No military science fiction would be complete without an array of fearsome beam weapons, usually lasers of some kind. Of course, the thing about science fiction is it’s set in the future – but for a couple of decades now we’ve been hearing about how laser weapons are on the point of making a real-life breakthrough.
In fact, laser weapons have already been used quite a few times. In 1982, several British frigates in the Falklands Task Force were fitted with DEC laser dazzle sights; these hand-controlled weapons could dazzle and disorientate the pilot of an incoming aircraft, and it’s believed that a couple of Argentinian planes flew right into the sea as a result. The DEC caused temporary blindness; laser weapons that cause permanent eye damage were banned by the UN in 1995, although that hasn’t stopped the Chinese from fitting the JD-3 laser system to its Type 98 main battle tank.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union experimented with the 1K17, a very large laser mounted in an armored pod on top of a tank chassis. This was mainly designed to physically destroy optical devices – the beam dumped enough energy into the lens of a tank gunsight to shatter it – but could also punch through the light metal plate; I’ve seen a test video where the laser missed the glass and burned a half-inch-deep hole in the armor besides it.
Meanwhile, the USA has been testing airborne laser systems since the 1980s. The Airborne Laser Laboratory, a modified C-135, shot down several air to air missiles in flight tests. It was replaced by the YAL-1, a larger laser mounted in the nose of a 747. This operated from 2002 through to 2012, and in trials managed to destroy a ballistic missile target during its boost phase.
The YAL-1 worked, but it wasn’t a viable weapon system. Yes, it could shoot down a ballistic missile, but the chances of flying a huge converted airliner close enough to the enemy’s missile sites to intercept them during the boost phase weren’t high. On the other hand, it proved that an airborne laser could track, hit and destroy targets – it just wasn’t the right platform.
Now the US Army and Raytheon have successfully mounted, and tested, a laser weapon on an AH-64E attack helicopter. The High Energy Laser is a podded system that can be mounted under one of the Apache’s wings, replacing the Hellfire missile rack on the outer pylon. In late June the weapon was tested at the White Sands missile range “over a wide range of flight regimes, altitudes, and speeds”.
According to Raytheon the laser successfully tracked and directed energy at several targets, believed to be missiles. The company – and the Army – aren’t saying whether the targets were destroyed, but the “high energy” in the laser’s name tells us that’s what it was designed to do. My guess is that, in this test, it successfully hit the targets but didn’t deliver enough energy to take them out. But in the next test or the one after, it will.
What’s the point of mounting a laser on a helicopter? An Apache has a better chance of reaching an enemy missile site than a 747 does, but it’s still not ideal for the job. On the other hand, if the laser can engage small missiles it could protect the helicopter from enemy air defenses; it could probably engage helicopters, electronic warfare systems, and optics. Potentially it could be used on any target that the chain gun would be used on now – and as long as the helicopter can supply it with power, it will never run out of ammunition. This is the first time a laser weapon has been mounted on a helicopter, but somehow, I doubt it’s going to be the last.
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