Laser Weapons: From Fantasy to Reality

The "laser incident", which occurred in February 2020 in the western part of the Pacific Ocean, was soon pushed into the background, if not at all from the stage, by news of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, it is not worth underestimating what happened: in fact, we are talking about the beginning of the open use of a new class of weapons, where the laser is used precisely as an independent system, and not as an auxiliary element in the fire control system of modern high-precision weapons. Over the decades of its development, the laser has come a long way, and the 2020s will almost certainly become a period of widespread use of combat laser weapon systems. What are the main areas of application of the laser and what threat to the existing balance of power can this weapon carry?

New application

First of all, it is worthwhile to deal directly with the “Chinese incident”, especially since it illustrates well the key trend in the modern development of laser weapons. What really happened on February 17, 2020 west of the island of Guam? As far as one can judge from American sources, we are talking about the "dazzlement" of the P8A Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft with the so-called "blinding" laser, designed to disable optical-electronic equipment. The impulse, judging by the absence of significant consequences, was relatively limited in capacity, and the incident can be more likely defined as demonstrative. In the absence of a clear picture from the Chinese side, it is difficult to discuss the legitimacy of what happened - although, of course, such behavior is unsafe and violates, in particular, the provisions of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, adopted during the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in 2014. However, the legal nuances in this case interest us the last way.

What about the new Chinese weapons? So far, we can only judge it by the well-known analogues of other countries' weapons. Lasers for a similar purpose are developed by many leading players. In particular, since 2014, the U.S. Navy has been testing the AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System, also known as the XN-1 LaWS. The power of the system allows it to be used both in the blinding laser mode and for the physical destruction of targets - for example, high-speed terrorist boats with improvised explosive devices mounted on them.
In 2020, the U.S. Navy plans to get two more samples of the system to continue testing. In the future, lasers of this type are considered as part of the ship’s self-defense.

What can we say about the concept of their application? In fact, these weapons have been brought to life by “asymmetric threats” in the form of intensified terrorists and increasingly widespread unmanned vehicles, giving new opportunities in the fight against them. Of course, both targets can be effectively destroyed by conventional weapons, including the same 20-30 mm anti-aircraft guns, which traditionally constitute the last line of a warship defense. However, in conditions where threats can regularly arise in an initially peaceful environment, in a large water area the number of civilian vessels on the surface of the water and civilian aircraft in the air, the use of conventional weapons has its limitations and can be dangerous - the burst from an anti-aircraft machine, not to mention the 76-100-130-mm universal artillery systems, hitting a target, may pose a threat to those who are around (and behind) of non-combatants.

The laser in this case provides the opportunity to maximize the concentration of "lethal action" on the target, minimizing the effects dangerous to the environment (although it is, of course, impossible to completely eliminate them).

We cannot say that systems like LaWS in the near future will replace classic naval  short-range weapons, due to the persistence of the usual shortcomings of laser weapons, starting with "weather dependence" and ending with high energy consumption. But the laser has already found its place in the armament complex of the ship.

A similar purpose has the Russian Peresvet ground-based laser complex, which is already being deployed as a means of protecting the launch positions of strategic missile forces. It is believed that Peresvet is able to fight not only against unmanned vehicles, but also against low-orbit reconnaissance satellites -  by destroying their optical-electronic equipment. This mission throws a bridge to another possible use of laser weapons.

Old threats

In the USSR and the USA the use of laser weapons to destroy spacecraft  was thought back to the 1960s, in the 1970s and 80s they came to testing a number of prototypes, while the Americans seriously considered lasers as a means of destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles as part of the SDI program. The "missile" direction was curtailed, subsequently receiving a second life (also short-lived) under the YAL-1 program - a combat laser aboard a Boeing 747 aircraft designed to destroy ballistic missiles in the accelerating section of the trajectory.

The anti-satellite direction continues to develop, in particular, within the framework of the Russian Sokol-Echelon project. This program, also a continuation of the development of the Cold War era, aims to create a laser weapon capable of counteracting American military spacecraft, from reconnaissance satellites to space vehicles of the orbital echelon of the US missile defense system. The carrier of laser weapons in this case is the A-60 aircraft, built on the basis of the Il-76MD military transport aircraft. From the very beginning, this complex was not considered as a means of physical destruction of objects in orbit, which automatically reduced the laser power requirements, simplifying the development as a whole. Finally, lasers of this type, designed to disable spacecraft, can also be placed in space. However, at present none of the parties recognizes the presence of active developments of this kind, although the current space exploration treaty does not prohibit the creation and deployment of orbital-based laser systems.

Ground prospects

The most significant from the point of view of practical application should be considered the prospect of using lasers in the tactical link on land, at sea and in the air. As noted above, the laser gives a sharp increase in the selectivity of the action, which reduces the associated damage. At the same time, the widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles and high-precision weapon systems, the combat capability of which in the overwhelming part is ensured by optical-electronic equipment, determines the applicability of laser weapons as a means of countering these threats.

In addition, insignificant distances simplify the task of creating combat lasers capable of physically destroying weakly protected objects and initiate the detonation of explosive devices during counter-terrorism operations or during demining. A number of tactical laser weapon projects were developed at different times in the USA and the USSR, many of them, such as 1K11 Stiletto, SLK Sanguin, 1K17 Compression in the USSR, HEL MD, MEHEL, HELLADS and others in the USA  were tested in due time, however, for various reasons they were not accepted into service. It should be noted here that ground-based lasers are much more limited than naval lasers in terms of power consumption — in this parameter, the ship has an absolute advantage over any ground-based combat vehicle. In this regard, the progress of ground-based combat lasers will critically depend on successes in the development of more powerful and compact energy storage devices and an increase in the efficiency of land-based power accumulators. The development of ground-based self-defense lasers designed to destroy mortar mines, shells and tactical missiles of various types will continue, based on the same motives for increasing the selectivity of action and reducing the associated damage.

At sea, a critical milestone, allowing us to define the laser as an effective weapon, and not as another experimental object, will be crossed over the next few years, and the main obstacle today is not energy supply, but reliability and a long service life. Confirmation of the characteristics of laser weapons in this part is no less important for its formation as a practically applicable means than the combat characteristics.

... The February incident using a Chinese laser on a U.S. Navy aircraft was not the first, and obviously not the last one. But the most interesting today is the question of who is the first to use laser weapons to destroy a real target in combat conditions, and of what kind will be this target.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.