (when they aren't being used on squishy targets like personnel) is actually usually going to be a target's electronics.

Particularly if you choose to attack on the correct frequency, a microwave is going to potentially dump a lot of energy into a target's electronic components. That in turn can degrade or destroy them. If you target a building full of sensitive computer systems with a HPM on the right settings, then that building might show zero signs of damage from the attack, but the computers inside might be so badly screwed that it makes the old Xbox Red Ring of Death look like a minor error. We'll go into a little more detail about how these technologies work as weapon systems a little later on, but for now let's jump back to the Cold War and the arrival of the first military lasers. During the Cold War lasers were rapidly adopted for a wide range of uses. Laser sights and guidance systems were developed, and of course laser range-finders made life a whole lot easier for gunners and a whole lot harder for targets.

But militaries being militaries, there was also a lot of interest in taking the new technology and using it to destroy things directly. To that end, we did actually see dedicated laser-armed vehicles during the Cold War. With one of the more famous examples being the Soviet 1K17, which you can genuinely argue was the world's first laser tank.

These vehicles, of which I believe only two ever existed, were reportedly intended to disrupt or disable enemy optical-electronic equipment through the basic mechanism of focusing a high powered laser at them. Because of the technological limits of the time however, the results seems to have been very much a solution searching for a problem. Power generation limits meant a potentially constrained range. And the fact that you needed basically a tank sized system to potentially just disable your enemy's optical equipment, as opposed to, you know, taking a tank-sized system like a tank and using it to just knock out enemy vehicles or positions entirely. Because blowing up an enemy vehicle is also a fairly reliable way of disabling their optics. The vehicle would also likely be very expensive to manufacture.

Fortunately, the Soviet Union wasn't having any economic problems at all in the 1980s, but ultimately using a system like this to achieve destructive impacts against all but the most vulnerable devices was probably a non-starter just because there was no way to generate the power levels required. Or at least, there was no sane way to do so. However this was the Cold War, and insane solutions were still very much on the table. In the United States, Project Excalibur aimed to develop a laser that would be suitable for ballistic missile defence. Basically a system you could put up into orbit and then use to shoot down Soviet nukes before they could make it to the US. As for how to power the thing, the concept was to use a nuclear-pumped laser.

Where you would wrap a number of X-ray lasers around a nuclear device, detonate it, in the very, very short moments before those lasers were vapourised they would focus the generated X-ray energy into an X-ray laser beam. And that, if properly aimed, would destroy the Soviet missiles. In the end, neither this system or anything like it were ever actually built and deployed. And after the Cold War ended, both doomsday and counter-doomsday weapons went out of style for a while. And as far as we know, no nuclear-pumped laser systems have ever reached an operational deployment. Instead in the 90s and 2000s we saw a number of much more grounded directed-energy weapons programs.

The US Air Force stuck a laser turret on the front of a 747-400 and tested its potential usefulness as an anti-ballistic missile platform. Only to eventually conclude that it probably wasn't practical to have a 747 circling above North Korean nuclear missile launch sites 24/7 just in case they fired one off. With the Air Force then retiring the single prototype in September 2014. In a way the YAL-1 stands as a pretty good example for what directed-energy weapons development often look like during this time.

While advancing technology was hugely beneficial for things like electronic warfare or sensors, making the jump up to a destructive directed-energy weapon system that was actually practically deployable was always an idea that seemed all a promise, but always a couple of years away. At least with one or two small-scale exceptions that we might talk about later. But jump forward to 2024 and interest and investment in these systems is much, much higher. With multiple countries pursuing programs and some basic systems already on operational deployment. And while lot has gone into shaping that change, two macro factors stand out.

Firstly, the systems are just becoming more feasible to build as the technology available is catching up to the theory. And secondly, there's arguably a growing need. Future battlefields look increasingly likely to be saturated with large numbers of munitions and disposable drones. Space as a war-fighting domain is arguably growing in importance. And people appear to be slowly coming to the conclusion that shooting Patriots at hobby drones is probably not a long-term solution.

Which brings us I think to the "what" and "why" of directed-energy weapons in the 21st century. And here I've got a couple of basic questions. What are the performance characteristics that might make you want a directed-energy weapon? What are some of the targets you might shoot them at? And as a result, what sort of military role might they play? In terms of basic fundamental characteristics, there's a few things that both lasers and microwaves might offer you.

