Military technology: Laser weapons get real

Jun 15, 2015

by Andy Extance

Silently, the drone aircraft glides above the arid terrain of New Mexico — until it suddenly pivots out of control and plummets to the ground.

Then a mortar round rises from its launcher, arcs high and begins to descend towards its target — only to flare and explode in mid-flight.

On the desert floor, on top of a big, sand-coloured truck, a cubic mechanism pivots and fires an invisible infrared beam to zap one target after another. This High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) is a prototype laser weapon developed for the US Army by aerospace giant Boeing of Chicago, Illinois. Inside the truck, Boeing electrophysics engineer Stephanie Blount stares at the targets on her laptop’s screen and directs the laser using a handheld game controller. “It has a very game-like feel,” she says.

That seems only natural: laser weapons are a staple of modern video games, and ray-guns of various sorts were common in science fiction for decades before the first real-life laser was demonstrated in 1960. But they are not a fantasy anymore. The Boeing prototype is just one of several such weapons developed in recent years in both the United States and Europe, largely thanks to the advent of relatively cheap, portable and robust lasers that generate their beams using optical fibres.

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6 comments on “Military technology: Laser weapons get real

  • Every day weapons get more lethal whether we are at war or not. Any technology soon spreads universally triggering even faster evolution. Where does this lead? Eventually weapons have to get “too lethal” and we go extinct. This seems to me beyond obvious, but we march to our demise as if we had no choice.

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  • I’d say this one is still in the development phase. I found a video of the machine in action. See below. It seems as if this is not like a quick missile blast. The operator has to keep the beam trained on the same spot on the object for some time, while it is traveling through the air. Have we all played video games? The video shows an attack on a drone aircraft, and a mortar shell. While both were eventually successful, it did take a long time. I wonder what the success rate is.

    I also wonder about the range of the beam. How close do you need to be to heat an object enough to destroy it. I also wonder how vulnerable the van and operator are. If a beam is shooting up into the sky, then the nature of lasers is such that it becomes very easy to trace the beam back to the ground, and hence a target opportunity against the operator. We’re not quite at the Death Star capability yet.

    p.s. To all youtube producers. Enough already with the appalling sound tracks. It’s okay to have silence.

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  • David R Allen
    Jun 16, 2015 at 4:57 am

    I also wonder about the range of the beam. How close do you need to be to heat an object enough to destroy it. I also wonder how vulnerable the van and operator are.

    They may introduce some some computer targeting system in future, but at the moment I am reminded of the joke among space scientists about President Ronnie Ray-gun’s Star-wars satellite weapons system.

    According to the ground tests, it could shoot down any target within 2 metres of the laser satellite!!!

    On a more serious note, this one looks just like the sort of system terrorists looking for airliners would use.

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  • There was an interesting article recently in the Economist about how the US has tried (and generally succeeded) to stay ahead of the rest of the world in military capability. Unfortunately for them, (or their taxpayers), Russia, China etc. have proven quite adept at catching up – resulting in a continual game of cat-and-mouse. There also seems to be a growing acceptance in the US of the need to reign in military spending, hence the search for technological advantages instead of simply building more and more kit.

    Aligned with this however is something much more troubling; the removal of people from the war zone. Historically one thing that has tended to keep US hegemony in check has been the risk to their own soldiers. Remove that risk and they are basically free to do what they want, (hence the rush to deploy UAV’s in the past decade). At the moment these drones are still under human command but the time is coming sooner rather than later when autonomous weapons systems make lethal force decisions on their own, without the intervention of a human operator. Shamefully the US public has shown that it doesn’t seem to mind how much collateral damage is done, so long as the deaths are foreigners.

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  • David R and others highlight questions about the effectiveness of this weapon.

    Demonstrations of its firepower target slow moving, visible, or high trajectory objects coming into closer range from a distance. Drones, high arcing mortar shells or artillery shells towed behind aircraft present easy targets that must be destroyed after allowing the laser truck many minutes to set up, stage and control the shootdown.

    High velocity, low trajectory weapons would probably evade the laser defense system which requires too much elapsed time to target, fire and fix the laser on fast moving targets closing at a range of 2 to 3 kilometers in several seconds.

    The eighteen wheeler-platform truck required for the weapon is itself the biggest fattest lumbering target one could laughably imagine. Apparently, though technically mobile, the huge vehicle must be parked stationary before firing. At any point along its journey to the combat sight or once stationary, it would be a sitting duck for any kind of hand-held rocket launcher, IED, or modest anti-armor weapon.

    Worst of all, apparently the behemoth laser is a single shot weapon. How does it handle two or three drones circling the area and launching air-to-surface rockets which follow the beam back to the big rig and poor old Stephanie eating her Twinkies. How does the laser handle three incoming mortar rounds all at once?

    Finally, Boeing should tell us up front how much the Big Boy which may or may not zap a small slow flying object will cost. We call that bang for the buck.

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