back to article Pentagon fastens lasers to military drones to zap missiles out of the skies

The US military is investigating how to get powerful lasers capable of shooting down ballistic missiles onto drones, after the failure of a similar program for aircraft. In 2012, the US Department of Defense cancelled its Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed, which used a chemical laser built into a 747 aircraft to shoot down …

  1. Mark 85 Silver badge

    That would have to be one Big Freakin' Drone then.... I'm surprised they haven't decided to use a blimp since they want it to be over a launch site indefinitely. Oops... shouldn't give them ideas.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Oops... shouldn't give them ideas.

      Don't worry. A blimp would be cheap and therefore there's no chance of them thinking about that for a nanosecond.

      All the high tech defence programmes like rail guns and space planes, and this latest incarnation of the death-laser, none are about cheap or effective, it's just the military industrial complex spending taxpayer's money on techno-junk, because that's the central purpose.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Unfortunately, I think that even North Korea could manage to shoot down blimps loitering around their launch sites.

    3. Crazy Operations Guy

      Well, it only needs one or two shots to deal with the missile. And as a last resort, it could just kamikaze itself into the missile, its not like anyone gives a crap about the loss of a drone when it prevented the deaths of millions.

      But isn't this something the X-37 could do? Those things run for over a year, so stick a bunch up in space and have them orbit over the most likely apogees for ICBMs and shoot them when they get close enough.

      But I really only want to see anti-ICBM systems developed if it means that we start getting rid of the nukes we waste hundreds of billions of dollars a year to keep around, we're never going to fire them. The whole concept of "Nuclear deterrent" is about as stupid an idea as strapping hundreds of grenades to yourself and carrying them everywhere to dissuade anyone from trying to kill you: if someone is going to be the first to use, they don't care about the results and a lot of innocent bystanders are going to die pointlessly.

  2. Sampler

    Don't drone's already have hellfire's

    And other assorted ordinance attached to them, why would they need lasers? Given that, if the missile the drone fires is too close and the backlash wipes out the drone, it's a "meh, too bad" situation..

    1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Re: Don't drone's already have hellfire's

      A missile will not look like a launch incident. A laser strike leaves no trace.

      There is also no window for a missile on missile action. Assuming this is "rogue nation" ICBM which uses liquid fuel (and thus lower acceleration), it will reach 5M in 2 minutes or thereabouts. At that point the interceptor simply cannot keep up with it. Solid propellant driven "usual suspect" ICBM will do that in a minute or so. This means you are required to be within less than 50 km of the launch site and shoot to kill immediately too (no time to ask for fire authorization).

      Hellfire will not cut it anyway, you are looking at one of the big long range AA missiles which used to be loaded on cold war era interceptors. Some of these are as large as a drone. The right solution is neither laser, nor missile. It is a loitering munition designed for AA interception. An AA version of the Israeili "Hamas commander killer": http://www.janes.com/images/assets/074/52074/1634179_-_main.jpg

      1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

        Re: Don't drone's already have hellfire's

        "A laser strike leaves no trace."

        That's a tall order. You'd need a laser so powerful that it can evaporate the whole missile, including the warhead's re-entry vehicle. There will be lots of debris scattered over a large area, including glow-in-the-dark stuff you can find using a Geiger counter. As the idea is to stop the missile at launch, none of the debris will be fast enough or high enough to burn up in the atmosphere. So yeah, traces. (As this would happen over enemy territory anyway, it's not really a factor in the mission profile.)

        1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

          Re: evaporate the whole missile

          I don't think so. Given the stress the missile is under (due to its speed), all you need is to puncture the shell. Air friction will do the rest, and that will be very hard to not look like a launch issue.

        2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

          Re: Don't drone's already have hellfire's

          @Voland's: thanks for the link (I forgot to say that in my post)

      2. Ironclad

        Re: Don't drone's already have hellfire's

        Don't lasers also have a finite effective range especially inside the earth's atmosphere?

        A better bet may be a high flying UAV that turns into, or launches a scramjet missile using chemical boosters plus gravity to get up to speed (Mach 10+) then puts itself on a collision course.

        http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/05/03/x51a_hyper_success_report/

        Targeting, well that's just software innit.

        Admittedly it might be difficult to make it look like an accident.

        Hmm, money for researching lasers vs money for making things go very fast and then explode. Difficult choice indeed.

  3. P. Lee Silver badge

    Isn't there a standard defence against lasers?

