New weapons will eventually end up in the wrong hands. When will we learn?
The occupation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's Iraq in August 1990 was followed by the United States-led assault of January 1991 which expelled the Iraqi forces. The coalition assembled by Washington enjoyed great military superiority, but among the problems it faced was Iraq's ability to fire Scud missiles, initially against Israel and later against coalition forces in Saudi Arabia. The Scuds, based on crude Soviet missile technology of the 1950s, were highly inaccurate, but when aimed at large enough targets such as military bases or ports still had some potential to do damage.
This was shown when a Scud hit a US Marines' depot in Saudi Arabia, killing 28 soldiers – the worst loss of life for the Americans in the war. And in another incident which did not enter the public domain at the time, a Scud landed in the sea within 300 metres of a US Navy support ship moored at the Saudi port of Al-Jubayl alongside a large jetty laden with munitions and fuel. It was a narrow miss; if the military depot had been hit the effects would have been calamitous.
This incident was among the factors that prompted the Pentagon to invest heavily in missile defences, with missiles such as the Scud prominent in its thinking at the time. An early centrepiece of this effort, which continued to develop even amid the winding down of the cold war, was a weapon that seemed to come from the realms of science fiction: the airborne-laser (ABL).
This project consumed hundreds of millions of dollars in the late 1990s, and by early in the new century was moving into the testing phase. At its centre was a modified Boeing 747 housing a powerful three-megawatt chemical oxygen-iodine laser with a highly accurate optical system, which could be aimed at missiles soon after their launch.
The laser, travelling at the speed of light, had a reported range of up to around 650 kilometres; thus it could patrol outside the airspace of an opponent such as Iran or North Korea. It was calculated that the casing of these missiles, under gravitational stresses as they rapidly accelerated in the boost phase of their flight path, would be subject to the intense heat of the laser – and thus crumple and collapse.
The system was soon attracting considerable interest. By 2003, the US Air Force was thinking about the possible use of airborne lasers to hit ground-targets such as barracks, depots or fuel-tankers. Indeed, the very idea of "directed-energy" weapons seemed, for military planners, to amount almost to a perfect weapon. For if, the planners thought, the function of a weapon is to deliver energy to disrupt a target, then ideally it should be very long-range, ultra-fast and impeccably accurate.
Yet even at that stage there were signs that the dream was beginning to turn sour. The entire programme was proving far more difficult to execute and much more costly than anticipated, with too many of the technologies simply too experimental. A couple of successful tests were finally carried out in 2010. But by then support in Congress was slipping; funding was cut at the end of that year, and the whole project was cancelled in late 2011.
That might have been the end of the story: an "ideal" weapon that was just too difficult to develop. But there is a sequel. In mid-April 2013 the US Navy announced that a fully operational laser-weapon is to be mounted on a command-ship, the USS Ponce, deployed in the Persian Gulf. Its main purpose is to provide defence against armed drones and small speedboats.
This laser-weapon system (LaWS) is on a much smaller scale than the airborne laser; it has kilowatt power rather than megawatt, and uses commercially available components. But it is part of a much wider move to develop tactical directed-energy weapons, with this time the US Navy at the forefront.
Moreover, the idea is still very much alive beyond the United States. Israel and China are among other countries getting in on the act, and there is every indication that a number of new directed-energy weapons will be fielded in the coming decade. The airborne laser may have been a technological step too far, but for militaries around the world the overall concept retains great appeal.
There is, though, a catch. What works for the military may also work for the paramilitary, especially as the widespread use of quite powerful lasers in industry means that civil laser technologies can readily be modified by sub-state actors.
There is an analogy here with the development of armed-drones. In this area the United States and Israel are in the lead, several years ahead of western European countries as well as Russia and China. But others, including Iran, are following suit (Israel said on 25 April 2013 that it had shot down yet another drone, launched from southern Lebanon – presumably by Iran's ally Hezbollah). So too, with directed-energy weapons. For now, the United States and Israel are in the front rank; but within a few years there will be a proliferation, first to middle-ranking powers and then to non-state actors.
What links armed-drones and directed-energy weapons is that neither is subject to any kind of international arms-control process. Nor is one envisaged.
Once again, the armourers are way ahead of the arms controllers. That will almost certainly remain the case, which reinforces the significant of the USS Ponce's deployment. Almost without noticing it, the world is creeping into yet another era of warfare. The outcomes of this new era are unpredictable, though one thing is almost certain: it will involve proliferation to multiple actors – both states and paramilitaries alike.