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Laser Weapons on Battlefield: Space next?

Sanjay Kumar writes: Even if laser weapons make it into the theatre of war in the 2020s, they’ll only be used to target incoming projectiles or unmanned vehicles for the foreseeable future, as Geneva Conventions restricts the use of directed energy or blinding laser weapons against human beings.

 Since childhood we have been reading stories of soldiers with laser guns but now it appears that fiction will soon be a reality. As per Mary J. Miller, Military Research and Technology Deputy Assistant Secretary, United States – the Laser weapons are undergoing trials and could be inducted by 2023. According to Miller, laser weapons could move from the trial phase to deployment within the next seven years. US has been experimenting with laser weapons for a long time but with little success. These could never match user’s expectations and required potency.

Lasers were invented way back in 1960 and since have proved to be extremely useful not only for the scientific and commercial purposes, but also for the military. Today, lasers are extensively used in array of military applications – range finders, satellite communication systems, remote sensing, and laser radar-based navigational aids. Laser guided munitions were employed extensively during Desert Storm for precision engagement.

The energy required to generate laser beams powerful enough to destroy a target is so huge that it has so far been impossible to develop any practical weapons using laser technology. Though US has been working on this technology for long but recent reports indicate some amount of success. Reportedly, many types of military aircraft are already fitted with lasers and are used primarily as countermeasures for infrared targeting systems. Few years back, US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey was spotted in San Diego with laser weapons on board. Some laser weapons have already been tested, and the technology is already in use in some branches of the American armed forces. One such ship-mounted laser gun, tested in 2014, is capable of destroying speedboats and small drones with a high-energy burst of light. Once developed, the weapons would be used to shoot down missiles, drones and even artillery shells as they move through the sky.

It is also reported that Lockheed Martin is developing a laser weapon turret that will be mounted on the aircraft, which will allow the weapon to be fired in any direction. The prototype turret has already been commissioned by the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). The company’s Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control, or ABC, turret has a 360-degree field of action for laser weapons. Sixty tests have been conducted so far using a business jet as a test bed. In the tests a low-power laser was fired through the turret’s optical window to measure and verify successful performance in all directions. This advanced turret design will enable aircrafts to have the same laser weapon system advantages as ground vehicles and ships. Test results will be used by DARPA and the AFRL to determine the requirements of future aircraft laser weapon systems.

The Airborne Laser (ABL) weapon system mounted on a modified 747-400F aircraft will shoot down theatre ballistic missiles in their boost phase. A crew of four, including pilot and co-pilot, would be required to operate the airborne laser, which would patrol in pairs at an altitude of about 40,000 feet and will scan the horizon for the plumes of rising missiles. Capable of autonomous operation, the ABL would acquire and track missiles in the boost phase of flight, illuminating the missile with a tracking laser beam while computers measure the distance and calculate its course and direction. After acquiring and locking onto the target, a second laser – with weapons-class strength – would fire a three- to five-second burst from a turret located in the 747’s nose, destroying the missiles over the launch area. This may be the first stepping stone towards building a space-based laser weapon system.

The use of laser based communications for space assets is more likely in near future as same has been experimented successfully. The laser communication terminal, built by Tesat Spacecom, an Airbus Defence and Space unit, allows spacecrafts, aircraft and drones to transmit pictures, video and data by laser rather than radio. The laser beam technology offers large volume at greater speeds in addition to security and stealth from hackers. The laser terminal can be placed on future satellites, aircraft and drones. The satellite terminal weighs about 50 kilograms, while the aircraft and drone terminal weighs 15 kilograms. Laser technology will offer near real-time observation capability to troops on ground/ air/ sea and will help spot hostile targets / missiles in quick time frame and enable measured response.The Ballistic Missile Defence Organization of United States has completed several studies on deployment of space-based laser’s, orbital altitude, laser power, optics, and requirement of number of platforms. The space-based laser will be capable of destroying a missile within a radius of 4,000 kilometres of the platform. The initial deployment will consist of 12 platforms for partial coverage of the earth, and eventually a constellation of 20 satellites will provide nearly full protection from theatre ballistic missile attacks.

The likely employment on space could also be for targeting other satellites, specifically their delicate electronic circuits and other components to make them temporarily or permanently non-functional. This may become a reality once chemical based lasers are replaced by solid state laser. Solid-state lasers give out high energy beams, are economical and have long shelf life. The lasers could also be used for jamming satellite command and control system thus having huge ASAT potential. Space based lasers could also be used for precision guidance of various warheads. Though the weaponisation of space must be restrained by all means, but only saving grace perhaps by use of lasers is lesser / non-creation of space debris.

Even if laser weapons make it into the theatre of war in the 2020s, they’ll only be used to target incoming projectiles or unmanned vehicles for the foreseeable future, as Geneva Conventions restricts the use of directed energy or blinding laser weapons against human beings.

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