    Give the missile a mirrored surface and make it spin.

    Reflects the energy, distributes the impact whatever gets through the mirror.

    It seems they've taken a leaf out of Apple's patent playbook:

    "Burn things with a laser, on a mobile drone."

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Isn't there a standard defence against lasers?

      Make the laser powerful enough, and the reflective coat will heat and warp before any serious reflection can occur. Since reflective coats aren't anywhere near 100% reflective nor physically will likely ever be able to approach that, mirrors aren't practical.

      1. Jimmy2Cows

        Re: Isn't there a standard defence against lasers?

        @Charles 9 - upvoted to balance the downvotes from people who clearly don't understand the issue. Several things to remember with mirrors and lasers:

        1. Mirrors are not perfect reflectors.

        2. Mirrors reflect/absorb different frequencies in different ways.

        3. Military lasers may or may not operate at visible frequencies.

        4. Impurities and imperfect reflection guarantee some energy absorption.

        5. Any energy absorption heats, distorts and ablates the surrounding area, increasing the chance of absorption in the surrounding area (though ablation can have a temporary shielding effect)

        6. Spinning the target will make little difference. Laser might have to remain on target a little longer, but ultimately spinning just means more of the target surface suffers heat damage.

        7. Spinning the target will actually help shed ablated material. Ablated material can be like a temporary shield, the laser has to burn through it to reach the target surface. You don't want to shed ablated material, you want it to build up between the laser and the target surface.

        8. Only takes a small initial absorption to start a snowball effect as heating, distortion and ablation spread, burnt ablation impurities accumulate on the mirrored surface.

    2. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Isn't there a standard defence against lasers?

      Mirror won't necessarily work. Some lasers can cut through a mirror. It depends on the type of laser.

      1. RedneckMother

        Re: Isn't there a standard defence against lasers?

        @ Mark 85

        "Some lasers can cut through a mirror. It depends on the type of laser."

        Yeah, and also depends on the type of mirror :).

        Not disagreeing, just sayin'...

    3. NinjasFTW

      Re: Isn't there a standard defence against lasers?

      There is no way you are going to get a mirrored surface perfect enough the withstand a laser of any significant power.

      Especially considering it needs to be resilient enough to withstand the forces of re-entry/high speed travel/launch stresses.

      The slightest imperfection is all it is going to take to stop reflecting and start absorbing.

      1. Mage Silver badge

        Re: Isn't there a standard defence against lasers?

        The Laser can't stay on one spot long enough. The mirror doesn't need to be perfect. The missile can even have some spin.

        1. NinjasFTW

          Re: Isn't there a standard defence against lasers?

          @mage

          maybe for a couple of watt laser you get in a store, not for something military grade in the k/w range.

          Actually the mirror would need to be perfect, a single spec of dust or abrasion would be enough to dump a load of heat into the surface to destroy that section of the mirror.

          A laser pulse rate is at least 50Mhz so that spec of dust is going to get numerous pulses of energy no matter how fast its spinning.

          The laser doesn't even have to destroy the missile completely, it just has to create just enough damage (hole, warping) that a missile travelling at > mach 3 will tear itself apart.

          You haven't mentioned how you are going to get an extremely polished mirror to actually survive the stresses of being attached to an ICBM either.

        2. mosw

          Re: Isn't there a standard defence against lasers?

          Even with a perfect mirror there is a down side. The mirror would allow targeting systems to lock on from a greater distance, giving more conventional anti-missile systems a better chance of hitting it.

      2. Jan 0

        Re: Isn't there a standard defence against lasers?

        Don't chemical lasers use internal mirrors any more? How clean do they stay inside a supersonic reactor?

        1. Mark 85 Silver badge

          Re: Isn't there a standard defence against lasers?

          They all use mirrors. It's the mirror material that is variable. Some use silver, gold. I recall that there's some that use stainless steel. The common silver mirror only works for some lasers. If you get into RF lasers (not light), they're using something else.

          As a side note, the mirror reflecting material has to be on the "outside" of the substrate. IOW, on a wall mirror, the mirror material would be on the front or viewer side, not the back or wall side.

  4. Dr Scrum Master
    Mushroom

    Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a UAV circling over my missile silo.

    These drones could be permanently stationed over launch silos without the need for human pilots.

    And nobody would decide to do something to detect UAVs around silo areas?

    1. RIBrsiq

      Re: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a UAV circling over my missile silo.

