America's new war: drone to death-ray

Washington's move to limit proliferation of armed drones is part of its search for a sharper military-technological edge.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
8 September 2016
UAV Operator. MOD/Dave Husbands/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

UAV Operator. MOD/Dave Husbands/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.The United States sent a senior official to the Arms Trade Treaty conference meeting in Geneva on 22-26 August to make the case for controls on exports of armed drones. The diplomat concerned, Brian Nilsson of the Bureau for Political Military Affairs, presented a draft document to establish principles for such exports, “with the express purpose of holding meetings with foreign delegations attending the conference and encouraging them to sign onto the declaration.”  

In its way this appears to be a milestone in arms proliferation and international diplomacy, where Washington at last recognises a reality that has long been tracked in this series of columns and elsewhere: the proliferation of armed drones across the world, a process which the US itself – as a leading global producer and exporter – is deeply implicated. The Pentagon thinks it is reasonable to develop a technology that gives it an edge in the new era of 'remote warfare'. But once many other people learn to do it, the edge disappears. It is time, then, to argue for arms control.

For the other main exporter of armed drones, Israel, the US's change of stance is worrying. Defense News reports:

"In Israel, where combat-capable unmanned systems constitute a significant share of exports and form the backbone of counter-terror operations, a new Obama administration’s push for international guidelines governing strike drones is being viewed with skepticism, if not outright alarm.

As much as the Israeli government wants to support its closest ally, officials and experts say the nascent US initiative is diplomatically dubious, practically unenforceable and potentially crippling to a critical sector of Israel’s defense industrial base" (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "Israel wary of armed drone initiative", Defense News, 1 September 2016). 

The concern to preserve exports is part of the story, at least in the case of Israel. But in relation to the United States, a more subtle calculation is also in play. Washington is concerned that current technological developments may further transform what is already a fast-changing area of weapons development, to its own technological and military advantage.

In particular, plans are now well under way to fit larger armed drones with weapons-grade lasers designed for multiple functions. The US has unique experience of this area of technology, rooted in developments in the very late stages of its cold war with the Soviet Union. Its newfound desire to limit the proliferation of armed drones reflects what happened in that era, and may help to give it a new edge in the next.

The next frontier

The precedent is the huge and powerful airborne laser (ABL), originally developed by Boeing as an offshoot of Ronald Reagan’s "star wars" programme and intended to be able to shoot down Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. The YAL-1 airborne-laser system was mounted on a heavily modified Boeing 747. Its main element was a megawatt-range chemical iodine oxygen laser (COIL) which was intended to operate at up to 400 miles range at almost the speed of light, focusing on missiles just after they had been launched.  

In this brief period, commonly less than two minutes, an accelerating missile would produce a huge infra-red heat signature. If subject to lasing, even over a large distance, the missile body would be under maximum stress and susceptible to buckling. But principle was one thing, practice another. In the event, the ABL/COIL combination proved phenomenally expensive. In 2012, after more than two decades of reasarch, Barack Obama's administration junked the programme.

Its legacy, however, included two elements that relate very much to current circumstances.  The first is that much of the knowledge-base, especially in developing the complicated optics needed to be able to focus powerful lasers, is finding new applications in less powerful and much lighter (and cheaper) lasers. These, it turns out, can even be fitted to strike aircraft and drones. 

The second is that even though the ABL was intended as an anti-missile system, plenty of work was done on the idea of using it to hit so-called 'soft' targets: trucks, barracks, command centres and the like. Indeed in the late 1990s, a dedicated group – the Directed Energy Applications for Tactical Air Combat (DEATAC) – went much further than trying to shoot down other planes and looked at ground targeting. It also discussed the “platforms” on which laser systems could be mounted, including drones.

That is exactly what is now happening:

“Having ditched the hefty, medium-altitude Boeing 747-400 airliner used for the YAL-1, the [missile defense] agency now wants to experiment with a new breed of high-altitude unmanned aircraft to prove out the technology and operational concepts.

Instead of a big, expensive jet carrying a big expensive chemical laser, the agency believes long-endurance UAVs operating in the thinner upper atmosphere will be more stable and easier to operate when paired up with scaled-up electric lasers” (see James Drew, “Missile Zapper”, Aviation Week and Space Technology, 15-28 August 2016).

Today, funds are pouring in to the area. Some of the world’s biggest arms companies – Boeing, Northrop and Lockheed among them – are pitching for contracts to develop prototypes. Combining these technologies to make effective weapons is still in its early stages; it will be the early-to-mid 2020s before they are available for remote warfare, with the initial emphasis again being on shooting down missiles. The history of the original airborne laser, though, makes it well nigh certain that a much wider range of targeting options will follow – including laser-armed drones.   

In crude science-fiction terms, that will herald the era of the “death ray”. Not only this, but it will be fired from pilotless aircraft. Quite an innovation, and any country that develops it will have a substantial advantage in fighting wars at a distance with no threat to its own soldiers. It is hardly surprising that the one state that is ahead of the game now sees a particular advantage in trying to control the spread of armed drones.

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