Some defense thinkers believe directed energy weapons, lasers, hold out real battlefield promise, particularly against future enemies armed with large numbers of relatively cheap precision guided weapons. For example, the folks at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington say lasers provide a potential solution to the so called G-RAMM (guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles) problem. Using missiles to shoot down incoming rounds can get very costly and a counter G-RAMM arsenal can be rapidly depleted; lasers solve the finite counter-munition arsenal problem.
Granted, directed energy weapons are not ready for prime time, although they are getting closer. Boeing has been developing a laser system mounted on the Avenger vehicle, an air defense version of the ubiquitous Humvee; in stock form, the Avenger comes with Stinger missiles and a .50 cal machine gun. In tests over the last couple of years, the Laser Avenger has shot down a couple of small aerial drones.
In September, Boeing says Laser Avenger destroyed 50 IEDs in tests sponsored by the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. The IEDs included large-caliber artillery munitions and smaller bomblets and mortar rounds, according to Boeing, and the laser fired at the rounds from different ranges and angles.
I asked Boeing spokesperson Marc Selinger how it works. The targeted munitions are destroyed by heating, resulting in a low-yield detonation, he said. The targeted round doesn’t detonate with its full force, instead it "pops" or "fizzles" out, rendering it safe. I asked him how long it takes for the laser beam to destroy its target. Depending on the target munition type, seconds or single-digit minutes, he said. Also, and importantly, the laser provides a near limitless arsenal.
Now here is why this is potentially a really big deal. IEDs are far and away the biggest killer of U.S. troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. For anybody who has spent time on patrol in either locale, they know how incredibly time consuming it can be every time a suspected IED is spotted. Standard procedure is to back off to a safe distance and call in the Explosive Ordinance Disposal team. Problem is, there aren’t enough EOD teams to accompany all patrols; their skills are truly at a premium.
It can take four or five hours or more for the EOD team to arrive. Then, once they get on site, they send up the little robot to sniff around, rig a charge and detonate the suspicious package. The whole process can take hours longer.
IEDs are not only very lethal, but the mere threat of IEDs really curtails the pace of operations. In that regard, IEDs are very much like the minefields of old, they act as an obstacle. Even if the location of a minefield was known, as many were during World War II, somebody still had to go through the laborious process of clearing a breach to allow vehicles and troops to safely move through.
If a vehicle on patrol came equipped with a laser that could be fired from a safe distance at suspected IEDs to render them inert or destroy them, that could dramatically speed operations and take some pressure off the EOD teams. Since the enemy often uses IEDs to compel a patrol to stop in a "kill zone" and then springs an ambush, mobility can be a real life saver.
Clearly the laser would work better in some environments than others. It would be more applicable on the streets of say Baghdad, where IEDs are often laid on the pavement hidden by trash. On Afghanistan's rural roads IEDs are buried deep where a laser couldn’t penetrate. Still, as the IED is here to stay as a weapon in the arsenal of the asymmetric warrior, and the U.S. military will operate in heavily urbanized areas in the future, an IED neutralizing laser could be very useful.