Last month the Air Force announced that it will likely have a fighter-mounted directed energy pod in a time frame that is “a lot closer than . . . a lot of people think,” according to Air Force General Hawk Carlisle. The Air Force’s goal is to have what essentially amounts to a laser cannon mounted on fighters and other aircraft within the next five years.
The current contender for the weapon system seems to be HELLADS – or High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System – a 150 kw system under development by General Atomics and DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The design goal for HELLADS is to create a laser that is ten times lighter than existing systems, or roughly five kilograms per kilowatt – a total of 750 kg, or about the equivalent of five AMRAAM missiles. The fighter they plan to first use is the tried and true F-15. I spoke with a friend of mine who is an ex-F-15C pilot and he gave me some insight into the platform. It has the capability to carry 12,500 lbs of fuel internally, and it carries two AIM-9 Sidewinders and 6 AMRAAMs as the default load out. Clearly it has plenty of capacity to fit a 750 kg system by just dropping some of the missiles, leaving some of the fuel on the ground, or both.
The weapon is sufficiently advanced in its development that it went through a series of tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, including targeting such things as rockets, mortars, vehicles and surface-to-air missiles.
This isn’t new news, so rather than continue to describe it, I’ll write about the potential uses, impact to the battlefield, and possible issues.
What Form Will it Take?
Don’t expect a current day version of Star Wars where fighter aircraft get in dogfights reminiscent of TIE fighters versus X-Wings. Fixed laser weapons really don’t make much sense. These weapons must take the form of small automated turrets that can cover multiple approaches to the aircraft. Additionally, today’s laser weapons aren’t firing bolts of energy like we see in the movies. They lock onto a target and stay fixed on it as long as they can or until it’s disabled. Turrets will allow this to happen while both the fighter and its target maneuver.
What Can it Target?
In all communications the Air Force has on the system, it references its use as a purely defensive measure. Certainly, being able to quickly dispatch incoming anti-air missiles would be a massive advantage on the aerial battlefield. However, one doesn’t have to have too vivid of an imagination to see that there is little difference between a missile and another aircraft. If it can destroy an aircraft, it can destroy a tank or other military vehicle on the ground. Anything that could be detected would be fair game including battlefield missiles, maybe even artillery or mortar shells.
What Does it Mean on the Battlefield?
If the system can be perfected, having the ability to instantly target and attack anything within line of sight with essentially an auto-hit, would change the way wars are fought. Defensive maneuvers would be all but useless. Defensive systems would have to be developed to counter lasers. Such things as reflective or ablative armor would help keep vehicles safe. Additionally, anything that could disperse the beam would impact its efficiency. Ground vehicles could surround themselves in a cloud of smoke or other material, but aircraft would leave such a countermeasure behind as they flew. Stealth becomes more critical.
Additionally, the flavor of battle would change. We could see an aerial battlefield where larger, highly stealthy aircraft (e.g. like the B2 bomber) act as mobile laser batteries, potentially commanding large numbers of drones also mounting lasers of their own. Because lasers have no ammunition, vehicles mounting them can stay on the battlefield for much longer periods of time.
What are the Limitations of Laser Weapons?
As mentioned above, lasers are line-of-sight weapons. If you can see a target, you can hit it. If you can’t see it… Smoke, clouds, dust, all dramatically limit the effectiveness of such weapons. Not only can they obscure sight, but even if they don’t fully cover a target, they can disperse the beams and lower their effectiveness.
Also as mentioned above, specific lasers can be countered by heat resistant, ablative, or reflective armor. Development of these countermeasures is far less expensive than developing the weapons they are meant to counter.
Another limitation is international law. The Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons was issued by the UN in 1995. It specifically prohibits use of lasers to blind enemy soldiers. Whether the protocol applies to offensive laser weapons could be open to interpretation. One article specifically excludes collateral damage from “legitimate” uses of laser systems, while another says users must take all feasible precautions against possible blindness.
What is the Future of Aerial Laser Weaponry?
Will lasers dominate the battlefields of the future? Will we see massive laser battles like in a high budget sci-fi movie? Any single weapon type can be defeated. The best offense consists of a variety of weapons each with its own usage envelope, strengths, and weaknesses. Laser weapons will simply become another option for an advanced military to use. One thing is for sure, however, lasers will continue to alter the battlefield.
“Right now, when we talk about an air-to-air engagement, we measure it in miles and minutes. With directed energy, you change that to milliseconds.”
Major General Jerry Harris
Photo credit: Air Force