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Belmont Club

Those Far Flung Ships

March 28th, 2013 - 8:34 pm

Well it is the 21st century after all, So it should not come as a shock to read on Wired: “Navy Wants Lasers on Marines’ Trucks to Shoot Down Drones”.

If there was any doubt that the military has new confidence in its forthcoming laser arsenal, the Navy’s top geeks want to outfit Marines with a laser cannon to shoot small drones out of the sky. … So, the specs. The idea is to get a laser cannon weighing less than 2500 pounds mounted onto a Marine Humvee or comparable truck. The cannon needs to provide a “minimum optical output power” of 25 kilowatts, with an eye toward scaling up to 50 kilowatts, for a two-minute full-power blast.

The Marines need a truck to tote the power source for their laser. The Navy has been redesigning its vessels to increase the output of electrical power. The Gerald Ford class of aircraft carriers will produce three times the electricity as their predecessors. They need it, among other things, to operate their electromagnetic catapult.

And there’s an insatiable hunger for the power to run gizmos now on the drawing board. Whether it is catapaults, railguns or lasers, the limiting factor in sea power may be electrical power. A NavSea primer describes the plethora of applications that energy weapons, or energy based weapons have at sea. Stuff to shoot down missiles. Stuff to burn holes in small boats. There are even devices which can stop a vehicle or aircraft by disabling its electrical systems or disperse crowds by bathing them in a kind of microwave heat ray. All require electricity, some in sudden and massive spikes.

To provide large amounts of electrical prime power, new types of rotating machines were studied, including flywheels, conventional alternators, homopolar generators, rotary flux compressors, and compensated pulsed alternators. These machines attempted to produce fast, high-power pulses using special materials to reduce losses, eddy currents, and mechanical stresses.

The magazine of future naval warships will be a battery of some sort. Doubtless the resulting confusion in nomenclature will drive historians crazy.

But one of the retrograde characteristics of directed energy weapons is that the aiming process reverts to the days of Horatio Hornblower.  Directed weapons are mostly line of sight. They cannot loop over hills or mountains. At least not yet. Boeing is working on something called the Tactical Mirror Relay system, which reduces the distance beams travel through the atmosphere (losing energy in the process) by bouncing it off UAVs or aerostats. But they need help to do it. And that help comes from stuff that flies around or circles in orbit.

Which brings us to the ultimate matchup, of which the Marine laser and the enemy drone are the simplest case. The ultimate matchup is the Sensor versus the Energy weapon.

The United States’ status of a superpower depends in large part on its control of space. Satellites are used for communication, surveillance, targeting, navigation and electronic warfare.  Without space power the United States couldn’t operate drones. GPS would go out. It would be blind. But directed energy weapons would put all those assets at risk. In 2006 the Telegraph reported that China test-blinded US satellites by directing lasers at their sensors.

The relationship between the Sensor and the Energy weapon is an interesting one. Without Sensors directed energy weapons will lack targeting information. The horizon would once again limit what you could aim at. But directed energy weapons have the potential power to blind the satellites or drones. Show an eye and the light will blind it. But without the eye, how to aim the energy weapon?  The tactical relationship between the two is interesting.

The mediating factor is electrical power.

China has one big disadvantage in a directed energy contest over space. If it is is restricted to ground based weapons based on their territory then China would be at a major disadvantage to any seapower whose ships, able to lug around huge generating plants in the form of their engines, could roam the world with their energy weapons. A maritime power’s window onto the space would be much bigger than almost any landbased power.

They could attack multiple targets at once. They wouldn’t have to wait for each target to come into view like a duck in a shooting gallery. The ships could simply hit the ducks simultaneously.

When America inherited the role of British empire it did so largely by inheriting the mantle of sea power. Perhaps never has control of the sea been so important as these early years of the 21st century. Whoever controls the sea has direct power over the undersea fiber optic cables that carry information across the planet; who rules the waves controls the vast flows of oil and merchandise which make a global economy possible. Now we find that last but not least, huge power sources at the sea have the power to burn up anything in orbit.

