Red Skies at Night, Ray Guns' Delight?


Let's say you're an Air Force bigwig. You need to decide whether to invest in some shiny new directed energy weapon. Sure, "attack at the speed of light" sounds mighty good, but will the weapon actually work under the conditions youre interested in, or will it run into some obstacle like, the atmosphere?ATLC-130-sunset.jpgYou can't just test-fire a mockup because nothing similar exists yet, and, more importantly, because these things don't really scale very neatly. The experiences of other DE programs have got you worried.Well, now there's a computer model to help you predict just how a high-energy laser (HEL) weapon will behave under real conditions. The High Energy Laser End-to-End Operational Simulation (HELEEOS), described in this upcoming paper, is the outcome of a multi-year, joint effort to create such a planning tool for use throughout the DOD and the military.Why is this so important? Well, laser physics is not exactly an area in which most high-level decision-makers have a lot of technical intuition. And with all the different effects that go into the performance of a laser weapon from those inside the laser and its companion optical systems, to the bewildering menagerie of phenomena known collectively as "atmospheric effects," to beam-target interaction effects it's even hard for the pros to answer such a basic question as "how much range will we gain if we double the laser power?"The potential for poor decision-making is apparent in the history of the Airborne Laser program. As long ago as 2004, a thorough (and not-unsympathetic) report by the American Physical Society concluded that the ABLs lethal range would be so short that intercepting an ICBM launched from central Iran, for example, could only be accomplished, at best, from one small area in southwestern Turkmenistan. Yet the program still survives.In fact, the paper tacitly admits that all is not well within the HEL weapons community, stating that one of the primary purposes of HELEEOS is "the establishment of trust among military leaders."So, what does this computer program do? Basically, for a set of laser parameters (size, power, wavelength) and engagement geometry (distance from source to target, altitudes and velocities of source and target, and so on), HELEEOS estimates how long the laser would need to dwell on the target in order to achieve a certain probability of kill if a kill is even possible.But there's more and this is where HELEEOS gets really cool. In order to model the effect of the atmosphere, the simulation taps into a massive database of worldwide climate data and into detailed models of atmospheric phenomena. This lets the user tailor the simulation of the weapon's performance to a particular location and time of year, and even to different weather conditions so you'll know whether your new toy will work not just at Kirtland Air Force Base, but on a muggy night in Pyongyang or a dusty day in Kuwait.(Of course, there's a catch to this: the climate data is complete only for those corners of the world where the US military has friends so, for example, there's an inconvenient Iran-shaped blank on the map.)Now, here's this week's $64,000 question: will this new "investment strategy tool," as the paper describes it, really close the realism-deficit in HEL planning? It might; on the other hand, it might just give any unscrupulous folks a powerful tool for figuring out just which figures they need to fudge. I've argued elsewhere that technology, however useful, will not solve the problem of insurgency warfare alone; the same can be said for the problem of poor acquisition practices.-- Haninah Levine

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