Pimp My Gunship 2: Directed Energy

The AC-130U Spectre is a byword for high-precision fire support. But equipping it with directed energy weapons (DE) will take close air support to an entirely new level. The technological breakthrough needed to get there is a radical $22m superconducting generator which the Air Force will demonstrate by 2009 and which is specifically indended to fit on a C-130.Instead of conventional copper wiring, the generator uses metal foil coated with superconducting material. This can carry very high currents with no loss, making it suitable for high-power uses. Maintaining superconductivity means staying at low temperature, requiring a liquid nitrogen cooling system.AC130beam2.jpgDriven by a turbine, the new generator is about the size of a small beer keg, and is designed to generate five megawatts. Power sytems based on existing generators weigh over 20,000 lbs, the new system should cut that in half. It will also pave the way for further improvements and even smaller and more powerful generators.The suggestion of a laser-armed F-35 has also been floated, but this is much less practical for attacking ground targets. A laser or other DE weapon can take several seconds of 'dwell time' to be effective, so what is needed is an aircraft which can keep a weapon aimed at the same point for an extended period -- exactly what AC-130s do best.DE weapons have a deep magazine, as they can keep firing for as long as the fuel supply lasts. Ivan Oelrich, director of strategic security programs for the Federation of American Scientists, estimates here that "To operate a thing like that requires a few tons of fuel per hour."To get the benefit of this sort of firepower you need an aircraft which is going to stay around over the battlefield rather than disappearing after a few passes. Again, the job is tailor-made for the AC-130, and there have been several proposals for weapons that the generator could drive:- Electric lasers are already looking likely to supercede the primitive and toxic chemical oxygen iodine lasers like the one developed for the Airborne Laser and Avanced Tactical Laser. Last month Northrop Grumman unveiled Vesta, a 15 kW electric laser which can run for twenty minutes at a time. This is a major step towards achieving the Joint High Power Solid State Laser Program's goal of a 100 kW solid state laser weapon in FY 2007. Such a weapon would have sniper-like accuracy, being able to pick out one person from a crowd or destroy pinpoint tagets like aerials or radar without collateral damage. The weapon could fire continuously extended periods, creating a significant morale effect, and the 5-Megawatt generator could power several beams at the same time.- The Active Denial System, the Air Force's non-lethal beam weapon which hurts without harming. A high-power version mounted in an AC-130 would have a variety of uses, providing for the first time a non-lethal means of dealing with distubances on the ground. I'll be looking more closely at this one later in the week. More advanced non-lethal RF weapons may also be in the pipeline.- A High Power Microwave Weapon (HPM), a directed-energy beam weapon equivalent of the "e-bomb" which destroys electronics at a distance. It would also be useful for knocking out command centres, air defense sites and other targets which depend on electronics -- like television stations -- without harming anyone. It would also be a formidable tool for interdictiction: an HPM-armed Spectre could flying down a hundred miles of road and knock out every single vehicle on it.However, with this sort of weapon there is a big risk of 'friendly fire' accidents and this is likely to be a major issue.The civilian suprconducting generator program ground to a halt earlier this year when GE dropped its $27 million generator program, a move which "leaves the superconducting generator concept squarely in the hands of the military," according to Mark Bitterman, Executive Editor of Superconductor Week. This means Air Force's superconducting generator program will take on new significance as the sole source of this technology. There is a growing demand for small, powerful and efficient generators and electric motors -- and yet again the military are pioneering technology which will have much wider use.-- David Hambling

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