America still rules the waves. That is perhaps its greatest single trump card. Two hundred years ago another maritime power struggled against an invincible conqueror on land. Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies were unbeatable.  But powerful as he was on land, his influence ended at the water’s edge. His ports were blockaded. He could not even cross the channel and turn his might on a small island only two dozen miles away from France itself. Mahan described Britain’s advantage memorably:

Those far distant storm- beaten ships upon which the Grand Army never looked stood between it and the dominion of the world.

The most telling indicator of a serious challenge to American global dominance would be a Chinese blue water navy.


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All Comments   (40)
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So the next Pearl Harbor could be attacks on low orbit sats, a hacker attack, EMP bursts and a nuke attack all coordinated within minutes of each other and the nuke and EMPs delivered by sub to cut down arrival and response.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The only obvious thing missing there is to account for out own subs.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Mount them in aircraft, to defend the Battle Group against incoming ASMs. That will be an eventual use of this technology.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Can someone smarter than me please answer a question: In order to target a drone for a powerful laser wouldn't you need a low ppower laser to 'paint' it? And if you can do that, why not just use a surface to air missile to blow it out of the sky? Or is this about a multi-billion dollar contract and sexier weapons?

Also, could falcons be trained to 'touch' drones, thereby attaching cruder small explosives to disable them? Sometimes low-tech works more efficiently. Just ask the dog handlers from Iraq and Afghanistan.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I would guess that the main target of such a laser would be the very small drones that an adversary would use, and that will be the most likely our forces will encounter, since they are practically available at Toys R Us now. Those are not worth a missile to hit, and right off hand I can't think of a missile system we have that would be effective, anyway. And if there was a drone the size of a model airplane buzzing around over my head I would hardly be comfortable if someone shot an AIM-9 at it, even if they could hit it.

Presumably something the size of a Predator will be dead meat if it goes against us, anyway, since even if it is at altitude we have had the ability to shoot it down since about 1938.

The USAF had a "missile" operational back in the 90's that used a small 2 cycle engine powered flying wing, designed to be fired off in the dozens by a couple of troops just pushing buttons. What it was for we do not know, but one suggestion was that it was designed to home in on SAM missile data links and destroy the control vans. That's the kind of thing we need to be worried about. A laser would be good for hitting those.

Drones, even small ones, generally do not operate in a manner that birds can interfere with.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It doesn't seem to make sense to use a high powered laser to shoot down a slow drone, though it would make sense against an incoming object like a missile, or mortar round. So the advantage of a laser would probably be that it can potentially engage swarms of drones or perhaps even a projectile already fired from one.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It could likely blind a drone in under a second, maybe blind any smart munitions already in the air. Shooting it down is another matter. But shooting down even something as slow as a Predator is difficult, a distant moving target. Classic AA cannon are good, but usually require twenty shots to score one hit, and where do the 19 misses fall, on schools and funeral processions, betcha. Smart missiles will do it, but cost more than the target. Firing a laser shouldn't cost more than pocket change, not counting the capital costs. And who *has* a convenient smart missile? While every company could have a laser or two. Of course the missed laser shots may blind an airline pilot fifty miles away, but so it goes.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Oh yeah, and against mini-drones it should be most effective, little balsa-wood models with nothing more lethal than cameras and maybe a few ounces of warhead.

Until and unless they get the power up by a factor of 10 (more like 1000), the laser is problematic as a main battle weapon.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
formerly Eggplant:

That's probably OK with me if they start with the city council first.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If Kim takes out half a dozen deep blue cities I'll support him for President.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In southeast Asia, the Pahawh Hmong script was banned one generation ago; it probably still is. The Soviet Union banned indigenous scripts and forced people to use Cyrillic. One of the advantages of the rights we have in the United States is that we can speak any language and use any script we want. That means we can take measures to hide information from eavesdroppers more effectively than people in China can.

