What You Need to Know About Lasers

The U.S. Navy's solid state Laser Weapon System (LaWS) aboard the destroyer USS Dewey. Credit: Credit: U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released
The U.S. Navy’s solid state Laser Weapon System (LaWS) aboard the destroyer USS Dewey. Credit: Credit: U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released

Need to Know provides context and resources to help you get a better understanding of recent developments in the world of drones.

By Dan Gettinger, @GettDan

Earlier this month, China unveiled a new system to defend against drones: lasers. According to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency, the ultra-accurate lasers can bring down low-flying drones from up to 1.2 miles away and have a “100 percent success rate.” The project was led by a team from China Jiuyuan Hi-Tech Equipment Corp, a subsidiary of the China Academy of Engineering Physics. China isn’t the only country rushing to develop anti-drone defenses; the United States and Israel are also working on their own anti-drone systems. As military drones proliferate, figuring out how to blast enemy drones out of the sky has become a high priority.

In the domestic sphere, law enforcement agencies are concerned that small multi-rotor and fixed-wing drones will soon become the weapon of choice for terrorists. At a political rally in September 2013, a member of Germany’s Pirate Party flew a drone just a few feet from Chancellor Angela Merkel. The incident set off worries around the world that these cheap drones could be armed with small explosives. Mary Cummings, a professor at Duke University, doesn’t believe that small drones could carry explosives. The U.S. military isn’t so sure; last week, the Department of Defense began soliciting information regarding the possibility of arming small drones with chemical weapons.

So what’s being done to protect cities and armies against drones? Lasers are emerging as one of the preferred tools for fighting drones, but there are other systems under development. Here is what you need to know:

  • In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Defense tested one of the first laser systems, the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL). In tests, it successfully shot down four BQM-34 Firebee target drones and one high-velocity VANDAL target missile. MIRACL is a chemical-based hydrogen fluoride laser.
  • MIRACL became part of the American Strategic Defense Initiative, the anti-missile defense system known as “Star Wars.” In a speech on March 23, 1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan authorized the Pentagon to begin developing land and space based systems that could render “nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”
  • One attempt to weaponize space occurred in 1997, when the U.S. military used a MIRACL laser to try and shoot down a satellite. Despite its failure, the test set off worries that a new anti-satellite weapons race was beginning.
  • The military didn’t give up on lasers. That is, until a test in February 2010 when the Missile Defence Agency shot down a ballistic missile with an “Air-Based Laser” mounted on a modified Boeing 747. The program had taken 16 years to complete and had cost approximately $5 billion. In 2011, the program was cancelled after the Obama administration found it too expensive to carry on.
  • In 2008, the Army awarded Boeing a $36 million contract to develop a laser that could be transported on a 35-ton truck. The 10-kilowatt High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) was successfully tested earlier this year, shooting down drones and 60mm mortars in poor weather conditions. Eventually, the Army hopes to increase the power to 50 or 60 kw. It will continue testing the laser until 2022.
  • In April 2014, the Navy announced that it would outfit the USS Ponce with a Laser Weapons Systems (LaWS) that it had developed with a San Diego-based outfit called Kratos Defense & Security Solutions. According to ABC News, the six-year project has cost $40 million. Like the HEL MD, LaWS is intended for smaller objects like patrol boats, drones, and other projectiles. LaWS is still in testing.
  • Israel is accelerating its pursuit of laser technology. The IDF is looking to increase its investment in the Iron Beam, a laser-based complement to the Iron Dome missile defense system. The Iron Beam, which is being developed by Israeli defense contractor Rafael, was unveiled at the Singapore Air Show in February 2014. Like the Chinese system, the Israeli lasers have a range of 1.2 miles. Each unit is equipped with two lasers in order to overcome atmospheric interference and effectively destroy the target. It is portable enough to be mounted on a vehicle.
  • Lasers are very expensive to develop but cheap to operate. At around $1 per shot, lasers are a much more attractive option than expensive missiles to intercept low-cost drones, particularly if the target is facing a swarm of drones. (Israel reportedly used a $1 million Patriot missile to shoot down a relatively small Hamas drone last summer). If the lasers eventually make it to the field, the energy beams would complement existing systems like Raytheon’s Phalanx anti-missile defense system that is already found on many U.S. Navy ships.
  • The biggest hurdle for any weapons system is finding and locking onto the target. But that isn’t the only issue. Despite being more powerful, chemical-based lasers like MIRACL were found to be hazardous. So the military turned to “solid-state” lasers like LaWS, which are less powerful but also less liable to pose a hazard to crew members. However, the lower the intensity of the laser, the harder it becomes to penetrate adverse weather conditions. Sea spray, fog, dust, and turbulence can interrupt the laser beam and shorten its effective range.
  • There are, of course, other ways to defend against drones. Last year, Dutch artist Ruben Pater released the “Drone Survival Guide,” which provides a number of ways to hack or hide from drones. Al-Qaeda has also put out an anti-drone manual. It includes a few decidedly low-tech methods including spoofing, jamming and using teams of snipers to down the aircraft.
  • But for many countries, these methods don’t offer the same assurances as more high-tech solutions. As a recent article and video by Vice show, the U.S. military is dead set on finding ways to keep enemy drones away. While small, cheap drones like the one that buzzed Angela Merkel may not have the capacity to carry explosives today, that could change soon. When that time comes, nobody wants to be spending $1 million to shoot one down.

What else do you need to know? Click here to learn about swarms, drone strikes, paparazzi drones and more. 

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