Firstly, while you may be stuck putting a lot of money into research, development, construction and fielding, if the system in question is simply electrically powered then your cost per firing is probably going to be very, very low compared to something like a missile. Firing a missile to intercept a target might cost everything from tens of thousands of dollars at the low end to multiple millions at the top end. But generating enough electricity to fire a laser weapon once might cost less than the hourly rate of the guy operating the system. Obviously exactly how much power you need and whether you are generating it using a diesel generator or a ship's nuclear reactors probably matters a great deal to that equation. But when you are dealing with literally multiple orders of magnitude difference between the directed-energy system and the missile option, a few bucks here and there isn't really going to change the calculus that much.

A new Lamborghini is going to cost more than a bicycle, even if you get the Lambo 50% off. Advantage two is precision and time to target. All else being equal, when you choose to engage a target, you'd probably prefer to hit it sooner rather than later. And at the ranges at which laser and microwave weapons can currently operate, the time from firing to either missing or hitting the target is basically zero.

Third, as long as you can manage heat and keep feeding energy to a system, usually you're not in any danger of running out of ammo. A missile system can continue intercepting targets until the tube is empty. Barring a technical failure however, a high powered laser is going to start blasting and keep blasting as long as you can feed it power, dump the heat, and there are targets in the sky. There's a German high-energy laser demonstration system for example, which is reportedly capable of destroying a light drone if it can hold a beam on it for 2 to 3 seconds. And it can reportedly continue to make those engagements at a rate of 6 per minute as long as the system can be kept on-line. All of these traits (provided the weapon systems can be made to work of course) might help answer two problems that we've seen forces around the world, including in conflicts like Ukraine, encounter.

The first is simply not having enough munitions available to deal with every missile, every drone, every artillery shell or other incoming target on the battlefield. And the second is the often exorbitant cost of engaging those targets using existing missile systems. Ukraine can for example shoot down Orlan drones with Buk missiles, and in extreme cases it has had to do so. But you are going to run out of missiles before they run out of drones, and the missile costs considerably more than the target does.

If you are using a laser to engage that target however, the situation reverses. They are probably going to run out of drones long before you run out of electricity, and as cheap as drones have been getting, I'm not aware of anyone who's been able to make them for 20 bucks apiece yet. So then in terms of military role, there's a whole range of targets you might potentially want to shoot a directed-energy weapon at. These range from relatively soft and easy to destroy targets like cheap drones or potentially personnel, up through artillery shells, cruise missiles, space assets, aircraft, ballistic missiles or even armoured vehicles. Some of these are obviously much harder targets (figuratively or literally) for the sort of weapons involved.

Using a laser to burn through a plastic Alibaba drone is one thing, try to achieve the same effect against an armoured vehicle however, and you'll find it is hopelessly impractical given the existing power level of these weapons. Also note that some targets are going to be much more resistant to lasers, microwaves or both. A dumb system that doesn't contain any electronics is not going to be vulnerable to a microwave attack.

But the electronics in another target might be very vulnerable to microwaves, even if the target itself is pretty well protected against laser attack. In terms of the actual impact something like a laser can have on a target, that's going to depend on a number of factors. Firstly target type for obvious reasons. Secondly, range and conditions, with most current laser weapons having ranges only in the hundreds of metres or low single-digit kilometres.

(At least where the goal is to transmit a useful amount of energy.) And other elements including perhaps most importantly, the power of the laser. Scaling output is perhaps one of the most important engineering challenges when it comes to building a useful destructive laser weapon. Because while you might have a useful dazzler at 30 kW, and be able to destroy small drones at relatively short distances at 60 kW (at least if you can hold the beam on the target), working against targets like cruise and ballistic missiles at useful distances is probably going to require a weapon in the multi-100 kilowatt or even megawatt range.

And since output is a key indicator of what you can damage, how quickly, at what distance, more is almost always better. This is why in the US for example you have the High Energy Laser Scaling Initiative. Which isn't intended to produce a final design, a deployable laser system, but instead to test and develop different ways to solve that fundamental scaling problem. With the initially announced target back in 2020 being a 300 kW system, with different contractors trying to do so using different technologies.

And an eventual intention to scale that to 500 kW. In terms of the effect a microwave weapon might have, the usual concerns around power and output apply. But you also have complicating, potentially intelligence-driven, factors. For example knowing what frequencies opposition equipment might be vulnerable to might be pretty useful if you want to launch an effective narrow-band attack against it, efficiently dumping a whole bunch of energy into those electronics and ruining tech support's day. OK, so now let's start to move beyond theory into potential application, starting with ground-based applications, asking the question: who do we know is developing directed-energy weapons and why? The advantages to deploying directed-energy weapons on the ground really depend on whether you want the system to be mobile or not.

