By David Crane
defrev (at) gmail (dot) com
October 15, 2009
There’s a scene at the beginning of the 1985 film Real Genius showing a fictional “Crossbow Project” demonstration video of some unlucky bastard (perhaps a third-world dictator or politician?) getting instantly vaporized by a space-based laser weapon fired from a satellite. The video is being shown to a bunch of DoD brass who are all salivating like pit bulls watching a steak being cooked. The various elements in that scene were probably shot in 1984.
Cut to twenty-five (25) years later, and a US Air Force Lockheed NC-130H aircraft is shooting a hole through a truck’s hood with a real life tactical laser weapon while flying over White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, on August 30, 2009. It’s called the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL), and it’s brought to you by the good folks at Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, Directed Energy Systems (DES) division. Granted, lasing hole through a truck’s hood in several seconds with an airborne laser weapon like the ATL isn’t quite the same as instantly vaporizing a complete human being with a spaceborne laser weapon, but how long will it be before we can instantly fire a nice clean hole through a man’s skull or chest from space? Perhaps we already can. God only knows what kind of classified weapons systems, including tactical lasers, we currently have in orbit just waiting to be tasked with something productive and destructive to do. But let’s say we don’t have anything like that, yet. How long before we do? Not that long, probably.
As this is written, the Boeing ATL can, according to New Scientist, deliver the heat of a blowtorch from 20 kilometers out, “depending on conditions.” 20 km is far enough as to potentially allow the firing platform, i.e. the aircraft, to avoid detection, especially at night. The laser beam itself is invisible, since it’s an infrared (IR) laser. Right now, it appears to be a dedicated weapon system, meaning that you need a whole C-130 Hercules aircraft devoted to it. The ATL currently weighs 5.5 tons. It’s a chemical laser combining chlorine and hydrogen peroxide molecules to release energy, which in turn stimulates iodine into releasing an intense infrared light beam.
Ideally, you’d want to be able to shrink the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) down and lighten it to the point where you can integrate it into the overall weapons package of a Lockheed AC-130H Spectre or AC-130U Spooky gunship, so it can operate side-by-side with, or as an alternative to, the onboard cannon systems. The beauty of a laser weapon is it can hit the target, and only the target, instantly and accurately pretty much every time. If you can see it, you can kill it, and you can kill it clean with no collateral damage whatsoever. That’s all good. But now we have the ethical and moral questions.
So, what are the martial ethics and morals of using an invisible infrared (IR) aiborne or spaceborne laser weapon to lase (i.e. burn, puncture, and/or incinerate) air and ground targets? Well, there’s really no ethical or moral dilemma with regard to materiel targets like aircraft, vehicles, and equipment (and satellites). It should be fair game on materiel targets. Lasing a human target, however, is another story. Assuming we can now do it, the question to ask is should we do it? DefenseReview’s answer is…well, it depends. First, assuming the enemy combatant falls under Hague Convention (Hague Convention IV of 1907, Article 23(e)) protections, is a laser weapon subject to Hague for human targets? Second, how much will the target suffer? Will they suffer more than getting shot with a rifle or cannon round? If so, how much more? Will the laser kill them more or less quickly? If less, how much less? If the laser only wounds them, what will the level of suffering be vs. a rifle or cannon/shrapnel wound? How long will they suffer vs. a rifle or cannon/shrapnel wound? Should we only lase a target through the face or top of the skull, or are chest/torso shots also acceptable? Can we lase a target’s limb off instead of killing him? If so, how many limbs can we lase off in order to neutralize him? These are just some of the questions that must be asked and answered before we employ/deploy an airborne or spaceborne laser weapon against enemy human targets.
Of course, deploying the weapon against domestic targets would have to be severely restricted. If allowed at all, the target would have to pose a diproportianately large and immediate threat before he/she could be neutralized with a laser. The target would have to be someone attempting to blow up a city with a “backpack nuke” (manpackable nuclear weapon), or launching a mass chemical or biological attack. Frankly, just the existance of airborne and spaceborne laser weapons poses a sizeable if difficult-to-measure threat to our freedom if it’s used as a control mechanism against us. What if the government becomes tyrannical and oppressive, and the citizens of the United States have to rise up an rebel through force of arms? Now said tyrannical government has airborne, vehicle-borne, and spaceborne laser weapons at it’s disposal with which to quell a justified rebellion. That wouldn’t be good.
But it’s Defense Review’s opinion that there are some foreign individuals out there that present such a grave threat to the United States and the rest of the world, that regardless of the answers to the above questions and caveats, we should leave open the possibility of using an ATL-type laser weapon to neutralize them. Perhaps the best protocol for such a decision would be a Star Chamber-type trial like the Israelis had for the people behind the 1972 Munich Massacre of the Israeli Olympic Team, before the Israelis dispatched a hit squad to dispatch the perpetrators. We could try the person in absentia to determine whether or not the individual presented a great enough threat to the United States and/or the world to warrant neutralization. The star chamber would then vote on whethor or not to neutralize him via airborne or spaceborne laser.
Once found guilty and use of the laser is approved, it’s just a matter of determining the best time and means of neutralization. Do you neutralize the target while he’s en route to work in his car? While he’s walking from his car into a building? While he’s giving a speach? What kind of statement do you want to make? What level of plausible deniability do you want to have? If we neutralized someone via laser, we’d most likely want to have as much plausible deniability as possible. That’s one of the positives of using a laser. There’s less material evidence left after the attack. A laser will most likely just leave a cauterized open wound hole in the target.
The bottom line is lasers will give the U.S. a whole new warfare capability to explore and utilize. Imagine our F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) fighter aircraft shooting enemy aircraft and ground targets with lasers instead of guided missiles and cannons. Of course, the aircraft-mounted “laser gun” will have to be slaved to a helmet targeting system like the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) or F-35 Helmet Display System (HDS). Imagine aircraft and satellites lasing giant swaths through enemy infantry lines and materiel. How about UAS/UAV-borne laser weapons? Or, how about outfitting our aircraft carriers–since we still insist on using giant above-the-surface aircraft carriers–with defensive laser arrays to shoot enemy anti-ship missiles out of the sky well before they reach the ship, with 100% accuracy and little-to-no chance of failure. These are just a few of the MANY potential uses of tactical lasers.
The use of tactical laser weapons and other directed energy weapons (DEWs) for future warfare applications is a virtually foregone conclusion, unless we limit ourselves on moral and ethical grounds. At present, the only limits we deem necessary are those against domestic use against U.S. citizens. Foreign enemies beware.
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