Air Defense: The Weapon Of The Future Tease

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July 20, 2020: In May 2020 the U.S. Navy successfully tested a more powerful (150KW) SSL-TM (Solid State Laser - Technology Maturation) LWSD (Laser Weapon System Demonstrator) against a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). The LWSD brought down the UAV via damage inflicted by the powerful laser beam. Damage was not inflicted instantly. Like other laser weapons, it can take a second or more of the laser beam focused on one spot to do significant damage. A little mentioned reason for the success of current laser weapons are improved fire control systems that can keep the beam (or multiple beams) on the target long enough to disable or destroy.

The LWSD has been in development since 2015 and from the beginning sought to create a workable high-power solid-state laser. That was accomplished and, while each shot from the LWSD costs whatever a few liters (a gallon) of fuel goes for, most warships cannot supply large enough quantities of electrical power in a short time to keep several LWSD type weapons blasting away at UAVs, small hostile boats or slow-moving anti-ship missiles. The video of the LWSD showed a large UAV being literally burned by the laser for several seconds until the UAV lost structural integrity and went down. A new generation of warships are being built that are basically all-electric with the engines supplying electricity for propulsion, ship sensors and other systems as well as capacitor (fast discharge batteries) systems that allow repeated firing of laser and other electromagnetic weapons. For example, the U.S. Air Force has developed and tested two AUD (Anti UAV Defense) systems that use strong microwave electronic transmissions to disrupt the electronics in UAVs and cause them to crash. The air force has tested two such weapons which differ mainly in terms of range and price. The system closest to combat zone use is THOR (Tactical High-Power Microwave Operational Responder), which is a $10 million system that is shipped in and used from a standard 40-foot shipping container. The container can be hauled around on a flatbed truck or placed on the ground. Inside the container is a microwave transmitter that looks like a large satellite dish mounted on a base that can quickly rotate the dish to face the threat and transmit a short burst of microwave energy. Range of THOR has not been revealed but, based on work already done on “directed energy” systems and the fact that THOR is powered by a generator that is also in the shipping container, the effective range is probably not more than a few hundred meters. The microwave energy is sufficient to damage the electronics on commercial UAVs used by Islamic terrorists to carry “swarm attacks” on military bases in Syria. Such attacks have frequently been used against a Russian airbase in western Syria, near the Mediterranean coast. The U.S. Air Force fears its bases, especially overseas, could be subject to similar attacks by commercial UAVs carrying small payloads of explosives and using GPS to guide the UAVs to a base where the explosives detonate and cause damage. Such attacks have been used successfully in Yemen by Shia rebels and in one case attacked a large military ceremony and caused a lot of casualties.

The air force also has a longer-range system called CHIMERA (Counter-Electronic High-Power Microwave Extended-Range Air Base Air Defense) that has yet to undergo realistic testing. THOR has already downed groups of UAVs in tests and the air force wants to buy many systems for base defense in areas threatened by swarm attacks.

The microwave energy systems used by THOR and CHIMERA are similar to the EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) weapons developed since the 1990s to destroy electronics in general. Since the 1950s it was known that the powerful EMP put out by nuclear weapon detonations could damage or destroy solid-state (transistors and microelectronics) devices over a wide area. Since the 1990s, devices using high-powered microwave (HPM) devices have been developed to create focused EMP on demand without all the nuclear blast and radioactivity. The most commonly mentioned device to generate HPM is the AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radars that are becoming standard equipment in modern warplanes. AESA is more reliable and, increasingly, no more expensive than the older mechanical (a small dish that moves around inside a dome) radar. AESA is also easier and cheaper to maintain, which makes a more expensive AESA cheaper, over its lifetime, than a cheaper (to buy) mechanically scanned radar. More and more nations (including China and Russia) are manufacturing AESA radars and equipping their ships and aircraft with this stuff. All these nations are also manufacturing or developing EMP “bombs” that could be used to sabotage military bases or civilian facilities. For a long time, EMP was believed to be an unlikely threat because you needed a nuclear war to create EMP. Naturally, the blast and radiation damage from the nukes was seen as more of a threat than EMP. But now that has changed.

The older U.S. Navy 30 KW LaWS (Laser Weapon System) has been around for over a decade, was installed on one amphibious ship for several years and was to be installed on several more if it could improve its range and power. This testing began in 2013 when the navy announced that it had developed a laser technology capable of being useful in combat. This was not a sudden development but had been going on for most of the last decade. In 2010 the navy successfully tested this new laser weapon, which is actually six solid-state lasers acting in unison, to destroy a small UAV. LaWS was not yet powerful enough to do this at the range, and power level, required to cripple the most dangerous targets; missiles and small boats. The manufacturer convinced the navy that it was just a matter of tweaking the technology to get the needed effectiveness. In 2013 another test was run, under more realistic conditions. LaWS worked again, knocking down a larger UAV at a longer range. At that point, the navy said it planned to install the system in a warship within the year for even more realistic testing. Those tests took place in 2014 and were successful enough to install LaWS on at least one warship to be used to deliver warnings (at low power) while at full strength (30 kilowatts) the laser could kill people and damage or destroy UAVs.

