In our current geopolitical climate where conventional, symmetrical warfare is becoming seemingly obsolete and the future theaters of war are uncertain, the next generation of weaponry has begun to arrive. On January 28th, 2014, the defense titan Lockheed Martin announced via its official website that it had successfully “demonstrated a 30-kilowatt electric fiber laser, the highest power ever documented while retaining beam quality and electrical efficiency.” Wow. Even taken at face value that is absolutely incredible.
Lasers have had a variety of uses in the military from guidance for various munitions and tactical strikes to interfering with and even destroying incoming enemy missiles and rockets. However, the prospect of using lasers as weapons themselves has been one which seemed far off (perhaps in a galaxy far, far away), until now. The weapon utilizes a specialized process of combining multiple lasers called Spectral Beam Combining. It “sends beams from multiple fiber laser modules, each with a unique wavelength, into a combiner that forms a single, powerful, high quality beam.”
The implications of such a weapons system are very fascinating. According to the program manager for directed energy and electric weapon systems for the United States Naval Sea Systems Command, Captain Mike Ziv, this new system “fundamentally changes the way we fight.” It is being developed because it is stupendously cost-effective and as a means of addressing asymmetrical threats to the United States’ Naval fleet such as aerial drones and speed/swarm boats.
The technological development of this laser system has reached a point where a prototype, capable of being operated by a single sailor, will be installed and tested on the USS Ponce during the summer of 2014. Because it only requires 30 kilowatts of electricity to operate, the laser costs far less to operate (only a few dollars per shot, according to Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute) than the current interceptor missiles employed on most United States Naval ships that run at a cost of around $1 million per missile. Thus the economic soundness of the new system is pretty straightforward.
Economics aside, the destructive power of this new system is also noteworthy. After the targeting system locks on to a target, an intensely hot beam of energy, aka a laser, is fired at the target and is capable of frying electronics and/or burning through objects. It is also invisible to the naked eye (which is terrifying from a psychological perspective). As Captain Ziv puts it: “You can see the effect on what you are targeting but you don’t see the actual beam”. So no red or green lasers as seen in Star Wars.
In addition to the announcement of the laser, Captain Ziv has also said a prototype rail gun will be closely follow the deployment of the new laser system. A rail gun essentially uses electricity and magnetism to rapidly accelerate an object at six to seven times the speed of sound. This creates a wide array of previously unseen advantages in naval warfare. To get a more in-depth understanding of just how significant this weapon is as well as the aforementioned advantages, here is General Atomics’ video demonstrating and explaining their latest, next-generation weapon for the United States Navy: the Blitzer Railgun (awesome sound effects at 2:11).
As with all weapons however, there are draw backs. For example: lasers tend to lose their integrity in poor conditions such as dust or rain while the rail gun requires very large amounts of technology, amounts so large that only one ship, the Zumwalt, which is a new kind of destroyer ship (and also still under construction), is the only ship with enough power to operate the rail gun (It generates as much as 78 megawatts of power via gas turbine-powered generators– enough electricity for a medium-sized city which apparently is more than enough for a rail gun).
Despite these drawbacks, which the United States Navy is already allegedly working on, this technology is nothing short of incredible for many reasons, but none as important as what the creation of these weapons means for the rest of the world. From a general stand point, a weapon is really only effective when no other player has something which can match it or beat it (think of a sword and a shield, etc.) so what, if any, response will there be from other countries? Regardless of what may come, the fact that this technology is now in the public eye is a fantastic indicator at just how rapidly technology is evolving.