If you don't want the system to be able to move, this is probably the easiest place to put one of these systems. You can use fixed generators or a power grid, bulky equipment, and things like the weight and heat concerns that we'll discuss with some of the other platforms probably don't matter as much. But as we are about to see, a lot of the systems in development are intended for force or base protection, they need to be mobile. And as a result, a lot of directed-energy weapons in this category need to not just be powerful enough to do their job, they need to be compact enough to be suitable for transport. A lot of the focus here seems to be about giving both manoeuvre forces and installations a better way of defending themselves against a whole suite of threats that have shown themselves to be particularly dangerous in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine. Drones and loitering munitions, and to an extent unguided artillery and rocket projectiles.

There are currently some solutions to these problems, but they tend to suffer from the same drawbacks we discussed earlier. Great expense if you're talking about using missiles to shoot down FPVs or Lancets. And issues like range, magazine size and responsiveness if you are talking about things like self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, or the SeaRAM you see on the right there. The reality seems to be that the modern battlefield is more transparent with cheap and affordable precision everywhere. And so militaries might look to directed energy for an affordable counter to affordable precision. That means you can still effectively manoeuvre or concentrate without putting the entire force at undue risk.

The US Army is believed to have at least two programs aimed at solving that problem. The Directed Energy Manoeuvre Short-Range Air Defence system, or DE M-SHORAD, is the component aimed at protecting the army's combat brigades. Basically the idea here seems to have been to take a 50 kW laser and all of its supporting power source and equipment, strap that to a Stryker and test that as a short-range air-defence system.

There was reportedly a shoot off between prototypes back in 2021, two prototypes entered, one remained standing at the end. And subsequent tests would follow in 2022 and 2023. According to a press release by the manufacturer, during those tests the prototype "acquired, tracked, targeted and defeated multiple mortar rounds and successfully accomplished multiple tests simulating real-world scenarios." While it would probably be pretty convenient to roll around a system that can literally shoot artillery and mortar rounds out of the sky before they impact you (especially if that kind of system could be adapted to also target things like FPVs or loitering munitions that would otherwise be prime candidates for destroying such a vehicle), we don't have detailed public data on its performance and capabilities and the program is still very much in the prototype stage. Another example would be the US Air Force's High-Energy Laser Weapon System, which is literally represented as a laser weapon mounted on the back of a Polaris all-terrain vehicle.

And is reportedly capable of engaging drone targets out to distances of 3 kilometres. One report I found indicated that it could fire dozens of shots on a single charge, or an indefinite number if you could keep it fed with an external generator. The other program/use case is a larger system intended to protect fixed or semi-fixed locations. With the trade-off that whatever you field is going to be larger and less mobile in exchange for having a lot more power, in this case 300 kW as opposed to 50 kW reportedly. And with that extra power not just the ability to engage things like mortars or drones, but also targets like cruise missiles. A decent example here would be the US Army's Indirect Fire Protection Capability High Energy Laser, or if you don't want to use that mouthful, the Valkyrie.

The system is still likely to be vehicle mobile, just not suitable for the forward edge of the battle area. Presumably in part because cutting armour weight tends to allow you a lot more everything else weight. Unlike DE M-SHORAD however, we've seen a lot less of Valkyrie.

And a report I found indicated that 4 Valkyrie prototypes will be delivered in fiscal year 2025. Moving to Israel then, we have the Iron Beam system. As most of you probably already know, Israel has a multi-layered air-defence system, ranging from things like Arrow providing anti-ballistic missile defence, all the way down to Iron Dome.

Iron Beam is intended to be an even shorter range, even cheaper alternative, for engaging things like basic mortar, rocket and artillery projectiles with a claimed range of around 7 kilometres. Israel might value that sort of capability, because even though Iron Dome interceptor missiles are some of the cheapest in the world, you are still talking about potentially firing rockets worth tens of thousands of dollars to bring down projectiles that might cost 100 bucks each. Iron Beam has been described as a 100 kW system in terms of power level.

And while full-scale deployment is reportedly still a number of years away, we have seen the system tested, and it's believed a navalised variant is also in development. The UK also has its own military ground-based high-energy laser program, DragonFire, which was recently reportedly tested against a small drone and is described as being a long-range line-of-sight system. That last bit of information does feel a little bit redundant, as to my knowledge no one has yet found a good way to bend a laser beam in combat.