      "And nobody would decide to do something to detect UAVs around silo areas?"

      I believe it's not the "detecting" they're not worried about.

      If you look over the last few conflicts in which the US were involved, you'll see that they pretty much had complete control of the airspace almost from the word "go!". As the US has a military budget rivalling the next 10 countries on the planet combined, last time I looked, this trend looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

      Even if the UAV is shot down using a SAM, it would still count as a win as most probably the US can afford a new UAV much more readily than their adversary can afford a new missile and, most probably, a new SAM battery and trained crew to run it as the one that launched that missile is now a smoking crater.

      1. Lysenko

        Re: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a UAV circling over my missile silo.

        Assuming we discount the Russians and Chinese (because they actually have fighter aircraft and drones would just be target practice) you're left with Iran and the Norks. Both probably have S-300 class SAMs and there is no way the cost equation between a SAM and a giant laser toting UAV favours the latter.

        Drones are having an easy ride right now because they're deployed against adversaries with pre-WW1 aerial combat capability.

        1. RIBrsiq

          Re: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a UAV circling over my missile silo.

          I hope we never find out what a shooting war involving the US vs. Russia or China -- or, for that matter, Russia vs. China -- looks like.

          But there were three modern conflicts I can think of that pitted US gear against relatively well-equipped and deployed adversaries with Soviet/Russian gear:

          * The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon involved IAF vs. Syrian SAM deployment that by all accounts surpassed that of the earlier '73 war.

          * The first Gulf War was against an experienced Iraqi army fresh from a decade fighting Iran.

          * The NATO operation in Kosovo.

          None were the cakewalk typical of later conflicts, true. But also none were really a challenge, in military terms: one does not conduct military operations with the expectation of sustaining no casualties at all.

          Speaking of which: drones are, if you think about it, the perfect match for the challenges faced by the US. Money is not the problem, you see, and a drone being shot down is highly unlikely to grab headlines and lead to "stop the war!" demonstrations.

          1. Lysenko

            Re: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a UAV circling over my missile silo.

            * None of those conflicts involved drones.

            * In Kosovo a F117 "Stealth Fighter" was taken out by a '60's era SA-3 SAM system ...and lets not forget Gary Powers.

            * None of the aircraft involved were slow, lumbering, AWACS sized and in a holding pattern over a defended target.

            You can't loiter over defended airspace in any sort of aircraft (bar satellites) and if you're going to take out the defences with conventional munitions you might as well take out the missile silos while you're at it. The argument that ballistic missile silos are harder targets than SAM sites is bogus because once the opposition realise that's your logic they'll put the SAMs in silos too.

            This is before you even consider the fragility and vast power (i.e. weight) requirements of a laser weapon. The last attempt needed a 747 ...a platform that would be a sitting for any SAM in the last hslf century and any interceptor since the Gloster Meteor.

            1. John Robson Silver badge

              Re: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a UAV circling over my missile silo.

              And of course you wouldn't open fire with the SAM until you wanted to launch the ICBM...

            2. RIBrsiq

              Re: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a UAV circling over my missile silo.

              @Lysenko:

              * Are you seriously arguing that no new weapon systems can ever be developed? My point was that state-of-the-art weapons of both sides at the time were tested against each other.

              * Glad you mentioned Gary Powers: would anyone have cared if no pilot were involved in that incident...?

              * How about swarms of autonomous drones some of which are anti-air and some of which are just waiting for SAMs to expose themselves so they can take them out? Would that work, in your opinion? How long would the airspace remain defended?

              * Attacking strategic weapons is inviting immediate MAD. Deploying defences "just in case" is insurance against same in case your opponent turns out to be plain-old mad. Besides, it would also work against tactical missiles, if it can be aimed quickly enough.

              BTW: don't expect laser (or shark!) equipped drones to be deployed any time soon. But work needs to start for feasibility to be determined. Not every single attempt at developing a new weapon ends in success, you know. The majority probably don't, in fact.

              1. Lysenko

                Re: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a UAV circling over my missile silo.

                @RIB

                * I'm arguing that high speed strike aircraft vs. SAMs 40 years ago has little predictive value regarding huge, slow loitering drones vs. SAMs in the future.

                * Powers. Yes, they would care. Grabbing a body was a bonus. The wreckage was enough to prove the US Government were lying through their teeth - which was the primary issue.

