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Rays of Death: Will the Laser Become a Real Weapon?

Rays of Death

The first time the laser was demonstrated to the general public in 1960, and almost immediately, journalists called it the "ray of death." Since then, the development of laser weapons has not stopped for a minute: for more than half a century, they have been involved with scientists from the USSR and the US. 

Even after the end of the Cold War, the Americans did not close their projects of combat lasers, despite the huge amounts that were spent. And everything would be good - if these billions of investments were to produce tangible results. To this day, however, laser weapons remain an exotic show rather than an effective means of destruction.+

At the same time, some experts believe that "bringing laser technology to mind" will cause a real revolution in military matters. Infantrymen are unlikely to receive laser swords or blasters immediately - but this will be a real breakthrough, for example in missile defense. However, such a new weapon will not appear soon.

Nevertheless, the development continues. Most actively they go to the US. Scientists are fighting for the development of the "rays of death" and in our country the laser weapons of Russia are created on the basis of the developments that were carried out during the Soviet period. Lasers are interested in China, .Germany,  Britain and Japan participate in this race.

But before we talk about the advantages and disadvantages of a laser weapon, you need to discuss the core of the question and understand which physical principles lasers work with.

What is the "ray of death"?

Laser weapons are a kind of offensive and defensive weapons that use a laser beam as a striking element. Today the word "laser" has come into heavy use, but only a few know that this is actually an abbreviation, the first letters of the expression Light amplification through stimulated emission radiation ("light amplification due to stimulated radiation"). Scientists call a laser an optical quantum generator that is capable of converting different types of energy (electrical, light, chemical, thermal) into a narrow beam of coherent, monochromatic radiation.

Albert Einstein, the greatest physicist of the twentieth century, was one of the first to study the theory of lasers. Experimental confirmation of the possibility of obtaining laser radiation was obtained in the late 1920s.
A laser consists of an active (or working) medium, which can be a gas, a solid or a liquid, a powerful energy source and a resonator, usually a mirror system.

In our time, lasers have found application in various fields of science and technology. The life of a modern person is literally filled with lasers, although he does not always gamble at it. Pointers and barcode readers in stores, CD players and precise distance meters, holography - all we have is due to this amazing invention called "laser". In addition, lasers are frequently used in industry (for cutting, soldering, engraving), medicine (surgery, cosmetology), navigation, in metrology and in the creation of ultra-precise measuring equipment.

Used laser and in military matters. However, its application mainly comes down to different systems of location, weapon guidance and navigation, as well as laser communication. There were attempts (in the USSR and the US) to make a blinding laser weapon that would eliminate hostile optics and aiming systems. But the real "rays of death" soldiers have still not received. It was technically too difficult to make a laser of such a force that could shoot down enemy aircraft and fuel tanks. Only now has technological progress reached the level at which laser weapon systems become a reality.

Pros and cons

Despite all the difficulties associated with the development of laser weapons, the work in this direction remains very active, with billions of dollars being spent every year around the world. What are the benefits of combat lasers compared to traditional weapon systems?
These are the most important:

  • High speed and accuracy of destruction. The beam moves at the speed of light and reaches the target almost immediately. The destruction is done in seconds, to transfer the fire to another target requires a minimum of time. The radiation influences precisely the area to which it was aimed, without affecting the surrounding objects.
  • The laser beam is capable of intercepting maneuvering targets, which distinguishes it from the missiles and anti-aircraft missiles. Its speed is such that it is almost impossible to deviate from this.
  • The laser can be used not only to destroy the target, but also to blind it, as well as its detection. By adjusting the power, the target can be affected in a very wide range: from warning to critical damage.
  • The laser beam has no mass, so you do not have to make any ballistic corrections during shooting, but take into account the direction and force of the wind.
  • There is no return.
  • The shot from the laser machine is not accompanied by unmasking factors such as smoke, fire or strong noise.
  • Laser ammunition is only determined by the power source. While the laser is connected to it, the "cartridges" never run out. Relatively low costs per admission.
However, lasers have serious disadvantages, which is why they are not armed with any army so far:

  • Dispersion. Due to refraction, the laser beam expands in the atmosphere and loses focus. At a distance of 250 km, the location of the laser beam has a diameter of 0.3-0.5 m, as a result of which the temperature thereof falls sharply, whereby the laser becomes harmless to the target. Even worse, the jet is affected by smoke, rain or fog. For this reason, creating long range lasers is not yet possible.
  • The inability to guide across the horizon. The laser beam is a perfectly straight line, they can only be fired at a visible target.
  • Evaporation of the target metal obscures it and makes the laser less efficient.
  • High energy consumption. As mentioned above, the efficiency of laser systems is low, so to make weapons that can hit the target, you need a lot of energy. This disadvantage can be called key. Only in recent years has it been possible to create laser systems of more or less acceptable size and power.
  • It is easy to protect against the laser. With a laser beam it is quite easy to handle the help of a mirror surface. Each mirror reflects this regardless of the power level.

Combat lasers: history and prospects

Work on creating combat lasers in the USSR has continued since the early 1960s. The majority of the soldiers were interested in the use of lasers as a means against missile defense and air defense. The most famous Soviet projects in this area were the "Terra" and "Omega" programs. Tests of Soviet combat lasers were conducted at the Sary-Shagan test site in Kazakhstan. The projects were led by Academics Basov and Prokhorov, the Nobel Prize winners for their work in the field of laser radiation.

