The US Military Could Deploy Drones Armed With High-Energy Laser Guns by 2017
Thanks to a new high-energy laser weapon, the future of drone warfare is rapidly resembling something out of a terrifying science fiction film
In military matters, there are few things more controversial than drone warfare. The idea of deploying robotic killing machines does not sit well with many, while others argue that such tactics are the best way to reduce casualties during one of the trickiest periods of modern warfare we have ever witnessed. But far from reducing the presence of drones in Middle East battlegrounds, the US military could soon be making some serious upgrades to the machines, upgrades that are straight out of your favorite science fiction flicks.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) are among the leaders in laser defense technologies, and they believe they're close to creating a high-energy laser weapon capable of integration with current models of US military drones. Yes, you heard that right. Remote-controlled killing machines with laser weapons could soon be a thing.
"We're funded right now to develop a laser module compatible with the aircraft and study putting it on the Avenger," GA-ASI's Michael Perry told Defense One. "We hope to be funded to do that,"
But laser defense is nothing new, in fact GA-ASI laser modules are already seeing action right now. The USS Ponce currently plays host to a laser defense system whose 30kw output can take down a fast moving missile and open up a decent-sized whole in the hull of a boat. While that's a fearsome prospect, model being developed by GA-ASI for integration with US military drones would be far more powerful. With 150kw power behind it (and the ability to fire for a sustained amount of time) the new GA-ASI laser module would be capable of punching through highly armored targets.
However, as is demonstrated by the size of the laser in the video above, a module capable of delivering 5 times more power is likely to be extremely large and incredibly heavy, which are two things not ideally suited to integrating with an aircraft. Much of GA-ASI's research has gone into reducing the size and weight of the laser module as much as possible, and they are confident they can develop a module suitable for a Predator-C drone's 3000kg payload.
A more important hurdle to overcome is that of targeting. For any weapon capable of delivering such power, it's essential that you can deploy it with the utmost accuracy, a fact that Perry is fully aware of.
Before you spend any money on a laser you better darn well show that you can acquire, ID, and track the objects of interest so that you could put a laser on them. You have to be able to compensate for aero-optic distortion.
Compared to a module mounted on a large ship like the USS Ponce, a drone-mounted module would have to counter huge vibration levels as well as the dusty desert air of its likely deployment areas, not to mention the far greater speeds of its host vessel.
If GA-ASI are successful, it's expected that these powerful laser weapons could be deployed as early as 2017, transforming the face of drone warfare forever.