It's not science-fiction anymore


In the sci-fi anthology Riding the Red Horse, Vol. 1, the very first story in that set was a work by Eric S. Raymond called "Sucker Punch", in which Mr. Raymond provided an idea of what future naval and air warfare would look like the day that high-intensity lasers were introduced to the battlefield. Basically, the highly impressive but hugely expensive Carrier Battle Groups that every major sea-going power loves to show off, would be rendered completely obsolete in a single day.

In fact, manned air combat craft would overnight be turned into three hundred million dollar piles of flying scrap.

British soldiers, ships and warplanes could be going into battle armed with Star Wars-style lasers. 
The Ministry of Defence has signed a £30million contract for a prototype weapon from a consortium called UK Dragonfire. 
It will fire high-energy bursts of light capable of destroying rockets, ships and missiles in the blink of an eye. 
Defence chiefs also want the system, which is expected to have a range of about a mile and a quarter, to be able to take down drones. 
It is currently under development, with researchers aiming to find out if ‘directed energy’ technology could benefit the armed forces. 
If successful, the programme could come into service in the Army and Navy by the mid-2020s, and then fitted to future generations of fighter jets by the 2030s. 
One of the major advantages laser weapons have over traditional systems is that the munition is potentially unlimited – the system needs only a power source. 
It also operates at the speed of light so the time from when a operative presses ‘fire’ to the weapon hitting its target is more or less instantaneous. 
Peter Cooper, from the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, said the project ‘draws on innovative research into high-power lasers’. 
He added that this could ‘provide a more effective response to the emerging threats that could be faced by UK Armed Forces’. 
The laser will ‘target and defeat aerial threats’ in three ways. It could bring down an aircraft by burning a hole in it, destroy its capabilities by overloading its sensors with light, or blind aircrew.
As was also pointed out in the same anthology, it is a basic truism of warfare that cheap and effective always beats out expensive and over-engineered. In this case, a relatively simple but very powerful laser, costing maybe a few hundred grand per unit, is going to be the death knell for all of the super-duper whiz-bang stealth jets that anyone- American, Russian, Chinese, whatever- is ever going to come up with.

Stealth technology sounds really cool on paper. Essentially, you use shaping and radar-absorbent materials to reflect, refract, and diffuse radar waves away from and around an aircraft, so that its radar cross-section appears to be the size of, oh, a bumblebee- or even smaller.

Back in the day when the F-117 Nighthawk stealth "fighter" was being tested (it was actually a bomber, not a fighter), the testers stuck steel ball bearings of ever-decreasing size on the nose of the thing and then zapped it with radar waves. The F-117's cross-section handily beat every single ball-bearing tested against it- including one that was just one-eighth of an inch across.

The stealth jets that have come along since then, such as the F-35 and especially the F-22, are even more stealthy (supposedly) than the venerable old F-117. The Russians are developing a fifth-generation fighter called the Sukhoi PAK-FA that aims to be able to go toe-to-toe with an F-22. The Chinese are doing much the same with their future combat aircraft.

And all of them are spending money on precisely the wrong technology.

The major problem with stealth is that it is more of a marketing exercise than a realistic offensive technology. Don't get me wrong, it absolutely does work- when used under exactly the right circumstances. It worked brilliantly against the Iraqis in the first Gulf War, because the Iraqis were using then-contemporary Soviet-built radar systems as part of their C&C network. Those radar arrays were tuned to the kinds of high-frequency bands that American stealth bombers were specifically designed to beat; hence, they were able to slip in undetected and land those laser-guided bombs that they dropped on the Iraqi command bunkers to such devastating effect.

But modern stealth technology is not, by and large, designed to defeat older radar systems that use lower frequency radar waves.

And that is precisely why the Serbs, during the 1999 Kosovo War, were able to shoot down an F-117. They were using older, "obsolete" long-wavelength Soviet-era radar systems, which had a much easier time detecting the "stealthy" jet despite its design and its radar-absorbent coatings. When they combined that with knowledge of the local F-117 squadron's takeoff, landing, and attack patterns, shooting down the Nighthawk turned out to be a lot easier than the airheads in the US military command thought.

Now, imagine what will happen when America decides to get all up in Russia's grill, or China's, and sends in a squadron of F-22s, or a couple of B-2 bombers, to make a point. All that the Russians and Chinese have to do is dust off a couple of those old "obsolete" long-wavelength radar arrays- which they've been developing and refining over the last twenty years for precisely such a scenario- and they'll get a general idea in an awfully big hurry of exactly what is heading their way.

And then imagine what will happen when you pair a radar array that can spot American stealth aircraft coming with blood in their eyes, with a giant big-ass Death Star-style laser beam that can boil the eyes in the pilots' skulls and blast holes through the fuselages.

Yeah. You've got a catastrophic, and colossally expensive, military defeat just waiting to happen.

A single B-2 bomber costs the United States, on the hoof, over $2 BILLION. That's with a "B". A single F-22 fighter costs... well, I'm not sure if anyone actually knows what the true unit cost is, but the last time I checked, it's somewhere on the order of $600 MILLION. And a single F-35 costs something on the order of over $200 million by now.

These aren't exactly cheap toys. And now they are about to be rendered completely and totally obsolete- along with all of multi-billion-dollar carrier battle groups.

The face of warfare is changing, fast. It won't be very long before laser weapons like these are no longer just the realm of fevered speculation on the part of eight-year-old boys drawing in the margins of maths textbooks because they're bored out of their gourds in class. Very soon, laser weaponry like this WILL hit the battlefield. It WILL fall into the hands of America's enemies- I'm thinking specifically of the RIFs in both the Sandbox and the Rockpile, and Lord only knows how many other locations besides.

And then it won't be long before America's military suffers one costly loss after another to cheap, simple, highly effective weaponry that will blunt America's much-vaunted technological edge in a very big hurry.

The time for such expensive, over-engineered, overly complicated toys is long done. The time to return to a simpler, more direct, and far more lethal philosophy of warfighting is long overdue. Let us hope that America's new leadership is up to the challenge of refocusing this country's vast military machine toward the challenges of future warfare against non-trinitarian opponents, instead of trying to fight the Cold War all over again.

If they don't, it is distinctly possible that America will once again send dozens or hundreds of brave young men off to their deaths in overly complicated steel-and-carbon-fibre death traps without any hope of victory.

Comments

  1. The advent of high energy weaponry, combined with the already existing railgun technology, means that, like leo's books "A Boy and His Tank", if it is VISIBLE, it is DEAD.

    However, unlike those books, I believe future warfare will have come circle around, just as it always seems to, to the individual soldier on the ground. He will be able to easily destroy any vehicle on the sky or ground, carry charges capable of cracking nearly any physical defense, and his greatest enemy will be other soldiers... who can hunt him down as individuals.

    It's like war grew in battles over the last two thousand years, peaked for mass death during world war 2, and since then it's been slowly regressing back down to the individual warrior.

    I don't know about you, but I see great potential.

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  2. I agree on the ground pounder.... that said, I'm not sure we're going to see the death of aviation, though we likely will see the death of _manned_ aviation unless there's a way to make drones or other aircraft survive for more than a few minutes on speed an agilty.

    For that matter, I think we'll be seeing the death of much of anything airborne including artillery within line of sight of the enemy assuming a rough technical parity and ground AA support. That said, some will likley be kept around for when the enemy screws up, or gets its anti - air support knocked out or b

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