Germany is also arguably a pretty active participant in the military laser technology race. Their contributions include a naval system that we'll talk about a bit more later, but also a much smaller laser system intended for use by infantry or unmanned ground vehicles. These include an infantry-portable system that's been tested against targets like door knobs and wire mesh fences at ranges between 25 and 400 metres. A slightly more powerful 5 kW system that you might be able to place on an unmanned ground vehicle. And plans for a vehicle vehicle-integrated system in the 60 kW range.

But all that has to do with laser systems, what about high powered microwaves? And here I want to start by talking about the American Tactical High power microwave Operational Responder, or THOR, which is a really fancy name for a system that basically looks like a really powerful emitter put on top of a shipping container. The concept behind THOR appears to be to create a weapon system capable of dealing with swarms of drones attacking fixed installations. In that respect it may have an advantage over high energy lasers, because instead of picking off one drone at a time, a high powered microwave weapon can instead pick a segment of sky and decide it doesn't want things there to work anymore. As a ground-based system it is obviously being developed by the US Air Force, but hey, it's deployable inside a C-130, so I guess that counts. Based on the information available, THOR is a bit of a weird one when it comes to military projects.

It reportedly only cost 18 million US dollars to develop, has been tested, apparently works against its intended target which was a swarm of drones, involved close collaboration between the Air Force Research Laboratory and other parts of the military, namely the Army's Rapid Capability and Critical Technologies Office and the Joint Counter-UAS Office. And after successfully completing its 2-year test period has informed a follow-on effort called Mjolnir. So yeah, military development program involving next generation technology, significant cooperation across the defence force, delivered relatively cheaply, tested effectively against its intended target and leading on to a valuable follow-on effort. So forget THOR and Mjolnir, if there's a third version I nominate the name "Unicorn".

Instead, when looking at a third program intended to deliver a longer ranged microwave weapon, instead the system got the name the Counter-Electronic High Power Microwave Extended-Range Air Base Defence System, or CHIMERA. And while we know comparatively little about CHIMERA compared to THOR, we do know it reportedly recently completed a 3 week field test at White Sands Missile Range. And that the Air Force Research Laboratory is reportedly cooperating with the Naval Surface Warfare Centre on the program. And so while it may be called an air base defence system, I wouldn't rule out the technology or development effort feeding into navally-focused efforts at some point in the future. And if none of the Air Force programs work or are suitable for requirements, don't worry, there is apparently some taxpayer-funded redundancy going on with the US Army's own containerised counter swarm drone microwave weapon system.

The Army apparently intends to operate the microwave system alongside the Valkyrie laser weapon as part of a layered defence system for fixed and semi-fixed sites. That makes a degree of sense, as you would expect all else being equal, a microwave system to have more potential against certain drone swarms, but to be absolutely useless against targets like mortar rounds, which can be handled by the high-energy laser. The target date for the first four army prototypes is the fourth quarter of fiscal 2024, so as long as the program remains on track it may not be that long until we see the system being demonstrated. OK, so let's move on then to some potential naval applications and programs. In some ways 2024 is a bad year to be a surface ship.

The battlefield is more transparent than ever, it's kind of hard to camouflage a ship on the open ocean. And surface warships face both new generations of old threats like anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as new and rapidly evolving threats like naval drones, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and even as we've seen in the Red Sea, potentially the use of cheap and affordable drones in the anti-shipping role. Now the good news for warships is that in some ways their defences are better than they have ever been. Sensors and electronic warfare equipment has improved, defensive missile systems have improved. And in many designs the shift from arm-based to vertical launch systems for defensive missiles means it might now be harder to saturate a warship's defences than it was in the old days.

With arm-based launchers the ship could only fire as quickly as the system could reload. But with a VLS system, where each cell can be popped individually, if the weapon systems operators get a bit twitchy they can create a pretty spectacular fireworks and contrail show at the expense of emptying the ship's munitions pretty damn quickly. Magazine depth for a lot of surface warships is a much more serious issue than how quickly they can actually fire the missiles they have. And what we've seen with some vessels operating against the Houthi missile and drone threat, like USS Carney, is that their ability to stay on station and sustain those sort of deployments can be limited by the need to go and reload. Another issue that flows from relying on missiles for defence, and both a blessing and curse of the VLS system, is that the same Mark 41 VLS cell that you can pack full of surface-to-air missiles is also capable of carrying a lot of the missiles that act as your ship's offensive firepower. Cruise missiles for attacking surface or ground targets, anti-submarine weapons, or maybe dedicated interceptor missiles that aren't intended to protect the fleet, but rather to shoot down potential nuclear weapons headed towards the homeland.

