Everybody Loves Lasers

Everybody loves ray guns, right?

I mean, what’s not to love?  They’re so useful and precise and impressive.  And shiny.

They can also be used in a variety of different applications, and the government is not immune to their seductive electromagnetic radiation ways.

So just what is the military doing with Directed Energy these days, anyway?

Oh I’m so glad you asked.

There are three classes of directed energy weapons (some might call these lasers, and then some would be told that they’re wrong).

The first one is known as the Active Denial System.

The active denial technology really stands out. (picture from defense.gov)

Many people have already heard about this non-lethal millimeter wave technology –affectionately referred to as a deterrence laser – that was considered for military use.  The Active Denial System was designed to generate an intense sensation strong enough to stop a marauding crowd of ne’er-do-wells in their nefarious tracks without ever actually harming them.  So it’s basically like a giant beam of don’t-do-that energy.

For people like Spencer Ackerman, however, that message is a little more…distinct.

Ackerman is an American national security reporter and blogger for Wired, and recently a guest speaker at the ASU academic forum so aptly titled “Everybody Loves Ray Guns”. He referred to the Active Denial System as a sort of temporarily painful “cousin to your microwave”.  And he would know.

Since he was shot by it (voluntarily, of course).

And he’s not the only one.  DoD  Senior military leaders also experienced the ADS, including the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps.  This kind of sensation isn’t just for the journalists, after all.  In fact, over 11,000 people have been shot by the ADS and still lived to tell about it.

The Active Denial System  produces millimeter technology vice microwaves.  Unlike what your microwave does, millimeter wave technology penetrates 1/64th of an inch into your skin, so it can’t cook you.  It can’t sterilize you.  But it can – rather effectively – deter you from doing things pretty quickly.  Immediately, even.

Contrary to unfortunate belief, however, the ADS is not a “pain ray”.

Here’s  the  science behind it:  The ADS, a non-lethal directed-energy weapon, projects a very short duration (a few seconds) focused beam of millimeter waves at a frequency of 95 gigahertz (GHz). A microwave oven operates at 2.45 GHz.

At the much higher frequency of 95 GHz, the associated directed energy wavelength is very short and only physically capable of reaching a skin depth of about 1/64 of an inch. A microwave oven operating at 2.45 GHz has a much longer associated wave length, on the order of several inches, which allows for greater penetration of material and efficiency in heating food. The ADS provides a quick and reversible skin surface heating sensation that does not penetrate into the target.

So before you think this journalist was singed for life, he’s just fine.  The Active Denial System leaves people essentially unaffected except for the momentary experience.

However, It turns out that “shooting a ray gun into crowds” really didn’t have much of jaunty ring to it.  So troops probably won’t be using the millimeter wave technology en masse, but that doesn’t mean the military has thrown in the towel for laser research.

Not by a long shot.

LASERS. Daniel King, a microwave/electro-optic (MS32) electronics engineer at Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), Corona Division, uses visible lasers to align various optical components. (U.S. Navy photo by Greg Vojtko/Released)

Ackerman quotes the former director of the Office of Naval Research, Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, who said, “We’re about reaching the end of our capabilities of shooting a bullet at another bullet”.

And speaking of weapons…

High powered lasers are the popular choice in the ray gun family.  They’re the ones all the other lasers want to be, so to speak.

Werner Dahm is the Director of the Security and Defense Systems Initiative at Arizona State University and the former Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force.  He was also a guest speaker at the “Everybody Loves Ray Guns” event.

“There are offensive uses and defensive uses [to high powered lasers],” Dahm explains.  “In many cases it’s the defensive ones that have the greatest utility.”

Where the Active Denial System alarms but doesn’t harm, these high powered lasers are actually dangerous.

In April of 2011, the Navy, from 4 miles away and using a 15 kilowatt laser, was able to disable the outboard motor of a simple widget hull on an inflatable ship.  In less than a minute.  That might not sound very impressive, but it was the first time that a laser was able to disable a target like that; with the waves rocking in the sea, the salty sea air, from a distance, and against a moving target.

