Directed energy: a new kind of weapon

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
30 July 2002

Some time in 2003, a unique new weapon will be tested by the United States air force in an attempt to destroy a Scud missile. It is a high-energy laser known as the airborne laser (ABL), the first element of an innovative system that could end up arming a series of powerful satellites able to target anywhere on the Earth’s surface with near impunity.

The impact of directed energy weapons over the next quarter of a century could be huge, and some analysts argue that they are as potentially revolutionary as was the development of nuclear weapons sixty years ago.

For now, directed energy weapons are being seen as an answer to ballistic missile defence but, in the longer term, military planners are already viewing them as serving many other functions. The United States has a pronounced lead over all other countries, but its potential success may encourage others to follow suit, setting up a new kind of arms race; it may also lead to opponents developing new ways of retaliating. In the light of the attacks of 11 September 2001, this is not to be discounted.

Under President George W Bush, the US has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and has substantially boosted funding for missile defence. A significant part of this is being directed towards the new ABL but there is also increased funding going into the much more powerful space-based laser.

Both are designed initially to destroy ballistic missiles early in their flight; that is, in the part of the flight path when the missile has just been launched and is in what is known as its boost phase. Depending on the range of the missile, for up to five minutes the missile accelerates rapidly under the power of its rocket motors. When the fuel is exhausted, the motors cut out, and the missile warhead carries on along a ballistic trajectory to its target.

After cut-out, the missile warhead may split into many components, including sub-munitions and decoys, making the whole system much more difficult to intercept. For this reason, what is termed ‘boost phase interception’ is a popular approach to missile defence. But it means having some kind of weapon within reach of a missile immediately after launch, and able to respond with extraordinary speed. This is where directed-energy weapons come in, since they operate at the speed of light and are therefore able to deliver energy over substantial distances almost instantaneously.

Why missile defence?

For the US, missile defence may appear to be about defending the US homeland from attack, but a much more immediate aim is to protect US forces when they are involved in overseas interventions, especially in the middle east. Much of the motivation for this comes from the experience in the Gulf war, when Iraq’s Scud missiles proved so difficult to counter, diverting resources into the so-called ‘Scud hunts’.

The Scuds themselves were inaccurate and unreliable, but even these 1960s vintage missiles caused the US forces the worst casualties of the war when one hit a depot in Saudi Arabia, killing 28 soldiers. Although not reported at the time, another missile came close to causing a massive disaster, when it landed in the sea off the Saudi port of al-Jubayl, only 300 metres from the US navy support ship USS Wright, and close to the amphibious warfare ship Tarawa. Moreover, both of these ships were moored alongside a large jetty crowded with petrol tankers and munitions stores. If the Scud had hit these, it would have had a catastrophic effect.

This, and related incidents, convinced many US military planners that forces engaged overseas were going to be vulnerable to opponents who had sought to develop missile systems to hinder US intervention. This was simply unacceptable to the US military; so, from the mid-1990s, missile defence became a priority.

From this perspective, it became obvious that boost phase interception was important, and early plans for directed energy weapons – developed under Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (‘Star Wars’) in the 1980s – were revisited. As a result, the development of high-powered lasers made real progress from the mid-1990s, and these became seen as significant candidates for missile defence.

The airborne laser

The ABL is the linchpin of the current directed energy programme, being developed jointly by three of the largest arms corporations in the US – Boeing, Lockheed and TRW. The system is based on a highly modified Boeing 747 transport aircraft, which will house a three megawatt chemical oxygen–iodine laser (COIL) taking up most of the fuselage. This, along with targeting beams, will be directed at an ascending missile over a range of up to 400 miles, and will lase (i.e. irradiate) it to heat the metal casing, making it crumple and collapse. If the system works, this could be done in a matter of seconds, largely because an accelerating missile is under tremendous stress, and even a modest weakening of the structure should cause implosion.

