Ben Bova: Do the math on drones warfare

Saw an extraordinary bit of video a few days ago.

A drone aircraft was flying toward a U.S. Navy warship. Suddenly a glowing red spot appeared on its underside and, within three seconds, the drone was engulfed in flames. It crashed into the sea.

The video showed a test of a laser weapon that the navy intends to use as a shipboard defense against attacks by drones, manned aircraft, or small boats.

To me, it’s the culmination of 47 years of waiting.

I was manager of marketing for the Avco Everett Research Laboratory in 1966, when I helped to arrange a Top Secret briefing in the Pentagon. Our lab had invented the first high power laser, and we presented our information to a panel of the Defense Department’s top scientists.

Being marketing manager for that laboratory wasn’t too much different from being a science fiction writer. Except that our research staff made the “science fiction” come true.

Earlier, our people did the fundamental research on re-entry physics that led to the heat shields that brought our astronauts safely back from the Moon.

Later, we developed the intra-aortic balloon pump, a temporary device that helps the heart recover from a cardiac seizure, and has saved countless millions of lives over the years.

In 1966 we were talking “Buck Rogers” stuff: rays guns that shoot down airplanes and missiles.

Laser weapons could lead the way to a new type of warfare: weapons that strike with the speed of light, capable of destroying fast-moving targets within a few seconds. Weapons that could reach across hundreds of miles almost instantaneously to shoot down ballistic missiles.

The laser is inherently a defensive type of weapon. It isn’t a weapon of mass destruction; far from it. Laser beams, no matter how powerful, are less than an inch across when they strike their targets. Lasers aren’t going to be used to destroy cities or blow up buildings.

But because the intense energy of a laser beam can strike a target with the speed of light over long distances, lasers can be very effective defensive weapons, especially against fast-moving aircraft and missiles.

Back in the 1960s our lab did some testing of this possibility. We mounted a section of an airplane in a wind tunnel and turned a high power laser beam on it.

The beam burned a hole in the plane’s aluminum skin in a second or so. And as the wind ran across the red-hot hole, the aluminum caught fire and burned the entire structure.

What I saw on the video a few days ago looked to me like a replay of our wind tunnel experiments from the 1960s.

The navy plans to send the USS Ponce into the Persian Gulf next year with a 100-kilowatt infrared laser system to defend it against drones, missiles, and explosives-carrying speedboats such as the one that blew a hole in the USS Cole in 2000, killing 17 American sailors.

The laser is powered by electricity, which means that unlike anti-aircraft missiles or guns, it doesn’t have to be reloaded. The laser can be fired for as long as the ship’s electrical power system is working.

A few dollars worth of electricity, therefore, can counter aircraft or missiles or speedboats that cost thousands of time more. The laser is cost-effective.

Fog or mist might hamper the laser’s beam. But back in the 1960s we found that if the laser is powerful enough its beam can burn through the water droplets in the air. The physicist who shared my office at the lab even tinkered with the idea of using a laser as a “fog cutter” to clear the air for planes landing on an aircraft carrier.

The most promising use for a laser weapon is against nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. The Missile Defense Agency tested a megawatt-class laser carried aboard a Boeing 747, which shot down a test missile over a range of a hundred miles or more.

The Obama administration decided that such a system is too expensive to be practical. But I wonder. How expensive is an American city? Or a unit of American troops deployed overseas?

Do the math.

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