And so when decision makers are deciding how to provision a warship before it goes on a patrol, they have to make a decision around what munitions are being loaded. If you increase the number of interceptors to ensure the ship is more capable of defending itself against drone and missile attack, you'll probably also taking away from its offensive firepower, which might be why you are sending the ship in the first place. So all else being equal, if you change nothing else about the design of many warships, if fleets could rely more on directed-energy weapons to defend against threats, then the result of adding those very defensive systems might be an increase in the offensive firepower of the fleet.

Because now you might be able to pack more of those cells with missiles designed to make the opponent explode, rather than prevent you and your allies exploding. Plus ships might just have some basic engineering advantages over for example airborne platforms when it comes to deploying directed-energy weapons. In terms of some of the elements you need to get a really good energy weapons integration onto a platform, Rear Admiral Fred Pyle is quoted as saying that "It takes space, weight, power and cooling." Now he was reportedly bringing those up in the context of challenges to integrating these weapons onto current surface combatants. But if you want to compare it to a system has to be integrated onto a truck or tank chassis, or an aircraft, a warship might end up having advantages across all those categories. In terms of weight, it's usually much easier to float mass than to fly it.

You probably have more volume allowance on a several 100 metre long vessel than you do on a truck. You can get a lot more power out of a serious naval diesel or nuclear reactor than you are out of an aircraft power plant. And in terms of cooling challenges those can always be complicated, but having more mass and volume allowance available to allocate to that problem is probably going to help. As would potentially the ability to dump waste heat into some other medium like cooling water. An aircraft might struggle with cooling water availability, a warship probably won't, unless it intends to tax the thermal storage capacity of the entire ocean. The interesting extension here is that while the directed-energy weapons technology itself isn't fully mature, and most of the systems that are currently out there are technology demonstrators or development vehicles rather than intended to become operational weapons, many navies do seem to be hedging against their potential future availability in designing their current and next generation warships.

And one of the biggest ways to do that is to design them to be able to produce far more electricity than their current subsystems actually need. And in terms of generation capacity, America's next generation aircraft carriers are probably near the top of the list. The new Ford class can reportedly generate nearly 3 times as much electrical power as the Nimitz class before it. In part that's for the new electro-magnetic catapults and other advanced systems, but a lot of it, as with the excess generative capacity on Zumwalts, is just future proofing. Navies don't need to know what's going to suck up that power in the future, be it next generation sensors, lasers, microwaves, offensive systems like rail guns, whatever.

All they need to know is that something might want access to that power in the future. And when individual warships can stay in service for literal decades, it's probably easier to just build the capacity in now as opposed to trying to rip the ship open and make modifications later. The other interesting observation here is that while it suggests that short-ranged or low-powered directed-energy weapons might be suitable for deployment on a wide array of platforms.

You might even put them on small unmanned systems for example. If your new intended system is very, very power demanding, it might have to go on a larger platform. Which might protect the place of some of those larger units in the force structure even when navies might be looking at the potential of dispersing firepower and capability across multiple platforms in order to reduce the risk of very powerful, very capable offensive systems.

In terms of how you go about planning to integrate a technology that in operational terms doesn't really exist yet, you can see some of the US Navy's thinking represented on the right there in the fabulous format of DoD PowerPoint. And what that basically shows you is a family of systems and technology efforts with the general trend being towards the use of more powerful lasers over time, and the role of those lasers changing with the power level. All the way from basic dazzling systems that are already deployed, which we'll look at in a moment, up to a future excitingly named "Surface Navy Laser Weapon System Increment 3". Which is intended to provide the fleet with what the document describes as "improved anti-ship cruise missile defence". So as we did for the ground systems then, let's walk through a couple of active systems and development efforts. We'll start with something really basic, the AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System, or LaWS, which is basically a prototype infrared solid-state laser that the US installed on a single ship, USS Ponce, back in 2014.

Believed to be operating in the tens of kilowatts range, this is basically a short-range defensive weapon system. So think targets like small drones and speedboats at pretty close ranges. Now the LaWS unit was operational for a number of years, but it was always intended to aid testing and development efforts, not as a finalised system for widespread deployment. Still active and deployed however, is one of the many contenders for best acronym of the episode, the Optical Dazzler Interdictor Navy, or ODIN. Now unlike LaWS which was essentially a development effort, ODIN was reportedly approved in early 2017 to answer an urgently needed requirement from Pacific Command.

