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The War Nerd / April 13, 2011

All the gizmo freaks are drooling because the US Navy has supposedly demonstrated a fearsome new “ray gun,” the HEL, High Energy Laser, designed to burn planes, missiles or boats that get too close to surface ships. The trusting Dilberts over at Wired’s Danger Room just about came in their khakis at the news.

Those Wired guys don’t know a thing about how people really make war in the dirty parts of the world, but oh, they love their nice clean hi-tech gizmos.

Just listen to this hysterical start to their article:

“With clouds overhead in the salty air, irritable Pacific waves swelled to up to four feet. Perfect conditions, in other words, for the Navy to fry a small boat with a laser beam — a major step toward its futuristic arsenal of ray guns.”

Jeez, are these guys in fourth grade or what? Although I did like the bit about  “irritable Pacific waves.” Nothing pisses off an ocean like having lasers tested on it.

Or maybe the Pacific just isn’t as liable to believe USN press releases, since its seen too many Navy boondoggles over the years. What you see so clear it’s painful in this Wired story is every eight-year old boy’s dream of that “arsenal of ray guns.” Lasers were the coming thing when I was a kid. I bet they were the coming thing for guys ten years older than me too, and ten years younger. In other words, they’ve been the coming thing for a Hell of a long time, but they never seem to arrive.

There are three simple things that the middle-aged kiddies at Danger Room try hard not to think about when they make their little lightsaber noises, imagining cool ray-gun battles in Da Fyuchah:

1. Air. It’s this thing, you can’t see it but—well, blow on your hand. Feel that? That’s air. Unfortunately we need it to breathe, and even more unfortunately it absorbs the energy of laser beams. The experts call that “blooming,” and it’s even worse when there’s any smoke or haze in the air. And gosh darn it, wouldn’t you just know it, it seems there’s this tendency for battlefields to be full of all this nasty smoke’n’haze stuff that gets right in the way of our cool ray-gun dreams. So unfair!

2. Energy. The same buzz-kill of an issue that stops us driving Caddies, and now it’s messing with our lightsabers. The sad fact is that with the power sources we have now, the old dream of a shoulder-fired laser rifle is impossible. You’d need to be Godzilla to carry the power pack, but then Godzilla’s already got eye-lasers, so maybe he’s using an internal frame pack. For now, the only lasers we have than can do more than fry an ant like a kid’s magnifying glass are gigantic, with even bigger battery packs—which is why they’re mounted on surface ships. The Pacific Ocean is maybe irritable because it’s gotta displace the ten-ton power pack this gizmo takes.

3. Weather. This is another really gosh-darn annoying thing that’s related somehow to #1, “air.” Apparently this “air” moves around and sometimes there’s water in it and if there’s any of this water in the air, lasers just don’t work, period. If this water-in-the-air thing is warm, they call it“rain” and the laser beam can’t poke through it. If it’s cold it’s this thing called “snow,” and that gets in the way too. Unbelievable! It’s like the whole planet is just trying to ruin all our fun!

Those are just the big three, the top contenders in a long list of reasons that grown-ups don’t waste a lot of time on ray guns. I’m not even talking about the problems with a pure line-of-sight weapon like a laser (hint: if you can see them, they can see you), or the fact that the beam creates a mist of melted target material that acts as an incredibly effective shield against further damage…or the real elephant in the Star-Wars room: the fact that we’ve got about a million boring conventional alternative weapons that can do the job now, without needing to imagine an engineering miracle.

Death Match: Laser vs. Plastic Outboard Cowling

If you actually see the video the US Navy released to show the magical boat-burning laser, you have to laugh at what a cheap, obvious fraud it is. I’m calling it out right now. I said FRAUD, and I mean FRAUD. In fact I can’t believe the gizmo fans have been naïve enough to buy this crap. The most obvious fakery in the video is the cuts. The video is 49 seconds long, but it has three distinct cuts: one at the six-second point, another at about 32 seconds, and a third at the 42-second mark. That means we don’t know the actual time required for this wonder weapon to set fire to an outboard engine—which my half-brother used to be able to do by accident in about a millisecond, without lasers.

Didn’t you hi-tech Danger Room fellas notice that? I guess you were too worried about that irritable ocean. Science just goes out the window when Star Wars comes onscreen, I guess.

So, maybe somebody could ask the Navy what the ACTUAL ELAPSED TIME is between the laser firing on the Evinrudes and the Evinrudes’ cowling catching fire.

