Monday, November 17, 2008

The Light Fighter

From an article in the Economist, on the advances in lasers and "directed energy" weapons:
LIKE so much else in science fiction, the ray gun was invented by H.G. Wells. In the tentacles of Wells’s Martians it was a weapon as unanswerable by earthlings as the Maxim gun in the hands of British troops was unanswerable by Africans. Science fiction, though, it has remained. Neither hand-held pistols nor giant, orbiting anti-missile versions of the weapon have worked. But that is about to change. The first serious battlefield ray gun is now being deployed. And the next generation, now in the laboratory, is coming soon.

The deployed ray gun (or “directed-energy weapon”, in the tedious jargon that military men seem compelled to use to describe technology) is known as Zeus. It is not designed to kill. Rather, its purpose is to allow you to remain at a safe distance when you detonate unexploded ordnance, such as the homemade roadside bombs that plague foreign troops in Iraq.

This task now calls for explosives. In practice, that often means using a rocket-propelled grenade, so as not to expose troops to snipers. But rockets are expensive, and sometimes miss their targets. Zeus is effective at a distance of 300 metres, and a laser beam, unlike a rocket, always goes exactly where you point it.

At the moment, there is only one Zeus in the field. It is sitting in the back of a Humvee in an undisclosed theatre of war. But if it proves successful it will, according to Scott McPheeters of the American army’s Cruise Missile Defence Systems Project Office for Directed Energy Applications, be joined by a dozen more within a year.
If Zeus works, it will make soldiers’ lives noticeably safer. But what would really make a difference would be the ability to destroy incoming artillery rounds. The Laser Area Defence System, LADS, being developed by Raytheon, is intended to do just that—blowing incoming shells and small rockets apart with laser beams. The targets are tracked by radar and (if they are rockets) by infrared sensors. When they come within range, they are zapped.

Article here.

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