And as of 2024, we are very confident it's been installed on at least a number of ships, and will be installed on at least 8 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The first system was reportedly installed on USS Dewey back in 2019, and what you're seeing there on the right there is a reported sighting on the USS Stockdale. What ODIN reportedly is is a dedicated but operational dazzling system. The laser is not intended to be super high powered and enable it to destroy targets, instead it's intended to provide "a near-term directed-energy shipboard counter-ISR capability to dazzle UAS and other platforms." And some of you might be going "Hey Perun, why not just build a more powerful laser and shoot the drones down instead, that's rather more permanent than dazzling them."

And that's kind of the point, dazzling has a lot of utility especially for operations short of war. If you are in international waters and a potentially hostile power is circling your formation with a drone, they have every right to be there. Unless they actually attack you, shooting them down might be both legally dubious and a potential path to escalation. But dazzling them, dazzling is a very different story, because we're not shooting a target down, we are just showing it the light on an involuntary basis. You can degrade that target's ability to gather intelligence on you without destroying the entire drone. And in terms of people complaining about it: a) it's not guaranteed that anyone will actually care.

And there's the small matter of the dazzler only working if the camera or sensors are pointed at the emitter. Meaning if the drone wasn't staring in the general direction of the fleet, then it wouldn't be dazzled. So if you admit to your ISR drone being dazzled, you are also kind of admitting that you were watching in the first place. Moving up the power levels, we've got the system that answers that Surface Navy Laser Weapon System Increment 1 requirement on the PowerPoint from earlier. This is the High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical Surveillance, or HELIOS. And this is a system which combines a dazzler, like ODIN, and the ability to launch damaging laser attacks with several times the power output level of LaWS.

The HELIOS effort is described as wanting to rapidly field a 60 kW high-energy laser with potential growth up to 150 kW to provide, according to the Navy's 2024 budget submission, "A low cost per shot capability to address Anti-Surface Warfare and Counter-intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance gaps with the ability to dazzle and destroy Unmanned Aerial Systems and defeat Fast Inshore Attack Craft while integrated into the Aegis Combat System on a Flight IIA destroyer." I'll also make my own note here, based on the experience in Ukraine, that the definition of Fast Inshore Attack Craft can probably be extended to include unmanned naval kamikaze drones. Now there is a couple of things to unpack in all that. The first is that you are moving further towards usefully destructive power levels. Point this thing at a small drone over a sufficiently short distance and the operator can basically choose to set the weapon to stun or kill.

The second is that integration into the Aegis system solves a lot of problems in terms of how you are going to effectively target these things and efficiently utilise them alongside other elements of the fleet defences. And indeed there was reportedly a 2021 test where HELIOS was fed a challenging high-speed track from the Aegis Combat System, achieved an optical track and engaged it. Aegis is important for making sure not just that the fleet identifies threats, but that it efficiently allocates defensive resources against them. So integrating the laser into that system makes perfect sense.

The final interesting note here is the choice to integrate this thing on the Flight IIA destroyers, not the Flight IIIs. You would think "Hey, this is a flashy new system. Why not integrate it into the latest and greatest version of your destroyer?" And the answer might be to go back to those basic requirements we talked about earlier: power generation.

The Flight III has got a new AN/SPY-6 Air and Missile Defence Radar. That improves their ability to detect threats, but it's also pretty power hungry. To pull a quote of Rear Admiral Boxall, Director of Naval Surface Warfare, "We are out of schlitz with regards to electrical power in the Flight III design, we use a lot of power for that SPY-6 radar and we don't have as much extra."

Which I think just brings home some of the power crunch that a lot of existing, if not next generation warships, are going to face with regards to integrating these kind of systems. And so of course the logical response to that power crunch is to roll out an even more powerful laser. The High Energy Laser Counter Anti-ship cruise missile Program, or HELCAP, appears to be aimed at demonstrating a high-energy laser weapon capable of defeating not just small drones, speedboats, and some very angry jet skis in the Ukrainian style, but rather a much harder, more resistant target, the anti-ship cruise missile. That means both ramping the power level up again significantly (the budget bid suggest suggests a 300+ kW laser source) as well as a range of other technical challenges including "atmospheric turbulence, automatic target identification and point selection, a precision target tracker with low jitter in high clutter conditions (which is not always as easy as it sounds) and advanced beam control, along with higher-powered high-energy laser development."

If all those problems were solved and you ended up with a system that you could put on a warship capable of intercepting anti-ship cruise missiles, it would be a massive leap in what military lasers are able to do. But even then, there are some caveats on the intended capability of the demonstrator. In some of the sources I'll list, you see reference to the ability to defeat an anti-ship cruise missile, yes, but in a crossing engagement. So we are probably not talking about one emitter providing a wide area defence for a larger force against any cruise missile attack. Instead we are probably talking about defending the ship the system is mounted on, and maybe those that are immediately proximate to it. Now I could talk about this program more and there are other US programs we could cover, but in the interest of time let's start having a look at other programs around the world.

