Battlefield lasers: Attack Helicopters, Warships, and Soldiers of the future

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Alex Corvadt | Science and Technology


(Feature picture – The U.S. Navy’s “dazzler”, a non-lethal laser rifle used to stun incoming boat drivers)

Turning fiction into reality

In the age of cheap electronics, the U.S. military is struggling to adapt.

Around the world, terrorist cells are taking advantage of the cheap availability of increasingly complex technology. In the war-zones across the Middle-East for example a $3 million dollar Patriot missile was used to shoot down a quad-copter that cost $300 on Amazon.

These inexpensive drones are being used to drop grenades and incendiary bombs onto soldiers, whilst also performing aerial reconnaissance. The problem is that whilst America retains its edge in terms of technology on the battlefield, that may not matter when groups such as the Islamic State can achieve the same capabilities for relative pennies on the dollar.

Lasers have long been the domain of science fiction. They will soon be a reality as the leading weapons manufacturers compete to create the first battlefield prototypes. Unlike in the movies, the laser beams will be invisible and silent. But their key appeal is that they provide a cheaper alternative to take down vehicles and targets at less than $1USD a shot.

 

 

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A U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter prepares to depart Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, on Jan 7, 2012.  U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht

Attack helicopters

In what is claimed to be a world first, Raytheon tested a high-energy laser attached to an AH-64 Apache helicopter. The company claims that it’s the first time a “fully integrated” laser weapon system has been successfully tested from a helicopter “over a wide variety of flight regimes, altitudes and air speeds”.

Lasers give the U.S. military more flexibility for engaging its targets. A U.S. defense inquiry found that lasers are an extremely viable weapon, especially due to their accuracy – they fire on in a straight line as opposed to conventional bullets which fall along an arc.

A lasers greatest appeal is in their non-lethal nature. To take out a power generator for instance, or to knock out a militants escape vehicle, a laser is a far better option with limited collateral damage potential as opposed to a $115,000 Hellfire missile.


 

 

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The High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) onto which ATHENA was mounted. Image: US ARMY

We have shown that a powerful directed energy laser is now sufficiently light-weight, low volume and reliable enough to be deployed on tactical vehicles for defensive applications on land, at sea and in the air” Robert Afzal, Senior fellow for laser and Sensor systems, Lockheed

The most powerful to date

Lockheed Martin has finished developing a 60 Kilowatt (kW) laser system that will begin field testing with the U.S. Army. In their press release, the company claimed that they’d successfully achieved a 58kW laser blast, which was a world record in terms of strength for the beam. The company believes that lasers will be used on the battlefield to disable drones and incoming rockets by heating their internal components and causing them to fail.

Deployed on the battlefield, a laser-armed vehicle could provide cover for troops from mortar, rocket and drone attacks. This is not the first such weapon unveiled by the company. The prototype laser system will replace its previous 30kW iteration known as ATHENA (pictured above). ATHENA was proven to be capable of disabling a truck from a mile away.


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The Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (ASB(I) 15) (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released)

Land, air and sea

The most successful branch of the military has been the U.S. Navy which has extensively tested laser weapons aboard its ship the USS Ponce. A 30kW laser has been mounted and tested on the ship, proving especially effective (as seen as in the video above) at taking out fast-attack boats and drones that may threaten the ship.

The future

As the technology continues to be developed, it is doubtless that it will become a mainstay on the battlefield. While it may be a ‘cheaper’ alternative to a missile or air-defense system, lasers are still considered dangerous thanks to their ability to permanently blind people.

While current technology is promising, there are still issues with their weight, size and ability in inclement weather such as fog, dust and rain.


 

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