After the collapse of the USSR, work on the Sary-Shagan test site was stopped.
A remarkable case occurred in 1984. The laser locator - it was part of the Terra - was irradiated by the American shuttle Challenger, which led to disruptions in communication and interference with other ship equipment. The crew members felt a sudden period. The Americans quickly realized that the cause of the problems aboard the shuttle was some sort of electromagnetic influence from the territory of the Soviet Union, and protested. This fact can be called the only practical use of the laser during the entire Cold War.

In general, it should be noted that the installation locator has acted very successfully, which is not the case with the combat laser, which was supposed to shoot down enemy combat loads. The problem was the lack of strength. They could not solve this problem. Nothing happened with another program - Omega. In 1982, the installation was able to knock down a radio-controlled target, but in general it lost considerably in terms of efficiency and cost to conventional anti-aircraft missiles.

In the USSR, hand-made laser weapons for astronauts were developed, until the mid-1990s, laser cannons and carbines were stored in warehouses. But in practice this non-lethal weapon was never used.

The development of Soviet laser weapons began with the new power after the Americans announced the deployment of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program. The goal was to create a layered missile defense system that could destroy Soviet warheads at different stages of their flight. One of the most important instruments for the destruction of ballistic missiles and nuclear units was to place lasers in an almost orbit around the earth.

The Soviet Union was simply obliged to respond to this challenge. And on May 15, 1987, the first launch of the super-heavy "Energia" rocket, which was in orbit to destroy the Skif combat laser station, was designed to destroy the American guidance satellites that are part of the missile defense system. The intention was to shoot them with a gas-dynamic laser. However, immediately after the "Energy" separation, "Skiff" lost its orientation and fell into the Pacific.

There were in the USSR and other development programs for combat laser systems. One is the self-driving complex "Compression", which was worked on in the NGO "Astrophysics". His task burned not through the armor of the enemy tanks, but by eliminating the optical-electronic systems of enemy equipment. In 1983, based on the Shilka machine with its own drive, another laser complex, the Sanguin, was developed that was intended to destroy the optical systems of helicopters. It should be noted that the USSR in the "laser" race was at least as good as the US.

Of the American projects, the most famous is the YAL-1A laser, housed on a Boeing-747-400F aircraft. The implementation of this program concerned the Boeing company. The main objective of the system is to destroy enemy ballistic missiles in the area of ​​their active trajectory. The laser has been successfully tested, but its practical application is a big question. The fact is that the maximum range of "shooting" YAL-1A is only 200 km (according to other sources - 250). Boeing-747 simply cannot fly as far as the enemy has at least a minimal air defense system.

It should be noted that the American laser weapons were made by various large companies, each of which already has something to boast.

In 2013, Americans tested the 10 kW HEL MD laser system. With his help, he succeeded in shooting several mortar bombs and a drone. In 2018 the plan is to test the installation of HEL MD with a capacity of 50 kilowatts and by 2020 an installation of 100 kilowatts should appear.

The American navy shows great interest in laser weapons. According to the American admirals, lasers can be used as an effective part of the ship's missile defense and air defense systems. Moreover, the power of combat ships' power stations can really make the "rays of death" deadly. The latest American developments must be reported by the MLD laser system, developed by Northrop Grumman.

In 2011, the development of a new TLS defense system began, which in addition to the laser also had to contain a rapid-fire gun. The project concerned the company Boeing and BAE Systems. According to the developers, this system should hit at distances of up to 5 km cruise missiles, helicopters, planes and surface targets.

Now they are developing new laser weapon systems in Europe (Germany, UK), in China and in the Russian Federation.

At present, the chances are low that a laser is used for the destruction of strategic missiles (warheads) or fighter aircraft on long distances. It is a completely different tactical level.

In 2012, Lockheed Martin presented the general public with a fairly compact ADAM air defense system, which uses laser beam to destroy targets. It is capable of destroying targets (shells, missiles, mines, UAVs) at a distance of up to 5 km. In 2018, the leadership of this company announced the creation of a new generation of tactical lasers with a capacity of 60 kW or more.

The German arms company Rheinmetall promises to enter the market with a new high-power tactical laser High Energy Laser (HEL) in 2018. It was previously stated that a wheel vehicle, wheeled armored person carrier and tracked armored person carrier M113 are considered the basis for this laser .

In 2018, the United States announced the establishment of the GBAD OTM tactical combat laser, the main task of which is to protect against enemy reconnaissance and to attack UAVs. 

This complex is currently being tested.
In 2014, the Israeli Iron Beam Combat Laser Complex was presented at the arms exhibition in Singapore. It is designed to hit shells, missiles and mines at short distances (up to 2 km). The complex includes two solid-state laser systems, a radar and a remote control.

The development of laser weapons takes place in Russia, but most information about these works is classified. Last year, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Biryukov announced the adoption of laser systems. According to him, they can be installed on ground vehicles, combat aircraft and ships. It is not entirely clear what kind of weapon the General had in mind. It is known that tests of the airborne laser complex installed on the Il-76 transport aircraft are currently underway. They were engaged in similar developments in the USSR, such a laser system can be used to disable the electronic "filling" of satellites and planes.

With great confidence we can say that tactical laser weapons will be employed in the coming years. Experts believe that lasers will massively enter the army at the beginning of the next decade. The company Lockheed Martin has already announced plans to install laser guns on the latest F-35 hunter. The US Navy has repeatedly pointed to the need to place laser weapons on the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier and class Zumwalt destroyers.

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