Missiles are a problem if you’re fighting a modern war. You can get out of the way or you can hide behind something, but that’s about it. Now anti-missile technology has had some success dealing with mid-range missiles. The Patriot system whose success was limited during the Gulf War has since been improved into a system that’s quite effective in dealing with the large and somewhat lumbering tactical ballistic missiles fielded by a number of adversaries.
But smaller missiles and mortars remain an intractable menace. It takes mere seconds for something like a Qassam rocket to travel its short-range trajectory of a few miles. There’s no anti-missile countermeasure that can adequately address such a threat. For defense of very small targets like individual ships, high-speed machine guns have had some success, but it’s a desperation move that’s even less effective against multiple incoming missiles.
On the other hand, what about a laser? Lasers are pretty useless as an offensive weapon of war by virtue of the fact that a cannon shell does the job much better at a microscopic fraction of the cost. But at defending against incoming rockets and mortars, we may have a different story. Lasers operate instantly, are easy to aim, and generally don’t require any resupply other than a power line. The problem has been power. To destroy an incoming threat requires a tremendous amount of heat delivered in a very small window of time. 100 kW has generally been the accepted “threshold” for usefulness. Last time I wrote about this subject, the state-of-the-art lasers of this type were in the 10 kW range.
Not anymore. Northrop-Grumman just announced successful tests of a 105 kW solid state laser. They suspect it can be pushed to 120 kW without much difficulty.
Each building block for the laser consists of a laser amplifier chain, with each chain producing approximately 15 kW of power in a high-quality beam. Seven laser chains were combined to produce a single beam of 105.5 kW. The laser already has been operated at above 100 kW for a total duration of more than 85 minutes. A government team reviewed results of the demonstration during a System Test Data Review held Feb. 10 at Northrop Grumman’s Directed Energy Production Facility in Redondo Beach.
The laser’s seven beams are combined by “tiling” them in a row and matching their phases, thus coherently combining them, says Wildt…
The technology could be deployed in as quickly as a year for a demo, says Wildt, and in a few years for a fieldable weapon system. The resulting laser weapons would be able to shoot down many types of enemy targets, including rockets, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, missiles, mortar rounds, and swarming boats (an attack consisting of many small, explosives-laden boats that converge on a single ship).
This would be an immense advantage for whatever military can field such a system. Modern militaries (and the US Navy in particular) are almost certainly much more vulnerable than they’d like to admit to mass missile attack by an advanced opponent. Even a technically adept military like the IDF has been able to make very little progress in stopping the most primitive in Soviet-era rocketry. It was not too many years ago that a US commander playing the role of Iran more or less routed the US Navy in a 2002 wargaming exercise with a tactic amounting to launching saturation missile attacks.
This kind of anti-missile laser technology could have the capability to render those tactics impossible. It’s about time.