Because while the US probably has the largest array of publicly announced programs, we can be very confident that other countries are pushing forward efforts in this area as well. Germany's high-energy laser naval demonstrator has completed more than 100 tests under various conditions. And the head of laser activities at MBDA Germany talks about the potential of laser weapons in the CIWS role, and predicts the company having a laser-based operational weapon system from 2027 onwards.

Meanwhile on the right there you can see something that looks very much like a Chinese equivalent to the US LaWS system, at least in terms of rough scale and some very obvious design features that we did see on China Central Television. But (and note we are very much in the domain of rumour, reporting, and the occasional academic paper here) there is an argument to indicate that in the naval domain China may be focusing more of its resources on something a little bit different. To quote retired Admiral James Winnefeld writing for the US Naval Institute back in 2021, argued that "While the US military continues to focus on developing lasers, rail guns and projectiles, its major competitor, China, is pursuing high powered microwave technology with gusto. And is rewarding leading researchers in this area."

As discussed earlier, there's plenty of potential applications for HPM in a naval context. Not just in a low-powered counter-UAS role the same way a lot of those laser systems are intended to be used. But also hitting potentially large formations of targets that might have, for lack of a better term, a hard shell and soft innards. The Admiral for example theorises the use of HPM against formations of very fast moving missiles that are obviously very reliant on their internal guidance systems continuing to function in order to actually hit their targets.

I think one way to mentally test the potential value of these technologies would be to assume for a moment that they work, and then ask if they did work and you had them deployed now how would they impact for example what we are currently seeing in the Red Sea? Because, yes, you are giving the technology a lot of free kicks there by basically jumping it forward many years in its development process, but I also think it demonstrates what in a potential future scenario the technology may, or may not, be able to do. On one hand systems like HELCAP and HELIOS would probably allow warships to defend themselves from a lot of the threats that the Houthis are firing. Anti-ship cruise missiles, cheap drones, no problem.

They'd also allow potential cost-effective defence against surface threats like kamikaze drones but there would still be gaps in coverage that other systems would probably need to fill. Unless someone has a super-secret, extremely high-powered microwave system, you probably don't have a counter to anti-ship ballistic missiles. And importantly, given range limitations, unless the warships involved are doing very close protection of civilian ships, you'd probably still see the escorts falling back on longer-range systems like missiles or naval aviation in order to shoot down incoming threats. So for very wide area protection of civilian vessels, unless you pack them into that sort of close convoy, you'd either need a new generation again with even more range and power than before, very new tactics when it came to civilian vessel and sea-lane protection, or deploy lots and lots of these systems, for example on small un-manned platforms.

OK, so moving on then to the use of directed energy in the air and space domains. Here again, most of the programs that we are publicly aware of tend to focus on similar roles. Namely defensive systems intended to increase the survivability of future aircraft. After all, aircraft and aircrew are already significant investments for countries. 6th generation aircraft are likely to be even more expensive. And so to get the best possible value out of those maximum investments you are probably going to want to layer survivability features.

I know we usually talk about the survivability onion in relation to armoured vehicles, but you can also apply some of the same logic here. VLO features as well as the sensors and weapons necessary to do your own work from long distance might prevent you being seen. If you are seen, operating at a significant stand-off distance might prevent you from being targeted and engaged. But if you are engaged and a missile is flying your way, rather than just relying on electronic counter-measures or flares, what if you equip that aircraft with some sort of defensive directed-energy weapon? Now yes, most of what we think we "know" about 6th generation fighters or next generation bombers is very much in the domain of rumour, conjecture or the occasional public comment. But if you remember our video on 6th generation fighters, I think there's some compelling evidence to suggest that these aircraft are going to have both more power generation capacity and better heat management features than existing designs. Some of that may just go into meeting the needs of things like next generation sensor systems.

But it also might go towards powering something like an airborne laser. Back in 2020, Lockheed Martin reportedly said that they were working towards putting a laser on a tactical fighter within the next 5 years. A year earlier the Air Force Research Laboratory had reported that one of their programs had reached a new milestone, that was an advanced technology demonstration program called the Self-protect High-Energy Laser Demonstrator, or SHiELD. And the milestone in question was using a ground-based surrogate for what should eventually be an airborne system, being used to shoot down multiple air-launched missiles in flight. Jump forward and the suggestion is there are multiple components going into the SHiELD effort. Lockheed Martin reportedly delivered the new LANCE laser in 2022.

