There is no denying that the best defence against nukes, missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are lasers based in aerospace. To that end, weaponisation of space is a reality. China’s continuing ASAT (anti-satellite) tests provide credence to the requirement albeit her latest ASAT test conducted this year involved manoeuvring satellite with mechanical arms that captured another satellite, as monitored by US.
A host of countries have focused R&D in developing directed energy weapons (DEWs); both laser and plasma weapons and delivery systems – land, sea, air and space based. These are referred to as the proverbial ‘death ray’ travelling at the speed of light. The DEW emits energy in the desired direction, onto the desired target destroying or disabling it without using any projectile. Not only will this be the next paradigm of war, they will likely be deployed in large numbers by the year 2020.
Most significantly, laser weapons will have limitless ammunition given sufficient power source. In addition, their range will be much more as compared to ballistic weapons with favourable atmospheric conditions and power level. Ground, sea and aerial laser weapon systems have already been involved in addition to hand-held laser assault rifles. What is booming in the scientific community is development of the ultrafast intense laser.
The intense laser can produce the shortest pulses ever in a laboratory (femtosecond timescale, 1 fs = 1,015 seconds). Such laser beams are the size of a small pancake of particles (photons) with thickness in the order of the micrometre (10-6 m). Such unique feature opens up broad prospects in many areas of basic and applied science; opportunity to study the matter in unexplored regimes; ability to zoom down to a timescale corresponding to elementary displacement of matter in biology, chemistry, molecular atomic physics; revealing fastest dynamics of electrons. All this can be optimised to take advantage of this short pulse duration to produce high intensity laser systems while keeping compactness of the infrastructure. The laser intensities at which a target can be irradiated become such that matter is placed under very high excited states.
America’s HERCULES intense laser system is reportedly the fastest for generating GeV range electron beams using Laser Wakefield Acceleration (LWFA). Japan’s research institute RIKIN (RIKIN spring-8 centre) has recently awarded Thales of France a €10-million contract for development and installation of two intense laser beam lines of 500 terawatts each. The system will significantly expand the capabilities of the current SACLA (Spring-8 Angstrom compact free electron Laser), used by researchers in Japan. Our Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) identifies DEWs, along with space security, cyber-security and hypersonic vehicles as future projects. India has been developing the KALI (kilo ampere linear injector) linear electron accelerator for some time.
At present, it is not a laser weapon albeit China thinks so since it can be progressed into a high-powered microwave weapon. A Laser Dazzler has been developed that will impair vision temporarily to control unruly crowds. In addition, DRDO’s Laser Science & Tech Centre (LASTEC) is developing ADITYA – a vehicle mounted gas dynamic laser-based DEW system (as technology demonstrator) – a 25-kilowatt laser system under development to hit a missile in terminal phase at a distance of 5-7 km. The next step is to create solid state lasers which are very portable and can be fitted on various platforms. This is projected to be achieved by 2020. MoD’s “Technology Perspective & Capability Roadmap” identifies DEWs and ASAT weapons as thrust areas over next 15 years.
India has identified development of ASAT weapons for electronic or physical destruction of satellites in both low earth orbit (2,000-km altitude above earth’s surface) and the higher geosynchronous orbit in the long-term integrated perspective plan (2012–27). DRDO is working on 6,000-square-kilometre radius systems in respect of exo-atmospheric kill vehicles. It would be prudent to simultaneously develop intense laser system, indigenously, through joint ventures and through leveraging our strategic partnerships as this is one area that can contribute to removing asymmetry vis-à-vis China. DEWs when mounted on satellites will be difficult to detect unless actually fired. Chinese military strategy of shock, deception and surprise coupled with its record of ambiguity and deceit lends itself to space weaponisation. There is no reason why India should not cater to such asymmetry. The views expressed herein are the personal views of the author.