In this article we will look at:
- What Boris has discussed about laser technology in his speech within the house of commons on the 19th of November.
- The history of laser technology, types of laser equipment, and who has been testing this technology so far.
- Are lasers practical? Are there other technologies that Boris and the British Military should be investigating instead?
Directed Energy Weapons
On the 19th of November, Boris Johnson would announce that his government would pledge to ‘increase defense by 24.1 billion pounds over the next 4 years’ after an ‘assessment of the international situation’. This would increase Britain’s spending on defence to 2.2% of GDP; 0.2% above Nato’s target.
However, this would not be your average expansion of the militaries budget, but an attempt to invest in ‘technologies that will revolutionize warfare.’ The Prime Minister would express that it was crucial for the future of Britain that its military remain relevant in a rapidly changing world.
He would go on to comment that ‘1.5 billion pounds’ would be invested into military research and development in order to ‘master the new technologies of warfare.’ While Johnson would discuss matters related to the capabilities of satellites, drones, air strikes, and cyber weapons, it was his mention of ‘directed energy weapons’ that would capture the imagination of the public.
The Prime Minister would state that, ‘our warships and combat vehicles will carry directed energy weapons destroying targets with inexhaustible lasers’, which would lead to the phrase, ‘out of ammunition’ to become redundant.
The History of Laser Weapon Systems
While the first laser was developed by Theodore H. Mainman in the 1960’s, it would not be until the 80’s that their use as militaristic weapons would step outside the realms of fantasy.
Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, which would commonly be referred to as the ‘Star Wars’ program, commenced in 1983 in order to safeguard the American people against nuclear annihilation. The use of earth-based laser battle stations (primarily used to take out Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) , alongside X-Ray Lasers (which would orbit earth and shoot down multiple ICBM’s), and ‘Brilliant Pebbles’ (small, space-based interceptors designed to destroy ballistic missiles by ramming into them) would make up just a few of the way in which The United States planned to protect itself against the military capabilities of the Soviet Union.
Although, after 10 years and nearly $30 billion spent on developing this program (with little success), the project would be abandoned in 1993 under President Bill Clinton and the department was subsequently renamed The Ballistic Missile Defence Organisation.
In 1995 the Geneva Convention would ban the use of blinding laser weapons, stating that:
However, since the turn of the 21st century the advancement of laser technology has increased significantly. In 2001 the US Defense Science Board Task Force on High Energy Laser Weapons Systems Applications released a ‘review of ongoing and potential activities in high-energy laser applications.’ In this review they covered the numerous US military activities related to laser-weapons as seen in the photos below:
Different Types of Lasers
Lasers have many different uses including being carried by soldiers, used on military equipment, and as part of defense systems. In 2018, the market for lasers stood at $12.9 billion and will almost certainly increase as governments (such as the UK) look to lasers to improve their military capabilities.
‘Dazzlers’ are used to temporarily blind/disorient their target with directed beams. Generally, they are handheld weapons and are either deployable or attached to traditional weapon systems.
The US too has trialed similar technology. In 2006, they bought “2,000 green lasers for use at checkpoints”, so that they could blind the enemy, rather than using standard ammunition, in order to prevent casualties.
Recent developments in this technology have led a Chinese company (ZKZM Laser), to create the ZKZM-500 in 2018. They have claimed that this weapon can be charged using a simple “lithium battery pack” and is only size the size of an AK-47.
While there have been few instances in which this has received any practical use, the US has claimed that China used laser-based weapons “near the American base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti” in 2018. China may have used any 4 of their man-portable systems which they have had access to since 2015: (1) BBQ-905 Laser Dazzler Weapon, (2) WJQ-2002 Laser Gun, (3) PY132A Blinding Laser Weapon, (4) PY131A Blinding Laser Weapon.
Military Equipment Attatchments:
Handheld weaponry is not the only area in which research into lasers is being conducted by both domestic and foreign militaries. The potential use for lasers on army vehicles, navy ships, and air force planes is too being investigated.
The US has been testing a prototype called the Compact Laser Weapons System, which will be used to ‘melt drones’ and is planned to be deployed on Stryker vehicles. Reports have suggested that the US Army could have these weapons ready for practical use by the year 2024.
As recently as May 2020, the USS Portland successfully disabled an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with a Solid-State Laser (LWSD – MK 2 MOD 0) in a naval experiment (see video above). This system built upon the success of Navy’s laser weapon system (LaWS) that was used in the Persian Gulf in 2014, which, during a series of test shots, managed to hit and destroy targets mounted atop a small boat, blasted a six-foot drone from the sky, and destroyed other moving targets.
Since 2019, the UK’s too has been experimenting with laser equipment for its naval vessels. While the Dragonfire laser is still in development, it has the power to rip ‘through a mortar round in mere seconds’. Although this laser’s still has several issues (including, huge power demands that can cause its lithium batteries to overheat, and therefore risk starting fires aboard Royal Navy ships) that would have to be resolved before becoming a staple in Navy equipment, Boris’ recent push for ‘directed energy weapons’ might suggest that this is not as far off as one might think.
Using lasers for the purpose of defensive systems, as seen in Reagan’s SDI Program, were among the first practical applications considered for laser technologies. While the ‘Star Wars’ initiative may have ended in 1993, research and development into methods by which lasers can protect a nation from enemy missile threats has never discontinued.
Lockhead Martin have developed the ATHENA (Advanced High Energy Asset System), which is a prototype laser weapon system that has been designed to ‘defeat close-in, low value threats such as improvised rockets, unmanned aerial systems, vehicles and boats.’
Is Laser Equipment Practical?
With Johnson pushing for the advance of laser technologies, we should ask ourselves if his statement that ‘the phrase “out of ammunition”’ would become ‘redundant’ in the years to come is just propaganda or a practical reality?
As we have discussed above there are multiple uses for lasers, whether this be through handheld devices, attachments on vehicles or through defensive systems, however, is this the most promising form of technology for military purposes that we could be exploring?
While lasers have been highlighted as a way of dealing with drones, a European Developer of Missile Systems (MBDA) has highlighted that, ‘recent incidents have seen mini drones disrupting high profile events and flying over protected locations. Highly precise and scalable laser weapon systems could protect major events and critical infrastructures and close a current capability gap.’
The UK has already been testing three directed-energy weapon systems since 2019 and is ‘planning to invest up to $162 million’ in these projects, however, a retired Colonel has stated that he believes that laser technology is a ‘façade’ and a crowd-pleaser. Instead, he has suggested that the future of military technology will rest in the creation and development of “hypersonic weapons”.
These hypersonic weapons could be the next generation of nuclear weapons with the US, China and Russia already having operational hypersonic missiles.
While lasers might be a practical new technology, they are certainly not the only next big development in military conflict. Military practices are advancing at a rapid rate and while these ‘new toys’ will likely find their place within the arsenal of many militaries around the world, they are unlikely to be the most cost-effective or practical machines anytime in the near future… at least in terms of their ability to make traditional weapon systems obsolete. In the decades moving forward we will likely see militaries use a variety of weapon systems, from ballistic to hypersonic, until one system has proved itself in terms of reliability. For now, it remains unlikely that one type of weaponry will be used singularly, but instead in tandem with one another and most likely for different practical purposes.