Which raises another totally obvious problem nobody’s mentioned: IT’S A FUCKING PLASTIC EVINRUDE COWLING! OF COURSE IT CAUGHT FIRE! I COULD SET IT ON FIRE WITH THE SAME MAGNIFYING GLASS I USED TO FRY ANTS WITH! What if our no-fair future enemies play dirty by making their engine cowlings out of reflective metal? Gee, are they allowed to do that? What if they bring Mom’s dressing-table mirror and hold it in front of their engines? What if the dirty cheaters even go so far as to use INBOARD ENGINES!!!!! Oh No!

Every blogger or so-called journalist who swallowed this story should jump in the irritable Pacific, right now. There are just so many obvious questions they don’t ask, don’t even think about. Here’s one: “How long would it take a 57mm deck gun to blow up those outboard engines?”

Answer: the time it took for the shell to fly there. A whole lot less than the 49 seconds plus God knows how much time between cuts it took that laser. And a 57mm gun doesn’t take a battery the size of Manhattan, either.

All the services lie when they’re pushing programs, but the Navy lies most of all. In fact the Navy is the only one of the services that’s actually built around a lie, the carrier group. The carrier group should be renamed “Tomorrow’s Dive Site” because it won’t survive ten minutes in a serious war. Carriers are indefensible, period. That’s why we’re getting this noise about lasers: because even the surface navy, who survive by denying the obvious, have had to face up to the fact that carriers could not survive if they have to rely on their current defenses.

But look—I’m getting frustrated here, because it’s just so damn stupid—look, suppose we solve all the impossible engineering problems with weaponized lasers. They still wouldn’t save those dead-man-walking carrier groups. Maybe the US Navy and the Danger Room kiddies can’t think hard about this, but I can. I’ve already talked about how a low-tech swarm attack could destroy carriers, and lots of bloggers have mentioned the new Chinese ballistic carrier-killer missile, but those are just two ways to kill this bloated, helpless target. Suppose the Chinese get impatient and just detonate a nuke in the high atmosphere over a carrier group? I’m not talking about nuking them, thought that’s a totally plausible scenario, I’m talking about the EMP killing every system on the carrier group. Imagine the aftermath of that. They could come in on 31-foot Bayliners and attach limpet mines while the crew was trying to get the M-4 lockers open, then putt-putt off while the hulls blew open. Or Hell, they could TOW the damn things to the Shanghai scrap yards.

But we’re talking about a whole service that lives by not thinking about stuff like that. And that’s why they want you to believe in the Magic Laser.

Would you like to know more? Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to brecher@exiledonline.com. Read Gary Brecher’s first ever War Nerd column by clicking here.

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66 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. retho  |  April 14th, 2011 at 9:02 am

    @ 18 (Mike)

    “you dismiss the effective and battle-proven defensive missile systems on the US ships, despite the fact that they have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to stop ballastic missiles”

    Drinking so early in the morning ? Dude….

  • 2. Nick Nolan  |  April 14th, 2011 at 9:14 am

    Key point against lasers, defensive or offensive:

    clouds and rain.

    Lasers are clear sky weapons. Even tiny cirrus clouds absorbs and scatters powerful laser beam like good defensive system should. Have a thick cloud layer or rain and even the most powerful imaginable laser is useless.

    Study laser weapons and you realize hat cloud modeling for laser propagation and Cloud Free Line of Sight (CFLOS) statistics is vital for Navy. They don’t do nothing to remove the problem, they just are means to collect data that can be used to determine probabilities that laser weapons can be used.

  • 3. Karel  |  April 14th, 2011 at 11:09 am

    What happened with North Korean sub?

    Was it friendly fire?

    Was the reward payed to North Korea by Iran for signaling “Think again” to the US/Israel, worth the risk of escalation?

  • 4. CensusLouie  |  April 14th, 2011 at 11:50 am

    You know, about the carrier groups that you keep railing against…

    Aren’t you ignoring your #1 rule? That stand up conventional war between developed nations just doesn’t happen anymore? That developed nations only bomb third world hellholes?

    Given that, a carrier group that can go anywhere is MUCH cheaper than putting up airbases everywhere.

  • 5. Jack Boot  |  April 14th, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    @ fizz 47:
    Rumour has it that the Sovs supplied Saddam Hussein with blinding lasers during the Iran-Iraq War.
    Instant, total, permanent blindness – bad for enemy morale…

    As to carriers, they’re analogous to 19th C. gunboats: They’re useless against a modern foe, but great for intimidating the fuzzy-wuzzies – at least for the nonce…

  • 6. Strahlungsamt  |  April 14th, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Did anyone notice how, in the first clip, the laser beam stays on one spot on that boat? The sea is moving so both laser and target must be moving in different directions. Yet the point of the laser remains static.