Of course, there are possible countermeasures, such as strengthening the missile or making it spin in flight, but both are difficult, and the ABL team is convinced the system will work. The plan, within six to nine years, is to have a number of ABLs deployed, able to move to crisis areas within forty-eight hours, loaded with laser fuel and able to fire up to forty shots before refuelling. Two planes, with support, would be able to maintain continuous airborne patrols, well outside the airspace of an opposing state.

The ABL is leading-edge technology and it may well run into major problems. It could even be cancelled. At the same time, it has lagged very little in its planned development compared with other programmes of similar complexity, and its success so far has helped spawn numerous other directed-energy projects.

Among these has been a US air force study investigating whether such a system could be used to destroy other planes or to hit targets on the ground. Problems include the manner in which the atmosphere limits the range of a laser, making it more useful in space or in the upper atmosphere. But research is under way to combine a laser with a particle-beam system in order to overcome atmospheric effects.

In other programmes, the US army is testing a prototype Solid State Heat Capacity Laser. Also, a separate system – the Tactical High Energy Laser – has already been used to shoot down short-range Katyusha rockets, and is arousing interest in the Israeli army. The US navy is looking at high-energy lasers to be mounted on warships, and the US Air Force is investigating the use of relay mirrors to extend the use of future systems. There is even a plan to fit a hundred kilowatt infrared laser weapon to the new F-35 strike fighter.

The space-based laser

The ultimate prize for all these research efforts is the development of a powerful space-based laser able to destroy missiles as soon as they are launched but also with the capacity to hit other targets on the Earth’s surface – anything from refineries and factories to warships and barracks.

This is a much more long-term programme than the ABL and was originally expected to be deployed towards 2020. It would form a key part of US space command’s intention to gain control of space and would utilise the extensive experience the US has gained in satellites and space launchers over half a century.

Each space-based laser would be twenty-two metres long, would weigh seventeen tons and would be equipped with an alpha laser capable of hitting missiles within ten seconds of launch and able to be re-targeted in half a second. It would also be capable of hitting other targets. At least twelve and as many as twenty-four of these satellites would be deployed in 650 mile orbits, enabling them to target any point on the Earth’s surface at very short notice. In essence, it is the ‘death ray’ of science fiction made fact.

Until recently, the space-based laser was seen as a weapon of the fairly distant future. But two things have changed that may bring deployment forward by some years: firstly, the progress made with the ABL and other directed energy weapons; secondly, the coming to power of the Bush administration, with its commitment to missile defence and the control of space.

There is strong support among many Republicans in Congress for a speeded-up programme, and US Air Force officials say the whole programme could be brought forward so that a prototype space-based laser could be launched within eight years from now, and tested a year or so later.

An uncertain prospect

What therefore appears to be happening is that the whole scope of directed energy weapons is being extended, more money is going into research and development, and new uses are being found. The ‘dream’ is for the effective control of space, since these weapons could certainly target satellites, combined with a capacity to strike targets on the Earth’s surface at the speed of light.

As always, though, there are more worrying implications. Apart from the risk of setting off an arms race with countries such as China, such control of space would imply a monopoly not just over other states but also of the wide range of commercial satellites. This is an aspect unlikely to appeal to some of the world’s largest high-tech transnational corporations, many of which are not American. Moreover, such apparent control is far from complete and is likely to engender asymmetric response.

A couple of years ago, a British newspaper presented a series of articles on the future, which included a scenario that is highly relevant to these developments. By around 2018, the US space-based laser was fully operational and one of its early deployments was to support the Saudi government in its fight against rebel forces seeking the overthrow of the regime. It proved effective, destroying numerous targets on the ground.

However, two years later (according to the scenario), a paramilitary group allied to the rebels released a particularly potent strain of anthrax up-wind of the huge US spy base at Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire, killing many people in the surrounding area and leading to a bitter row between London and Washington.

In other words, what may appear to be a seductive and effective way of maintaining control may, in the longer term, have a very different effect. For the moment, there are no arms control processes that affect directed-energy weapons and there are no immediate prospects of controlling their development. It looks very much as if we are at the beginning of a technology revolution with extremely uncertain consequences.

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