The Death Rays: History and Prospects of Laser Weapons

Whether lasers will become fully-fledged weapons remains to be seen.

30/11/2023 - 15:07

The familiar term "laser" is an abbreviation of "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation." The possibility of conducting military operations using lasers has long fascinated the minds of science fiction writers, filmmakers, and later, military experts. Serious discussions about lasers began in the second half of the 20th century. However, after over half a century of costly developments and numerous tests, including fairly successful ones, lasers have not yet been employed in defending the borders of any country. More details can be found in the material.

Soviet Union's Space Guns and Laser Tanks

From the mid-20th century, the Soviet Union engaged in the development and testing of laser weapons for military purposes, implementing several programs including "Terra" and "Omega." Laser trials took place at the Saryshagan test site in Kazakhstan. These projects showed a certain level of effectiveness, yet the created laser systems lacked the power to perform actual combat tasks. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the work at the site was discontinued.

Throughout the development of laser weapons, there was primarily a focus on non-lethal armaments capable of temporarily blinding the opponent or disabling their optics. In the Soviet Union, laser pistols were utilized in space industries (for recoilless firing in spacecraft conditions or in open space without the risk of damaging the spacecraft's skin), while rifles like the LK (Luchevoy Karabin) were stored even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, there is no information on the use of such weapons.

Projects like "Stiletto" and "Compression" became quite promising—referred to as laser tanks. The initial model had only one laser, easily thwarted by installing appropriate filters. Later, the "Compression" laser system, equipped with 12 lasers, was developed based on the "Msta-S" howitzer. However, after the collapse of the USSR, the formidable "Compression" was forgotten.

There is information that from 1980 to 1985, trials of the MSU laser installation were conducted on the auxiliary ship "Dixon" of the Black Sea Fleet. It was designed under the "Aidar" project for deployment in space to destroy satellites. According to other data, in 1987, a model of the Skif-DM space laser combat platform was launched on the "Energia" carrier rocket.

American Missile Defense Systems and Winged Lasers

Since the creation of the first laser in 1960, scientists and engineers of many militarily advanced countries, including the US, USSR (now Russia), Israel, China, Germany, and France, have been grappling with the development of laser weapons. Among them, the Americans have made significant progress. One of their projects was the experimental Boeing YAL-1. A modified Boeing 747-400F airliner served as the platform for a combat laser, intended for missile defense. It was based on a chemical oxygen laser with a power of 1 MW. The main advantage of YAL-1 over other missile defense systems was its theoretical capability to destroy missiles during the initial flight phase. American military authorities claimed successful laser testings multiple times. However, the real effectiveness of such a system seems dubious, and the program, costing 5 billion dollars, was terminated in 2011.

In the late 90s, American engineers developed the chemical laser of the Nautilus missile defense system, and in 2008, its upgraded version, the Skyguard. Both systems were built around the high-energy tactical laser (THEL), claimed by developers to be capable of destroying rocket-propelled projectiles, cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, and drones. The working principle was that after detecting a target with radar, a computer-directed the laser installation to fire. In a fraction of a second, the laser beam caused enemy missiles and projectiles to detonate. However, some foreign scientists believe that such an effect can only be achieved under perfect weather conditions.

American engineers are also developing laser-based missile defense systems for naval purposes. In recent years, projects like MLD and LaWS were showcased, destroying only drones and rubber boats during trials. Nonetheless, engineers remain optimistic, stating that lasers will soon effectively strike cruise missiles, aircraft, helicopters, and moderately distant surface targets.

In 2013, the US Navy announced plans to equip warships with lasers capable of targeting unmanned aerial vehicles and small vessels. By late 2014, the first combat laser system under the LaWS project was deployed on the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf. Judging by the capabilities demonstrated at "Farnborough - 2010," the system's power was estimated at 50 kW—sufficient to burn through a 40-millimeter steel plate.

Regarding the prospects of developing laser weapons specifically for naval needs, engineers face several specific challenges. For example, humid sea air adversely affects and weakens the beam's energy. Scientists have yet to devise a solution other than increasing the laser's power.

One of Boeing's laser weapon developments is the HEL-MD (High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator)—an eight-wheeled truck. In the trials conducted in 2013, the HEL-MD complex successfully hit training targets. Potential targets for such a laser installation might not only be drones but also artillery shells. The HEL-MD's power will soon be increased to 50 kW and projected to reach 100 kW in the foreseeable future.

Arms Race

Following the USA, the Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems presented two variants of the prospective combat laser system "Iron Beam" at the "ADEX-2015" exhibition in Seoul. This new system can be used for missile defense, to strike missiles and artillery shells, and to combat unmanned aerial vehicles. The system is mobile, with laser installations mounted inside standard cargo containers placed on freight chassis. In the future, they can be mounted on any base depending on the customer's needs. The Iron Beam's target engagement range reaches approximately two kilometers.

France is actively progressing with laser weapon development. The shipbuilding company "DCNS" is developing the "ADVANSEA" program, aiming to create a fully electrified combat surface vessel with laser and electromagnetic armaments by 2025. In China, according to some reports, a laser with a power of 10 kW has been developed, capable of downing drones.

In the realm of land-based laser weaponry, German designers have excelled. In 2011, the German company Rheinmetall demonstrated the interception of an unmanned aircraft using a laser system on an armored vehicle.

The success of developing laser weapons in Russia can be gauged from the statements made by the top leadership of the Russian Armed Forces. In 2014, an announcement was made that the Russian Federation was working on creating laser weapon systems, and in August 2016, about the adoption of certain models of laser weapons, although the specifics were not disclosed.

Prospects of Development

Among the apparent drawbacks of laser weaponry is its limited application linked to short range and the necessity of having the target in a direct line of sight. In simpler terms, lasers cannot penetrate through mountains, obstacles, or barriers, and to strike a distant target, the laser installation needs to be elevated very high. Even then, success isn't guaranteed as it requires time to transfer energy to the adversary, along with suitable weather conditions. Moreover, adversaries using simple reflective elements can render laser attacks ineffective. Considering the cumbersome power elements, time to readiness, and overall cost, it's safe to assert that using combat lasers in the current stage of development is impractical. Virtually any existing traditional weapon can perform combat tasks much more efficiently and affordably than lasers.

Nevertheless, there exist two polarized viewpoints: some believe that laser weaponry is the weapon of the future, while others see it as a pointless waste of time and resources. Whether lasers will become fully-fledged weapons—only time will tell.




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