Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Suddenly Desert Storm looks hopelessly primitive...

It is still a matter of wonder how the Martians are able to slay men so swiftly
and so silently. Many think that in some way they are able to generate an
intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense
heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of
a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror
of a lighthouse projects a beam of light. But no one has absolutely proved these
details. However it is done, it is certain that a beam of heat is the essence of
the matter. Heat, and invisible, instead of visible, light. Whatever is
combustible flashes into flame at its touch, lead runs like water, it softens
iron, cracks and melts glass, and when it falls upon water, incontinently that
explodes into steam.
-- HG Wells, The War of the Worlds, ch. 6

Here's one from Yahoo News...(via their Reuters feed)
(Hat tip: Searchlight Crusade)
(Yahoo! has a bad habit of letting its newslinks expire within days, so here's the full quote)
A U.S. Pentagon invention could make air combat resemble a battle scene from Star Wars, with a laser so small it can fit on a fighter jet, yet powerful enough to knock down an enemy missile in flight.
The High Energy Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS), being designed by the Pentagon's central
research and development agency, will weigh just 750 kg (1,650 lb) and measures the size of a large fridge.
To date, such lasers have been so bulky because of the need for huge cooling systems to stop them overheating, that they had to be fitted to large aircraft such as jumbo jets, New Scientist magazine reported on Wednesday.
But the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency reckons it has solved the problem by merging liquid and solid state lasers to cut the size and weight by "an order of magnitude," according to its Web site.
Liquid lasers can fire a continuous beam but need large cooling systems, while solid state laser beams are more intense but have to be fired in pulses to stop them overheating.
"We've combined the high energy density of the solid state laser with the thermal management of the liquid laser," New Scientist quoted project manager Don Woodbury as saying.
Dubbed the "HEL weapon" by its developers, a prototype capable of firing a mild one kilowatt
(kW) beam has already been produced and there are plans to build a stronger 15-kW version by the end of the year.
If everything goes according to plan, an even more powerful weapon producing a 150-kW beam and capable of knocking down a missile will be ready by 2007 for fitting onto aircraft.
Okay, let's get some basic perspective here. Here's what Robert Duncan of Phoenix, AZ says about the effects of a single-kilowatt solar furnace he built (and which is very much on my "tbd" list as a cheap home forge, since I've already obtained the mirrors -- heliostat party?):
The result was approximately 1000 watts of solar influx concentrated on anarea
the size of a silver dollar. Wood ignited with an audible "pop" theinstant it
entered the focal point. Toast burns instantly. Aluminum melts after 15 seconds.
Half inch copper tubing deforms under it's own weight after 20 seconds. Steel
glows red in about the same time.

Unless you're getting into the end of its practical range due to lack of coherence, you're talking something quite a bit "denser" than 1kW/27cm^2. Although time on target is an issue, it's no stunning intellectual leap to figure out that the "Bright Boys at DARPA"(tm) are packing a weapons-quality laser here. Whether the effects of a 1kW laser is linear when scaled up or not I'll leave to people who have a better science education than me, but if, in the space of three or four more months, they can field a 15kW laser, you're definitely dealing with something that can reduce You and Your Important Parts (tm) to char, quickly and quietly. Scale that up to 150kW, and "killing a missile" translates to "so hot it doesn't matter if it clears the beam in a tenth of a second." In other words, range to target and target-hardening becomes a non-issue compared to concealment. Since it's, again, DARPA and people who like them doing the only credible work on force fields, the only other option is the incredibly-unwise spoof of mirror-surfacing the target.

In other words, power supply and number of shots aside, if you can see it, you can kill it.

Yahoo!/Reuters has missed the boat. I'm a squishy civvie without a clearance, but even I can see that they're way, way underselling what's going to happen here. This weapon isn't going on fighter planes. No way. US fighter doctrine far prefers to make over-the-horizon kills. This is going to be used for something dramatically different.

Weaponization of Space: whoever gets these into space first gets plenty of practice eliminating orbital debris, and gets the chance to either create or avoid "pearl harbor in space." This is critical, because the US' opponents know that our military and an increasingly large portion of our domestic economy, including your spiffy wireless pda, is space-dependent for communications.

The Death of Static Indirect Fire: I'm sure that artillery will still have a major role to play. But I'm smart enough to know that I don't have a clue what it will look like. Any serious radar defense with a half-dozen of these slaved to the system --and programmed to automatically take down anything fitting a specific ballistic profile, such as a mortar round, or else flying within a certain distance at better than Velocity X-- will make Hamas' katyushas and the average 20th-c-tech mortar battery simply irrelevant unless used against civvies and low-tech opponents. The only options I see from my current vantage point as a squishy civvie is truly massive time-on-target fire in order to overwhelm the system, Metalstorm-style, or else kinetic-kill artillery rounds that are going so fast that nobody cares whether they're solid or liquid at impact (railgun rounds, such as proposed for the new Navy DDX class). Against first-rate opponents, shoot-and-move is going to go from its already-urgent status to blanket do-or-die.

UAVs and True Airspace Dominance: If this is the sort of thing Rumsfeld was thinking of when he started plugging his "transformational technologies" bit, then a lot of his more vociferous critics are going to have to eat crow. These lasers aren't going on fighter planes. They're going on UAVs that can linger for long periods and rotate in shifts, over a battlefield or any other relevant space, and completely own both the skies and whatever they can see on the ground. Iran wants to use the threat of nuclear-equipped cruise missiles? To do what, embarrass themselves? Whoever is able to get these in place first, in numbers, will have such a head start in terms of dictating the terms of engagement, that any catch-up will be predicated upon the possession of first-order technology, and the economics to continually produce dramatic improvements upon it. Reverse-engineering a one-trick pony isn't going to cut it any more. It'll be a race... our deployment of UAVs to their ability to develop warheads *and* obtain a geopolitically-rational target. As a long-term strategic threat, the value of low-number-large-warhead ballistic missile strikes is going to be nil. And *that* single, important fact-to-be may become the single-most-liberating fact for the hundreds of millions still living under tyrants' bootheels.

Science fiction is here today, folks. Not only that, but, for once, the advantages are sitting entirely in the corner of the good guys.

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