    Either they have some damn good stabilization going on there, the laser is bolted to the target boat (like that video camera up front which isn’t used in this video) or the whole damn thing is fake.

  • 7. Sublime Oblivion  |  April 14th, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    Disagreed. Modern weapons systems are shielded from EMP bursts. Besides, the US policy is that nuclear attacks against its carrier groups will invite a nuclear response.

  • 8. proletariat  |  April 14th, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    just think how fine a target these fancy new weapon systems would make for a few insurgents or special ops sitting in a busy harbor with their anti-ship missiles and limpet mines.

    let them think they’ve won, draw them in, then BOOM.

    billions of dollars on the ocean floor.

  • 9. Timeout  |  April 14th, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    New commenting here, but longtime follower of the WN.

    This column is hard core hardware porn. And that is not the reason many of use admire you, WN. We follow you because you explain things like why demographics is strongest than armor.

    Now about this issue of the laser, you are probably right. The current technology seems too premature. But are you looking beyond hard enough, or are you losing the point here just blinded by the current hardware? For example what about the potential psychological effects of the US being the only one having laser technology.

    Please do not go this route with your daily column.

  • 10. Strahlungsamt  |  April 15th, 2011 at 3:27 am

    Here’s another idea.

    Send 2 gunships towards the carrier with the photon beam. When it starts burning gunship #1, gunship #2 fires.

    Blam! Game over. USA: 0, Durka-durkastan: 1.

  • 11. nampa11  |  April 15th, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Stu,

    I’m curious how a 50’s diesel sub could sneek up and take out a carrier. I thought they were very loud (more moving parts) than a nuclear sub?
    Also, kudos on the fat chick remark. I’ve heard the prostitution and blue balling are rampant now that the female soldier ratio is 1:4, just enough to keep guys interested, just small enough (with a captive audience)to give the females full blue ball control. Why don’t these guys wait for the ship to pull in to port?

  • 12. Miguel Farah  |  April 16th, 2011 at 7:05 am

    “Or Hell, they could TOW the damn things to the Shanghai scrap yards.”

    That would be the ultimate embarrasment, worse even than actually sinking the carriers.

  • 13. super390  |  April 16th, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    #54:

    I think the looming question is whether anti-ship missiles will become so cheap that even the countries we prefer to bomb will be able to fight back.

    For instance, if one were inclined to build missiles to hit a particular geographic location, one could develop a GPS-guided missile accurate to within 50 feet, powered by a Gluhareff pressure-jet engine (see Google) or some nastier pulsejet, made of wood or sheet steel. A British postwar study on the German V-1 concluded that it cost 150 Pounds to make (~$6000-9000 current), and its worthless guidance system probably cost more than a laptop with a GPS system. In an age where the stuff we buy is beginning to come from Vietnam or Madagascar, we need to think about the military applications of the factories that make our techno-toys by the billions. What is protecting us is the cult of the Pentagon, the belief by 3rd-World tinpot tyrants that America is infallible when it comes to weapons technology. The cult gets a little weaker with every stalemated war.

    The pendulum of war has swung between eras of great empires fighting technocratic, limited wars for cynical power politics, and eras when mobilized masses suddenly broke through the decadent mercenaries of empire, found that they could prevail at terrible cost of life, and created great wars of ideology. We’ve been knocking at the changeover from the former to the latter since Vietnam, and we’ve compounded our sin by outsourcing all productive industry to cheap, disgruntled 3rd-world peoples. Who is the arsenal of democracy now?

  • 14. Sean  |  April 21st, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    At the range that they were testing that laser..wouldn’t a $50 RPG work much better?

    Note, I love RPG’s with all my heart. Nearly a perfect weapon

  • 15. Anarchy Pony  |  February 28th, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Whatever happened to torpedoes?

  • 16. PatchthePirate  |  April 11th, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    Regarding power requirements to run the laser: An all-electric laser would require some hefty power supplies. But I seem to recall articles from a few decades ago about using chemical lasers. In a chemical laser tube the excitation in the laser tube is accomplished by the reaction of several chemicals instead of massive amounts of electrical energy. A modest electrical (or optical) pulse is then added to the mix to cause it to lase.


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