Among some of the other lasers in development is the airborne laser, or the chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL).

The beam is infrared, so it can’t be seen.  Sneaky beam.  Researchers mounted the COIL on a 747 and turned the inside into a chemical plant, which is needed for the laser to work.  A spherical ball (oh is that what a ball is, Jessica?  Yeah, yeah) is placed on the front of the plane that is used to send a beam through the atmosphere.

That mirror that the laser beam is bounced off of is then distorted hundreds of times a second in exactly the pattern it needs to take out the distortion of the atmosphere.  Military researchers were able to develop that system and demonstrate and prove that they can engage and defeat a target missile at operationally relevant ranges.

“The technology works, there’s no question about it,” Dahm explains.  “And so you as a taxpayer should say ‘where’s my airborne laser system to come and defend me?’ and the answer is that concept of operations.”

Basically, what we can and want to do might not be on par with what we’re budgeted to do.  Yet.

“But we can do it,” Dahm reassures.  “That technology is being used for other high powered laser programs.”

He goes on to speculate that the first application that the Air Force might do with laser weapons would be something in the realm of airborne self-defense.  “We’re really not that far away from being able to do that.  Whether we field that system or not [is a] different decision, but from a technology and systems point of view that’s the one that we’re the closest to achieving.”

Which brings me to my third and final point (pun intended, naturally).

According to Dahm, it is arguably the high powered microwave systems that may have the greatest utility and are probably the closest to being ready to be fielded.  High-power microwaves are showing promise as a means to non-lethally stop vehicles and vessels without harming the occupants.

These types of weapons – like the electromagnetic ray gun and directed energy weapons – use electromagnetic radiation to deliver heat, mechanical or electrical energy at certain targets.  The strongest application of this technology is when it’s used to knock out electrical equipment.

The Multi-Frequency Radio-Frequency Vehicle Stopper in concept development is designed to stop vehicles. This technology has the potential l to support multiple missions, including force protection, checkpoints, access control points, roadblocks and mounted patrols.

This system would allow for the maintenance of a safe and non-lethal keep-out zone with the use of high-power microwaves to disrupt vehicles engines by interacting with electrical components causing the engine to stall.

Also, on the forefront is the Radio-Frequency Vessel Stopper, which is designed to stop or disable vessels. This technology has the potential to support multiple missions including force protection, port operations, and vessel  pursuit/stop/interdiction. The technology can stop the vessel’s propulsion by electrical system malfunction.

These weapons use high-intensity radio waves to disrupt electronics.  So it’s kind of like that plot twist in a SciFi movie when someone “cuts the power”, only we’re doing it with electromagnetic energy.

Because, in my opinion, everything is cooler with directed energy.

See? Nighttime + lasers = AWESOME (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

So that is the trifecta of our “ray gun” repertoire.  Not too shabby I should think.

Directed energy has a unique ability to penetrate things with intense accuracy and, in case you didn’t know, accuracy is kind of the “in thing” in strategic conflict.

This kind of technology is something we’ve been working on for decades, and it will only continue to expand and advance.  I’m interested to see how this will affect the way we deal with defense.  Laser wars have a set of completely different problems than the ones we currently face.

But that’s a story for a different blog post.

Another thing to remember is that we’re not the only ones working on our laser skills.  Lasers and ray gun technology is being worked in in many countries.  As the world turns toward what some might call more science fiction realities, technology is rapidly rolling away from the warfare staples of the past.

So I guess the real question here is will we have light sabers in every home in the next couple of years?

Well, no.  Not unless we all turn out to be Jedi Knights I’m afraid.  (Though how cool would THAT be?)

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more ray gun action in lieu of bullets as this technology progresses.

And I have only two words for that: pew pew.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.


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