Which is an acronym for Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments. And it seems to have been focused on shrinking down the design to one more suitable for operation on an aircraft. With a Lockheed Martin executive being quoted as saying, "It's one sixth the size of what we produced for the Army going back to just 2017." Add to that other components like a beam control system reportedly being built by Northrop Grumman, and a pod subsystem to be mounted on an aircraft being built by Boeing, and while the AFRL may not have anything like an operational weapon ready for front-line use yet, it might provide something of an indicator as to where some of that thinking is going. And as always it's probably not just the Americans in this race, with there being for example fragmentary reporting that the Chinese are also working on their own pod-based airborne laser system.

But another way air forces are looking at using directed-energy weapons is actually on the attack. Not in the sense of giving fighters another knife fight weapon to use in close-range battles with each other, that seems to very much remain the domain of dog-fighting missiles for the immediate future. But rather to hit other airborne targets like missiles, and even targets on the ground. And in what I'd probably describe as one of the stranger weapons on this list, back in 2012, reportedly, the US tested the Counter-electronics High powered microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP.

The basic idea here was to take a microwave emitter, put it in an old cruise missile along with a power source, and then give it a pre-programmed flight path and target list so that it could fly over enemy territory basically zapping ground installations as it went. As I said, the system was reportedly tested and reportedly worked, demonstrating that it could knock out multiple targets over the course of a single sortie, as well as (helpfully) some of the cameras that were meant to be recording the test. The advantage to a sort of system like this is that unlike a jammer the results are going to be longer lasting or permanent. But unlike a physical warhead, you can engage multiple targets using a single missile or drone. The program then reportedly also spawned a successor.

The High powered Joint Electromagnetic Non-Kinetic Strike Weapon, or HIJENKS, (it does lose points for not finding a way to put an "I" where that "E" goes) but it's hard not to see the potential value of the concept. There has been some speculation, and noting it is just speculation at this point, that you might see the HIJENKS system fitted to an extended-range JASSM cruise missile, which would give you a tiny stealthy platform with over 1,000 miles of range zapping away at vulnerable systems like a computer-hating poltergeist. Given the difficulty we've seen even the relatively advanced Russian ground-based air defence system had dealing with Storm Shadow missiles, and especially intercepting them short of the final stages of their approach, essentially giving a stealthy missile a ranged weapon might make interception even more difficult. Because now hypothetically the missile doesn't have to go all the way to the target, it could potentially do things like exploit terrain, pop up, emit, and then seek terrain cover again.

And if that sounds an awful lot to you like the US Air Force and Navy continuing to try and enforce a scissors beats rock scenario by using air power to knock out ground-based air defence systems, my half joking response would be "No, they are not trying to counter air-defence systems with air power, they are trying to counter everything with air power." And systems like HIJENKS might just be one part of that puzzle. I'll also make a final note here because I did call this the aerospace section, the directed-energy weapons do have potential applications both in the counter-space and space-based roles. I won't dwell on this because I have done a video on anti-satellite weapons before, but suffice to say that countries like the People's Republic of China are believed to possess laser systems capable of dazzling some satellites in orbit. There are obviously limitations to what you can dazzle for how long and how much damage you can do, but for protecting certain very sensitive sites against certain types of surveillance, dazzling might work. Although as I mentioned in my video on French defence strategy, there is some thinking out there that suggests that maybe the best way to get around the barrier that the atmosphere poses to things like lasers is simply to put the laser above the atmosphere by mounting a smaller, much lower powered version on a satellite.

And then employing basically a glorified laser cutter in what would presumably be some of humanity's first (admittedly very slow and very janky) space-on-space combats. There is absolutely no certainty that we will see combat satellites equipped with destructive directed-energy weapons. And if we do, whether it will end up being France that gives the world its first space ace. So at this point you might be thinking, "Hey, this sounds like technology with enormous military potential."

And I mean, yeah, at this point directed-energy weapons are probably sounding pretty good to you, the same way they have sounded good to decision makers and theoreticians for literally decades at this point. Deep magazines, rapid response times, low costs, what's not to like? And so if only. If only (the thinking might go) we can get those power levels up and just a few more refinements made then these are going to take over everywhere and a whole suite of kinetic weapons are going to go the way of the horse cavalry. And I'm not entirely exaggerating when I say that's sometimes the way these weapon systems have been described.

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2024-02-21 11:36

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