We should take notice of the following articles.

http://washingtonexaminer.com/education-dept.-helps-leak-students-personal-data/article/2525112

http://www.ocregister.com/articles/data-499062-schools-information.html

One problem with the Education Department keeping a vast database of student records is that, given the ubiquity of Chinese hacking, we can assume that the Chinese government knows everything that our federal government knows about the academic records of American children. Privacy isn't just about what the federal government knows about us; it is also about what the Chinese government knows about us.

Let's use that Yankee ingenuity to make sure that the United States still has a strong manufacturing base that isn't put out of business by demands to outsource our manufacturing to China.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The current administration is doing its level best to reduce the size and effectiveness of the U.S. Navy with the whole sequestration sabotage. Remember that the real, underlying purpose of the sequestration proposal was to emasculate America's military might.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
""" The cannon needs to provide a “minimum optical output power” of 25 kilowatts, with an eye toward scaling up to 50 kilowatts, for a two-minute full-power blast. """"

"two-minute full-power blast?" Wow. The "swords-into-plowshares" implication of that are interesting. A battery (artillery usage here) of such lasers cannons pointing at a single focusing mirror may provide enough energy to put small satellites into orbit by directing the combined beam into a thrust chamber where a working fluid would be heated to almost surface-of-the-Sun temperatures.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yep, that is what the SDI folks called "Hockey Pucks In Space" And they did manage to hover a hocky puck inside a hangar at Edwards.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It takes a lot more than wiz bang to make a navy. It takes sailors. And sailoring.
IIRC it was Napoleon who said that Generalship can be obtained by study or genius, but admiralty, even when accompanied by genius, requires 20 years to learn the craft.
Over 50% of the space and weight of a Naval Warship is about hotel services to the crew.
Underway replenishment (fleet train) is all about seamanship, yet it is what kept one group of ships performing as two fleets in WWII (Fleet command was rotated by Halsey (3rd fleet) and Spruance (5th Fleet) yet the ships were the same. The Japanese spent a lot of time and effort trying to find the missing fleet).
Geography also helps. China's access to the sea has to run several gauntlets, none as bad as the Russians, but a gauntlet none the less. Our access is from a much longer and more open set of coastlines.
Even in my day (beginning in '71) we spent time learning how to deal with lack of sensor data. We always assumed that at some point we would establish EmCon and or be denied sensor data.
None of this is to say that we should reduce our efforts, nay, we should increase our efforts, but keep the sextant clean and the chronometers wound and checked.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The apt comparison is between the Imperial German Navy and the British Royal Navy -- a century ago.

The parallels are striking.

The big maps/ globes are misleading INRE PLAN breakouts into the Pacific. Imperial Germany had an easier time breaking out into the North Sea. (epic failure)

Where counts, the PLAN will have to fight Japan in shallow seas.

But it's more than Japan.

India sits astride all of the trade routes that really tax Beijing. India scarcely needs even one carrier task force to obstruct her native ocean to all hostile trade.

Both cyberwarfare and PLAN expansion are strategic goofs of the first magnitude. The first flattens the battlespace -- and removes virtually all of Red China's population advantage. The second plays to every weakness while unifying every manner of the contested waters.

It took the Soviets all of the Cold War (aka WWIII) to figure out that naval spending was the absolute worst kind of spending. By doing so, Moscow had created its ultimate nemesis: the USN -- and its pan-oceanic naval alliances.

That dynamic won't change for Beijing.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Will they make a civilian version of the laser for combating Big Sis's fleet of domestic drones? Holder can sell some to the Zetas in Mexico to secure their drug corridors in the desert.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Fighting the last war; it is interesting how petty things like gay marriage are when viewed from the future. The Europeans have had some status like that for years, but their biggest concern is that there are no children to pay the promised benefits.

Likewise, the Chinese have a historical precedent as well. It is called China. They are the ultimate fragile system. In that regard, Marco Polo was rightly amazed at their progress, but they oscillate between flowering and getting overrun by barbarians. The interesting country in this regard is India. They have had such a weak central government historically, they have lasted as a culture far more cohesively than China. The Han have the upper hand in China, but twas not always so. No one has had the upper hand in India, ever. The Brits thought they did, the Moghuls too, but no one actually controlled the country, it is naturally diverse (or distributed).
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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