January 12, 2006
Paging Spaceman Spiff, White Courtesy Phone Please

Fark linked up this MSNBC article detailing recent progress on various "directed energy" weapons. The thing quickly turns into an advertisement for Boeing's airborne laser (ABL) project, and really seems to ignore where progress is actually being made. Aviation Week has been covering this stuff for literally years, and here's what they're talking about:

  • ABL is in a lot of trouble, primarily due to the classic defense contractor duo of cost overruns and schedule slips. They're way over budget now, and still have not flown a fully integrated test vehicle (as of two weeks ago anyway). Their laser works at lower powers, but full power ground tests have yet to be performed.
  • The Army's Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) is even worse off, with different sides seeming to compete with each other in who can cut the funding faster.
  • Lasers hold a lot of promise, but until someone can invent a solid-state laser powerful enough to do the job, conventional wisdom seems to hold they'll never be much more than toys.
  • Of far more interest, and much further along, are so-called high-power microwave devices (HPM). These weapons more or less invented themselves when it was discovered the Air Force's new hyper-sophisticated radar systems could be tuned to concentrate all their energy onto pinpoint targets.
  • Because of their nature, HPMs are the "beam weapons" we're actually going to field. It's difficult to get anyone to talk much about them, but there are some indications we're already using them in some ways in Iraq.
  • HPM technology is the leadeing candidate in proposed defense installations for civilian sites like airports. Hajji's manpat missle would simply be fried out of the air within a tenth of a second of launch. Of course, considering how efficient the FAA has been in deploying the stuff that keeps planes from doing more likely things like flying into each other, I wouldn't hold my breath on this one.
  • The main limitations of HPM are range and self-destruction. Actual numbers are classified, but apparently you need to get pretty close for these things to work against physical targets. Frying electronics is much easier, but making the beam directional enough that it doesn't fry your gear too is apparently something of a challenge.
  • Regardless, HPMs are most definitely on the way, scheduled to deploy on the next block of F/A-22 Raptors and all the F-35 JSFs.

All from memory, so YMMV. Personally, I want one with a "broast" setting.

Posted by scott at January 12, 2006 08:49 AM

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So, likely not deployed on civilian airports, but rather likely to be at military installations? Any word on what they do to humans who are (un)lucky enough to be in the way? And how are they affected by inclement weather?

Posted by: ronaprhys on January 12, 2006 10:45 AM

All the issues with microwave emitters that you've mentioned would be even bigger problems with lasers, Ron. A laser beam would be dispersed and disrupted by rain or fog, and one with enough power to fry a missle could at least blind people if even tiny amounts of it was split off and sent in random directions. Microwaves, on the other hand, might be absorbed by liquid water, but also evaporate it extremely rapidly, allowing microwaves to literally burn right through inclement weather... a fact that explains the continuing popularity of microwave communicators in military and civilian airports.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on January 12, 2006 12:36 PM

Military installations don't need these sorts of things, as they already come equipped with various noncoms toting M-16s to ensure base security, along with myriad fences and other forms of controlled access.

People would suffer severe burns both internally and externally that could potentially kill them.

Lasers don't leak in the same way microwaves do, that's most of the point. They do require massive amounts of energy to create beams powerful enough to damage equipment. At first it was producing lenses that could withstand those forces that was the stumbling block. Now it's mostly a set of engineering issues revolving around the handling of large amounts of really nasty chemicals.

Posted by: scott on January 12, 2006 12:46 PM

T - yeah, that's what I figured about lasers and the like. However, I wasn't sure if the microwaves had the same problems, seem they don't.

S - yes, but actually it's less of the non-coms and more of the privates and corporals (or airman and senior airmen. Or seamen and semen. hehehe. the navy's stoopid) patrolling. And given the possibility for attack, I figure we'd probably want these anyway. If our enemy gets close enough to lauch an manpat missile, it's too late for the security to do anything about it. And as a former mechanic, I would be very annoyed if I spent hours repairing the C-130 or F-16 and it got messed up by a missile. Aside from the wasted time, now I'd have to go out, fill out all sorts of paperwork, try to salvage things, etc.

Posted by: ronaprhys on January 12, 2006 02:55 PM

Microwaves can be kept from leaking fairly effectively; modern microwave ovens would still have pacemaker warnings on them otherwise.

The problem with microwaves, is that while we have lots of things that can absorb and reflect them, we don't have anything yet that can refract them, at least not while retaining the wave properties that cause water to boil and metal to arc. As a result, focusing is limited to mirror-based methods that will always suffer some degree of "haloing" (like a flashlight)... probably what Scott means by "leakage."

Not to mention that metal is the number one reflector of microwaves, so a microwave that induces a current powerful enough to detonate a missle at range will induce an even more powerful current in the reflectors used to focus it. Resistivity in stainless steel being what it is, even with proper grounding things could get mighty hot, which is probably why it's self-destructive too.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on January 12, 2006 03:24 PM

Actually, this is not true any more, and perhaps is one of the innovations of the new system. These new "super radars" consist of arrays of hundreds (maybe thousands) of individual trancievers (sp?) which can transmit, listen, or jam on individual frequencies all at the same time. Each one is apparently a powerful radar in its own right. They are supposed to be SPECTACULARLY good radars, and somehow it was discovered that all their computerfied goodness allowed the transmission of a radar beam focussed enough and powerful enough to fry electronics at a useful distance.

AvWeek actually teased this out over the course of several years... to this day nobody is saying much of anything on the record.

The current plans for the stuff powerful enough to fry THINGS instead of just electronics is to weaponize it. Mount it on a cruise missle so you don't care if it melts the transmitter or not, that sort of thing.

Posted by: Scott on January 12, 2006 03:45 PM


All your bases are belong to us!

That's what we'll paint on the side of our missiles as they streak over the horizon and reduce SAM sites, telecom sites, and other strategic sources to mildly glowing slag.

I christen thee AYBABTU missiles. Break out the wine in a box!

Posted by: ronaprhys on January 12, 2006 04:08 PM

Hmm. From what I've heard, most modern SAMs would be either detonated or rendered inert by electronics-frying levels of microwave energy. They usually rely on solid-state detonators rather than impact-cap detonators, so the missile can be detonated in situations other than "direct hit on a really fast moving object over a thousand yards away."

Still, missiles would be easy enough to retrofit with anti microwave shielding, so knocking them out of the air with radar dishes would only work the first few times.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on January 12, 2006 06:08 PM

You know, come to think of it... maybe they already HAVE adapted airport radar arrays to do such a thing. Seems I recall some news articles about missiles being fired at planes in Israel, only to miss or fail to detonate.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on January 12, 2006 06:12 PM

That assumes that the countries at hand can actually afford to do the retrofit. Maybe the can, maybe they can't. However, I think what Scott's talking about, to an extent, is actually hitting them with enough energy to do serious structural damage, along with frying electronics.

And that is something I'm all about.

Posted by: ronaprhys on January 12, 2006 07:03 PM
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