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Conference expects slow transition to laser weapons

07 Mar 2012

Despite numerous diagnostic applications it is likely to be at least 10 to 20 years before such sources are widely deployed in actual weapons.

By Matthew Peach in Munich

The Directed Energy Systems Conference 2012, which took place in Munich at the end of February, heard that although lasers and other sources of electromagnetic radiation have many diagnostic purposes in defense and security applications, it is likely to be at least 10 to 20 years before such sources are widely deployed in actual weapons.

The two-day meeting at the Hotel Vierjahreszeiten Kempinski, Munich, organized by IQPC, had revised its name from last year’s Directed Energy Weapons conference, although the event was still clearly aimed at the defense and security sectors. Key presenters were current or recent senior military figures from US and European armed forces interspersed with scientists from research institutes focused on defense applications.

Discussion panel sparks interest

The highlight of the conference was the discussion panel on day one, which initially considered the question “how can directed energy systems be moved from the academic drawing board to an operational reality”, but which soon digressed into a more general discussion with the 60-70-strong body of delegates .

The panel was led by Rear Admiral Massimo Annati (retired), who is Deputy Director, European Working Group on Non-Lethal Weapons, and who was also the chairman of all of the talks over the two days. Other panelists were Colonel Joseph Skaja, Chief of Electronic Warfare, Information Operations and Directed Energy Division, US Air Force; Fabian Ochsner, Vice President at Rheinmetall Air Defense; and Dr Michael Von Salisch, Senior Scientist, Special Laser Applications, at the French-German Research Institute Saint Louis.

Key topics that the panel team considered included: bridging the technical divide; power requirements and processing; achievement of operational durability; increasing capabilities to meet operational demands; and overcoming the public and private negativity on the use of directed energy systems.

Questions and answers

Following is an edited transcript of questions from the chairman and delegates to the panel.

Massimo Annati: Do you think that directed energy weapons have direct and clear superiority [over conventional weapons] today?

Michael Von Salisch: Nowadays directed energy weapons don’t have superiority compared with kinetic systems because the acceptance of DE systems in the user group [the military] is quite small. If you consider that we have had kinetic weapons for 500 years and laser weapons for 10-15 years, I think that the soldier himself is not that impressed because the programs of development are strongly delayed compared to the planning. The soldier wants a reliable, easy-to-handle, clear to understand system that has the reliability of a normal M16 rifle, or whatever, therefore the superiority is on the kinetic side.

Fabian Ochsner: My presentation will dwell quite a lot on this question and it will conclude with that the statement that I do not feel that in the end it will be a race between kinetic weapons and directed energy weapons but it will be both [working] together.

Basically, I am coming to this question from the ground-based air defense side. We started of with guns - ground-based artillery – kinetic weapons – then there was the development of surface to air missiles and the latter did not completely displace the gun-based air defenses. In fact due to the development of today’s threats, the two weapons together are the strongest mix we have today.

Looking to the future, I am fairly convinced it is not an issue of laser weapons replacing the traditional weapons, in the end it’s going to be the two or three effects that will be available together to ground based air defenders to use in the best possible way. There won’t be a replacement of what we have today but there will be an augmentation of what we have today.

Joseph Skaja: One of the problems that the directed energy community is that the impression that the community gave the users [military] was that there would be a superior technical advantage with DE weapons probably before the technology was ready to deliver that advantage. That has probably set us back – as far as acceptance in the military community is concerned.

On the potential superior advantage, I think that directed energy weapons have the ability to be superior – in time. I think the initial versions of DE weapons will be similar in capability to kinetic weapons but that eventually they have that potential to be superior.

My superiors in the USAF Air Combat Command [when considering hardware developments] have eight key indicators that they watch on a regular basis. One of those is the possibility of game-changing capabilities of directed energy systems and I believe that such weapons do have the potential to be a game changer in the way we prosecute warfare objectives.

Massimo Anatti: For some centuries there were firearms and swords, arrows, spears. The firearms required centuries to remove the edge and cutting weapons. Probably not in terms of centuries, given the speed of change today ,but probably some tens of years will be required for directed energy weapon to fill the place of kinetic and other firearms. Considering the question of whether this is happening today or tomorrow, the directed energy technology is not yet mature.

Diagnostics or destruction?

optics.org: Will directed energy systems continue to be primarily used for diagnostic purposes rather than as direct energy to destroy an enemy’s resources?

Joseph Skaja: I don’t believe that directed energy weapons will replace the kinetic weapons but I think they will augment and may take a higher percentage of usage. As we talked about historic weapons and the large changes that they have made to warfare, look at the weapons that have done that.

They have either changed the ability to put more capacity into the fighting space or they gave a little bit more range. Weapons I think of are the long pike in antiquity; the machine gun that could put out more bullets per trigger pull, and the laser-guided weapons, which now take just one weapon to kill a target versus a hundred general-purpose bombs. Those things that increase the capability of that single weapon and give it more precision and more direct attack effects that you desire, that’s what’s going to change warfare.

