Ground, sea and air forces are working to develop practical battlefield lasers. Wired says the Army is working on a truck mounted directed energy weapon that can zap incoming mortars with a device that generates more than 105 Kw. The Air Force announced that it used a megawatt class airborne laser to take down a ballistic missile target. The megawatt class device did not instantly vaporize the targets, as science fiction aficionados might expect from watching the movies. Instead it heated the missile to structural failure. An Air Force press release says:
At 8:44 p.m. (PST), February 11, 2010, a short-range threat-representative ballistic missile was launched from an at-sea mobile launch platform. Within seconds, the ALTB used onboard sensors to detect the boosting missile and used a low-energy laser to track the target. The ALTB then fired a second low-energy laser to measure and compensate for atmospheric disturbance. Finally, the ALTB fired its megawatt-class High Energy Laser, heating the boosting ballistic missile to critical structural failure. The entire engagement occurred within two minutes of the target missile launch, while its rocket motors were still thrusting.
But no mobile ray weapon can generate as much power as a ship-based system which can draw on the resources of a massive propulsion system. The Navy is considering equipping the Gerald Ford class carriers with free electron laser weapons which may possibly be used as anti-missile defenses. One of the principal differences between the Ford and older Nimitz class vessels is the much larger amount of electrical power available to the newer ships. This power will drive its electromagnetic catapault system, its electronics and of course, its laser defense systems.
Although the existing research is centered around defensive requirements — anti-ICBM, anti-ASM and anti-artillery — offensive uses under development include the advanced tactical laser (ATL) system which marries up directed energy weapons to the C-130 gunship platform. The ray gunship will be able to attack targets on the ground. The Hand of Allah now comes at 186,000 miles per second.
Nor is America the only player in the game. Russia and Israel have active high energy development programs. If anything proves the age of the ray gun has arrived, only need look to Greenpeace, which attacks Japanese whalers by attempting to blind the bridge officers with lasers, one of which is deployed on their “Batboat”, the Ady Gil.
The strategic implications of directed energy weapons are still being thought through. One possible effect might be to alter the balance, once again, between offense and defense. Missiles and aircraft (whether of the manned or unmanned variety) may cease to be effective platforms for attacking targets. The power-generation capability of the platform may becoming the deciding metric of combat capability. The energy potential of a platform like a 747 may become more important than the speed and agility of an F-22 when weapons travel at the speed of light. No matter how fast and agile a naval vessel is, or how many missiles it carries, when directed energy weapons are in play, what use is there is going up against the nuclear core of a Gerald Ford?
The importance of space may also change. Can satellites survive as ground-based weapons grow in capability? Will military space eventually even up by moving towards deploying large power generating units in space, consisting perhaps of solar collectors of epic size, as the game becomes which literally has more power than the other; the heavens or the earth? And in politics, what will it mean if raw power generation becomes a measure of military might? What will the market for carbon credits be in such a world? Whither will windmills go?
Nobody knows. But nobody ever did. As we move well into the second decade of the 21st century we might look back on the vision of a poet who strained to look into the future and saw only vast and indistinct shapes. Modern man can no more see the future than Tennyson could. And that is perhaps a mercy.
Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new:
That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do:
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue