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.

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