Russia vs. America: Are Laser Weapons the Key to Victory?
And will the laws of physics allow it?
As we have noted, again, this is not about the creation of a system capable of doing actual physical damage to any facilities at relatively long distances.
Ground-Based Air-Defense/Missile-Defense Lasers
It’s also an old idea. The notion of hitting planes, aerodynamic missiles, shells and so on almost instantaneously has obvious appeal.
Two ADS laser projects were created in the USSR: “Terra-3” and “Omega.” The first one constituted an MDS system intended to fight warheads at the end of their flight path and destroy low-orbital satellites. The project failed to meet its goals, again, for reasons already mentioned above. In 1994, academician Nikolay Basov (a Nobel laureate, one of the inventors of lasers) provided the following reply to the question on the program’s results: “Well, we have determined with certainty that no one can hit a ballistic missile warhead with a laser beam, and we have significantly advanced the state of laser technology.” The “Omega” laser ADS has proven to be marginally better, actually hitting its aerodynamic targets within the tests. Nevertheless, the unit’s efficiency turned out to be distinctly lower than that of the surface-to-air missile systems of the time, causing the project to be scrapped. Recent rumors about Russia’s continuation of laser weapon development are likely to be related to the further development of “Omega” system; over the last two decades, new technologies have appeared that may breathe new life into the project.
Tests of similar systems were also conducted by the United States. Lately, the Americans have closely approached the creation of short-range laser ADS systems—primarily those intended to destroy enemy ammunition, landmines and UAVs. The HEL MD (High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator) system is already able to hit more than ninety landmines and several UAVs. The development of a laser-defense system for ships also continues; currently, it is able to attack UAVs and boats at a short distance. Nevertheless, the laws of physics interfere again with its actual tactical employment: as soon as the weather worsens, water droplets in the air start absorb almost all of a laser’s energy, effectively disabling it in the case of a storm or fog.
There is also information on the development of such systems from other countries: Israel, Japan, South Korea and beyond. Nonetheless, it’s early to speak of the success of such a concept—the price-to-quality ratio is important when compared to the traditional surface-to-air missile systems and short-range antiaircraft technology.
Laser Rifles, Pistols, Anti-Tank Weapon and More
Efforts to create similar weapons have been undertaken many times, but many have come up against the same problem: the lack of sufficiently powerful, yet light power sources. As a result, a laser with the power of a conventional AK-74 or M-16 could be the size of a truck. The task of striking tanks is even more challenging: in order to burn out the thick armor of modern tanks, exceptional power is required, while the shot must be fired from a short distance. Creating lasers with the ability to turn enemies blind turned out to be far more realistic; prototypes of such rifles were created even in China. But such weapons were recognized as inhumane, and are currently banned from use.
-The prospects for laser weapons are highly exaggerated, and overblown by the media and governments of certain countries. Developments in laser weaponry will not be able to tilt the balance of forces in the world for a very long time. Additionally, neither the United States nor the Russian Federation has any significant advantage in these technologies.
-The creation of effective laser strategic MDS systems is impossible in the foreseeable future. In order to implement such projects, breakthroughs in physics are needed.
-Develop laser rifles, tank projects and so on requires the creation of fundamentally new energy sources with compact size and low weight, but generating several orders of magnitude more energy.
-Currently, the most promising field is the creation of short-range ADS systems. Additionally, efforts to create laser defense for operational aircraft may prove to be of interest—the huge beam power will not be needed to blind the infrared head of the man-portable SAM weapon’s automatic homing and close-engagement missiles. In such a situation, the task of accurate and fast laser homing on the target is more challenging.
-The armies of several countries will soon come to include systems of laser suppression against enemy optics. Systems for sniper detection and blinding will also be rolled out.
Leonid Nersisyan is a military columnist for the REGNUM information agency, and editor-in-chief for New Defence Order magazine, Moscow, Russia. You can follow him at his Facebook account.
Image: “NORCO, Calif. (May 19, 2011) Daniel King, Microwave/Electro-Optic (MS32) electronics engineer at Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), Corona Division, prepares alignment of various optical components using eye-safe visible lasers. Under the Navy Metrology Research and Development Program, NSWC Corona's E-O Group has developed and patented two calibration standards for support of laser designator and rangefinder test sets. The laser transmitter supports standards keeps ordnance on target and reduces the cost of maintenance for the fleet. (U.S. Navy photo by Greg Vojtko/Released) 110519-N-HW977-022”