The U.S army, on June 26, successfully tested a weaponized laser at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The high energy laser weapon shows high potential in effectiveness and precision in anti-insurgency operation.
The test was conducted by the U.S defense contractor Raytheon in collaboration with the U.S Special Operations Command (SOCOM) by firing the weaponized laser weapon from a U.S Army Apache AH-64 attack helicopter.
Militaries all around the world use tactical laser technology in range-finding, target designation and guidance for missiles. However, the test was the first time a high energy weaponized laser has been fired to hit and destroy a target with minimal collateral.
So what makes laser technology special?
Laser is a narrow beam of powerful radiation that burns things up. The beauty of it is that neither can the enemy see it coming nor have counter measures. In fact, the Raytheon test was visibly quite unremarkable. There was no giant eruption of flames and no explosions.
Picture an insurgent trying to place an IED on the roadside, without warning, the device incinerates right before their eyes, no explosions, no sound and no trace of where the weapon was fired from. A mile away is an attack helicopter or drone firing its death ray away.
The IED is rendered inoperable, seconds later special operations personnel arrive to detain the insurgent bomber. There are no casualties and no collateral damage. All intelligence materials are preserved.
What are the weaknesses of this technology?
This laser technology comes with its own share of weaknesses. Laser is focused light and this means that it can be reflected or absorbed. Furthermore its effectiveness depends on the proximity of the intended target, that is, it’s more lethal at close range and less lethal at long range.
History of military use of weaponized laser technology
The use of laser weapons is not new. The Chinese developed and proved the capability of their own JD-3 and M -87 laser weapons. The later proved capability of permanently blinding personnel at 2 to 3 kilometers away and temporarily blind them out at 10 kilometers.
Laser weapons specifically intended to blind personnel were banned in a 1995 United Nations protocol. The former was designed specifically to counter laser target designation and range finding from an enemy force by firing back a laser at an attacking guidance laser to disrupt and destroy it.
In 2002, the U.S built a militarized Boeing 747 called the YAL-1 equipped with a massive airborne laser weapon intended to lock-on and destroy Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles ICBMs in flight. The ambitious anti-missile laser systems were first fired in 2007 but the program was shut down in 2011 due to the fact that it was unfeasible for the aircraft to operate in close proximity to enemy ICBM launch facilities.
What is the future of weaponized laser?
China has been particularly active in laser weapon development and deployment. Earlier this year, China unveiled a promising new laser weapon at an arms trade show in Abu Dhabi. This new Chinese laser weapon follows their low altitude guard II system deployed as an anti-drone weapon and is claimed to be able to intercept and destroy incoming mortars and missiles in flight.
The main concern however is the anti-laser defenses. Although insurgents may lack resources to develop an anti-laser capability. Mirrors do little to reflect enough laser energy quickly enough to stop the weapons’ effects. Advanced coatings may provide additional protection but are expensive and difficult to field.
The recent test by Raytheon may suggest a new niche application for laser weapons in the anti-insurgency war. Depending on how quickly the capability can be fielded, this may be a promising test results for the U.S as it enters into another chapter in the continuing global war on terror.