Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Geopolitics: Laser Weaponry

As you've no doubt probably read already, the US Navy unveils a ship mounted laser capable of shooting down unmanned drones and disabling smaller boats. Being like the majority of red blooded American males I have an inherent fascinating with weapons of war, doesn't mean that I don't think some of these weapon systems or programs are a waste of money, and given my interest in geopolitics I am fascinated by the geopolitical ramifications.

First off, I always have operated under an assumption that a military body, or a government, will not reveal a weapons system unless, they either want to score points on the geopolitical scene, or they have something better out there.  This, of course, ignores nations like Iran or North and their Potemkin military technology announcements. So when the US navy announces that they have a working, albeit just in field tests, laser weapon system it makes me ask wonder about a few things.

1) How well have they worked out the many practical operational limitations around laser weaponry systems?

A pretty simple question with a pretty simply answer. They obviously have something they think is workable, but how workable is what they may be trying to find out.

2) Why did they choose an amphibious transport ship and not an aircraft carrier or one of the Aegis destroyers?

I think this is a pretty interesting question. Apart from the obvious , the article made it very clear that this weapon was still very much in operational testing, there are some interesting, almost conspiratorial ideas. 

Either these weapon systems have long been installed on a select number of our destroyers and today is simply the first anything has been said about it, or the US navy has something even bigger in the works that may already, or be near, operational completion.  Of course, a US Defense official stresses that the laser does not posses full capability, but its a nameless source and so it's veracity is hard to determine.

3) Why did the US navy, given their propensity to shroud other military programs such as the stealth bomber in secrecy, announce such a program?

Laser weaponry would be a game changer in terms of military combat.  Near instantaneous, for all intents and purposes, and much more accurate than any kinetic based weapons system. This would give what ever military that had it a serious advantage over its competitors, especially in regards to certain types of combat.  There is of course space based combat and a lasers ability to knock out enemy satellites would be extremely valuable but I am going to focus on something else.

The Navy plans to use the laser to combat missiles and other threats from the air, to ward off threatening ships and to stop other foreign threats. Eventually the system will be able to stop an incoming missile.
The article mentions that this ship is being deployed to Iran. While I don't want to downplay the importance of such a weapons system in that portion of the world, I don't think we are designing such a system because of the Iranians. It's for the Chinese. For further context, here is this image:

A few years ago China announced the DF-21, the worlds first confirmed ballistic missile. This is of course assuming that the US and Russia never developed an anti-ship ballistic missile system and I remain doubtful that they haven't.  The DF-21, if it works as intended, would be able to strike at enemy ships throughout the South China sea and past the archipelago of small and major islands that are potential forward bases in any potential naval blockade of China.

What is interesting is that, so far, the US has claimed that there is no workable defense, if the ballistic missile system works as the Chinese intend, at this place and time. This has forced a shift in US military strategy to relying more on our ballistic destroyers and less on relying on carrier power projection alone.  Naturally it has also increased our interest in a weapons system that we have been researching for quiet some time.

One thing we always have to be aware of when the government makes a press release is that there is what the government says and what it says. In my mind, this press release is a message to the leadership of China. What it says is that while they may have a ballistic weapons system capable of destroying an aircraft carrier the US will develop, or perhaps already has, a weapons system that can counter it.

Whether or not we have such a system we can't say with any real certainty. A single article from mainstream news source, that only cites an unnamed defense official, isn't enough to make me take anything written in the article as anything near approaching the truth. In fact, this whole entire article could be nothing more than a giant psych out, though the US has long been interested in laser weaponry and I wouldn't doubt for a second we have the capability.

It will be interesting to see how China, Iran and even Russia react to this new development in military technology.


  1. This may also be a good explanation for the unveiling of the THAAD missile system which was "recently" deployed. It seems unusual that the missile system was forward deployed to Guam days after North Korea's most incendiary rhetoric. I would suspect it would be nice to have a forward deployed missile defense system near China to increase leverage in any negotiations or political situations. It also wouldn't have the negative questions about sovereignty that the proposed missile defense system in Poland had.

    I wonder about the effectiveness of these systems as well. Surely there is footage of them shooting down missiles during their ascent, but how effective would any system be against a series of 12 warheads reentering from the upper atmosphere?

    1. Good catch on THAAD.

      That's the question isn't it? We know the laser can shoot down a drone. The YAL-1, a laser mounted on an airplane, program has shot down ballistic missiles using liquid fuel and succesfully 'engaged', whatever that means, a solid fuel ballistic missile. So we know it can be done during ascent. Reentry is definetly problamatic, but if you got a laser powerful enough you could potentially rupter the warhead.

      There is a lot of murkiness about the whole laser weaponry project. Gates expressed extreme doubt of the program and its viability while he was Sec Def, yet here we are, a few years later fielding weapons system on a military vessel for testing. Ultimately this may just be a message to China letting them know that we are working on counters to their missile system.

  2. They've been working on this technology for a while. Even in the baby stages, DARPA projects are usually pretty public these days.

    This article back in 2010:


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Seattle resident whose real name is Kevin Daniels. This blog covers the following topics, libertarian philosophy, realpolitik, western culture, history and the pursuit of truth from the perspective of a libertarian traditionalist.