LWSD, from another manufacturer, solved the high-power laser problems first but is still limited by the inability of supplying enough power to keep the laser firing long enough during combat situations.

The LaWS laser cannon was mounted on a KINETO Tracking Mount, which is similar, but larger (and more accurate), than the mount used by the Phalanx CIWS (Close-In Weapons System). The navy laser weapon tests used the radar and tracking system of the CIWS. Back in 2009 CIWS was upgraded so that its sensors could detect speedboats, small aircraft, and naval mines. This was crucial because knocking down UAVs is not something that the navy needs help with. But the ability to do enough damage to disable boats or missiles that are over two kilometers distant meant the LaWS was worth mounting on a warship. LWSD could use the same KINETO Tracking Mount but would not be much more effective unless there was sufficient electrical power available on a sustained basis to keep the system firing.

LaWS proved capable of working under simulated combat conditions. These included disabling a ScanEagel UAV, destroying an RPG rocket and burning out the outboard engine of a speed boat. LaWS also proved useful in detecting small boats or aerial objects at night and in bad weather. LaWS worked despite the mist and light sand storms, though in heaver sand storms performance was much reduced. In 2018 LaWS was moved to a large amphibious ship for continued testing and two more LaWS are being built, for delivery and installation on two more ships before the end of 2020. The manufacturer continues to work on extending the range and increasing damage inflicted on targets. LaWS uses less than a dollars’ worth of electricity provided by a diesel generator separate from the ship power supply. In other words, LaWS is still a work in progress as are other electronic cannon type weapons.

LaWS and LWSD seem to be going in the same direction as the Israeli Laser Dome with similar but less effective tech. The Israeli laser system is light enough to be mounted in warplanes or large UAVs. Hopes are once higher that Laser Dome will prove that the long-awaited future tech has finally arrived. Believe it when you see it.

Laser systems like this have been in development elsewhere for a long time, but so far no one has been able to develop a laser with the range and destructive power to perform like some new Israeli systems. Two Israeli firms are developing laser weapons to complement the existing Iron Dome system that uses missiles and an innovative radar/software system that ignores ballistic, rockets or mortar shell whose trajectory would mean hitting unoccupied land where there will be no injuries or serious damage. Most objects fired at Israel end up landing in unoccupied areas and the few objects that are dangerous are intercepted by missiles. This has proved very effective.

Elbit and Rafael (the developer of Iron Dome) are actually working together to create a laser weapon for use with existing Iron Dome systems. This Laser Dome is described as using a solid-state electric laser at an effective range of 5,000 meters. Unlike missile-based systems, the cost of bringing down each target is several dollars’ worth of electricity. A diesel generator/capacitor system can fire once every few seconds for as long as power is available. Laser Dome combines multiple laser beams to obtain a useful amount of laser power at longer ranges. Fire control systems for quickly, accurately and repeatedly aiming a laser have already been developed. The main problem has long been obtaining effective burn (laser bean-created heat) at longer ranges to do enough damage to bring down or destroy the incoming warhead.

Israel believes Laser Dome has sufficient burn power but realistic tests are needed to prove it. If Laser Dome works, several individual systems could operate with each Iron Dome battery to take down targets the laser can reach rather than use the $60,000 Iron Dome missiles. Iron Dome would continue to take care of longer-range targets. This would make Iron Dome a lot cheaper to operate and more effective against mass attacks when dozens of rockets are fired at the same target in a short time.

Some of the tech Laser Dome concepts have already been used in other laser weapons. One of these is Iron Beam from another Israeli firm (Raphael). Iron Beam uses a single HEL (High Energy Laser), requires more power and has a range of 7,000 meters. Another HEL example is the U.S. Army CLWS (Compact Laser Weapon System) which is currently only capable of handling UAVs. CLWS is a laser weapon light enough (2.2 tons) to mount on helicopters or hummers and can destroy small UAVs up to 2,000 meters away, while it can disable or destroy the sensors (vidcams) on a UAV up to 7,000 meters away. The CLWS fire control system will automatically track and keep the laser firing on a selected target. It can take up to 15 seconds of laser fire to bring down a UAV or destroy its camera. This is the tech that Laser Dome claims to have improved enough to destroy UAVs with one shot and at longer ranges.

Nearly half a century of engineering work has produced thousands of improvements, and a few breakthroughs, in making the lasers more powerful, accurate, and lethal. More efficient energy storage has made it possible to use lighter, shorter range, ground-based lasers effective against smaller targets like mortar shells and short-range rockets. American and Israeli companies are still trying to produce ground and airborne lasers that can successfully operate under combat conditions. The big problem with anti-missile airborne lasers has always been the power supply. A lot of chemicals are needed to generate sufficient power for a laser that can reach out for hundreds of kilometers and do sufficient damage to a ballistic missile. To be effective the airborne laser needs sufficient power to get off several shots. So far, no one has been able to produce such a weapon. Shorter range solid-state lasers need lots of electricity. This is difficult for aircraft or ground troops but not for properly equipped ships. That's why these lasers remain "the weapon of the future" and will probably remain so for a while.

 


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