Warplanes: May 24, 2001

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STAR TREK WEAPONS FOR FUTURE FIGHTER; Boeing is looking into ways to harness plasma as a way to create a directed-energy weapon for a future hypersonic aircraft. Plasma is, basically ionized gas. It can be created in a laboratory in several ways, and occurs naturally in lightning. Plasma is used in neon advertising signs. Mach-8 aircraft (hypersonic vehicles and returning space vehicles) naturally build up plasma along the nose and leading edges as the air in front of them is "shocked" into high temperature and into losing some electrons. The Russians have worked with plasma for years and claim that intentionally creating it on an aircraft reduces drag and decreases sonic booms (things the US has confirmed). The Russians also insist that plasma can be used to reduce radar signatures, but the US insists that while theoretically possible the cost and weight penalties for this are so severe that other methods of reducing radar signature work better. The Russians claim to have designed but not deployed "bolt-on plasma generators" which could be attached to older aircraft and turn them into stealth aircraft with minimal penalties in aerodynamic performance. But the US is far less interested in installing plasma generators in Mach-1 aircraft than it is in gathering up the free plasma to be found all over its future Mach-8 "round the world bombers". The first use of such technology would be a self-defense weapon against intercepting missiles (although missiles do not yet exist that could tackle a Mach-8 crossing target). Later applications could produce an offensive weapon, removing the requirement for such an aircraft to lug bombs along with it. This would reduce the size of the aircraft, making it cheaper to build and operate and harder to detect and target. There are basically two ways to create a weapon using plasma as energy. One is to suck the plasma into a chamber, excite it, introduce argon (or some other gas that works well with lasers), and create a laser beam that could be directed by optics. The other is to suck the plasma into a small chamber that would form it into toroids by using an intense magnetic field, then fire these "plasma bullets" at a target. The US worked on a ground-based plasma weapon in the early 1990s, abandoning it on the verge of test firings about 1996. Some speculate that it was not abandoned, simply moved into a super-secret part of the budget. This weapon using the Shiva Star fast capacitor bank to store energy up to 10 million joules and release it instantaneously, firing plasma bullets at a speed of 10,000km/second by about 2001. These plasma bullets would be fired at incoming missile warheads and disrupt their electronics. Designed for missile defense of relatively small targets (such as a missile silo complex), the weapon was expected to have a rapid fire capability and be able to deal with multiple targets.--Stephen V Cole


 


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