I believe that the power and capability of high-power microwaves or laser weapons will give that next leap in capability but it will take a while. We have to start off with some basic usages of those directed energy weapons and then move forward into the realm of the possible, to the larger weapons.

Fabian Ochsner: Of course one of the issues here is that we’re saying that laser weapons are weapons of the future and always will be, which has been triggered by a long string of promises that were not kept. There have been a number of programs, I remember from the past 20 years, with people standing at such conferences [as this] claiming that within the next two years we would field a laser weapon.

Lasers have been here for a long time for various roles – but to use it really as a high-energy weapon – as an effector – that is probably still, as of today, quite some time away. So still for people working in the field, there are a lot of open issues persist; some of them are pure technology – how do I form this beam; what can I do with it; how can I bring the energy where I want to.

Once these issues are solved, then you get to the next systematic level. You have to be able to integrate this weapon into an overall system and then to control it as well. Then there is the whole issue of collateral damage – how to use this weapon in the various missions, and consider the rules of engagement. That is not something that is easy to resolve once you start to fire 100kW of laser into the air.

I think that due to the technology that is out today and the way forward, there is a true possibility that in the next 10-15 years some of the technology will come along that places effects from a high-energy laser into the battlefield.

Michael Von Salisch: When I started working at ISL, just after completing my PhD, I attended my first conference at which there were some representatives from industry. They showed us a tank that should replace a normal tank and instead of gun it would have an adaptive optics that directed a CO2 laser to the target on the battlefield.

That’s now 25 years ago, and if I remember it right, I still haven’t seen anything like it on the battlefield – or even on the testing ground – comparable to that vision. And I think that’s one of the biggest problems that the laser has in the military area of applications, because there are a lot of things promised that are said to be ready to implement, easy to handle, but as a result nothing arrives on the market that holds these promises.

That‘s the great difference between the military use as a directed energy weapon and the real usage of these lasers as diagnostic applications.

I can say that the proof has been done for the diagnostic applications; I think there’s no problem in the military community to accept lasers, lidars, and so on to use as a diagnostic tool to do something to detect a perceived threat and to diagnose that there’s something in the surroundings. But there still remains the problem for the systems developers of needing to prove 100% competence for directed energy as a weapon in itself.”

Other topics presented included:

An introduction to the directed energy enabling policy presented by Colonel Joseph Skaja. The US Air Force Air Combat Command is responsible for the combat enablement of the directed energy systems projects currently in development across the US Air Force.

Skaja’s talk introduced the role and work of the ACC, he examined the group’s work in liaising with other DES Air Force development agencies, and gave some details on the “Directed Energy Enabling Concept”, the first step on the road to creating tactics, techniques, and procedures for directed energy systems.

Special Solid-State Lasers for Protection of Airborne Platforms by Jamming and Damage was presented by Michael Von Salisch, Senior Scientist, Special Laser Applications, at the French German Research Institute Saint Louis, set up in 1958 with the aim of Franco-German cooperation to provide research, scientific study and pre-development in the field of armaments.

Von Salisch considered the types of threat that could be countered by “jamming and damage” lasers. He then made a comparison of so-called “classical” military lasers with smaller scale solid-state lasers and their potential adaptation to airborne platforms for operational use. He also discussed different concepts of solid-state laser in the 2 micron range for jamming and damage, which were being investigated at ISL.

Fellow ISL researcher Dr. Ruediger Schmitt, a Senior Scientist in Laser Applications made a presentation entitled Progress in analyzing the physics of Laser Interaction in military and homeland security applications. This considered technical issues such as: linear and non-linear energy coupling; analyzing countermeasures against optronic components and suggested likely laser effects on munitions.

The Boeing Mk 38 Tactical Laser System was described by Mike Rinn, Vice President and Program Manager, Directed Energy Systems at Boeing. Rinn considered that “the use of high-energy lasers on naval platforms has been one of the major research and development focuses of the military and industry partnerships focusing on directed energy system development”.

Rinn gave an overview of project so far, including difficulties encountered surrounding platform integration, overcoming heat and power generation, and the project was building on initial test results, suggesting applications for future projects.

A laser gun to close capability gaps in ground-based air defense (GBAD) was the title of the presentation by Col. Fabian Ochsner, Vice President, Marketing and Product Management at Rheinmetall Air Defence. Ochsner looked at GBAD´s requirements for a high energy “laser shooter” and how they could be integrated in such systems, he considered the question of rules of engagement – which was a common theme and question in many of the conference events, and concluded with a roadmap of the Rheinmetall anti-aircraft laser under development. Ochsner was supported by co-presenter Alexander Graf, Deputy Department manager at the company

Further coverage on optics.org

In a series of focus articles to be published in the coming weeks, optics.org will give more details of the technical presentations from Directed Energy Systems 2012.

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a Contributing Editor to Optics.org

HÜBNER PhotonicsAlluxaLaCroix Precision OpticsCeNing Optics Co LtdFirst Light ImagingSPECTROGON ABCHROMA TECHNOLOGY CORP.
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