                * Swarms of drones. No. Not loitering around anyway. You don't need long range detection if the target is going to obligingly stay put in a predictable place ergo you don't need to activate ground radar. If the "drone" you are thinking of is just a parachute retarded anti-radiation missile then that's existing technology. Useless against IR, beam riding or active homing missiles.

                * Attacking SAM sites right next to a strategic asset is indistinguishable from an attack on the asset itself. You don't know what warhead the inbound missile has until it explodes. If you're not prepared to risk MAD then you can't shoot at all. That means at the moment the ICBM launches you're either engaged in evasive action or already in the process of exploding.

                I don't expect to see laser weapons on anything smaller than a ship in my lifetime. The Standard Missile (RIM-161) is much more credible technologically and possibly also the good old "lead laser" (CIWS/Vulcan etc). Given that a laser drone would be the size of a Hercules, fitting a rotary cannon is no more impractical.

            3. JamesPond
              Trollface

              Re: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a UAV circling over my missile silo.

              "You can't loiter over defended airspace in any sort of aircraft (bar satellites) "

              Didn't know satellites were aircraft, thought the clue was in the first syllable.

              1. Lysenko

                Didn't know satellites were aircraft

                I was thinking of the USAF/Boeing X-37.

                Getting side tracked into the precise flight characteristics of a "space plane" seemed a tangent too far, particularly since most of its capabilities are classified. What is known is that it is aircraft (specifically, a glider) capable of going into orbit (like a satellite) and staying there for at least a couple of years before re-entering the atmosphere and landing (like an airplane).

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a UAV circling over my missile silo.

            The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon involved IAF vs. Syrian SAM deployment that by all accounts surpassed that of the earlier '73 war.

            That one?

            A decade and a half later some of my uni colleagues spent their draft time in the same garrison as the "advisors" present at some one the SAM sites in 1973. So while I do not know this first hand, I know it from a reliable source (multiple confirmations):

            It does not matter how good your weapons are if you arm idiots with them. The only two SAM sites to move in time to backup radar frequencies and backup positions during the Israeli attack in 1973 had "advisors" on site. They were also the only ones to score kills and take no casualties. One had Bulgarian, the other Russian military personnel. I do not know about the Ruskies, but the Bulgarian "advisor" had a formal complaint filed about him after that for pulling a gun to make the locals move with sufficient haste and ignore the f*** morning prayers.

            As far as the ex-Yugo wars, Yugoslavia did not have _ANY_ modern Soviet/Russian AA weapons - their stock was obsolete by ~ 15+ years because they stopped buying in the mid-70es after the spat between Tito and Brezhnev. They did not have the early S-300s. They did not even have Buk-1 for crying out loud and they still managed to take down a few aircraft including stealth ones. So in that case it was USA/NATO versus roughly Korean War/Vietnam War equipment. It is not a valid example

            So based on _EXACTLY_ those two wars, I would really not want to see up-to-date NATO kit vs up-to-date Soviet/Russian gear. It ain't going to be pretty.

            1. RIBrsiq

              Re: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a UAV circling over my missile silo.

              @AC:

              "It does not matter how good your weapons are if you arm idiots with them".

              Those same "idiots" actually did pretty well in '73, in terms of air defence...

              Anyway, from Wikipedia (feel free to check the sources cited):

              "The complete dominance of U.S. and Israeli technology and tactics over those of the Eastern Bloc was to have been a factor that hastened the demise of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union".

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a UAV circling over my missile silo.

                Those same "idiots" actually did pretty well in '73, in terms of air defence

                The batteries that had "advisors" did. As I said - they scored most of the kills and took virtually no casualties from Israeli countermeasures.

                The ones which the Syrians and Egyptians ran themselves - not so much and the air-to-air combat which the Syrians, Iraqi and Egyptians ran exclusively themselves (their pilots, no "advisors") put in the most appalling performance.

                What hastened the demise of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union was the mother of all economic and political mismanament under Brezhnev. While it would take a book to enumerate all the idiocies, the key one is the completely broken estimates based on "that is what master likes to hear" economic models in the mid-to-late 1970-es and catastrophic levels of borrowing (including from western banks) justified by these models. If you walk down a typical provincial Warsaw block city and see some concrete monstrousity clad in marble you do not even need to ask - it was done then based on those forecasts. On average all members borrowed between 2 and 4 times their GDP in under 10 years. And the result is well known.

  5. RIBrsiq
    Go

    "Sadly no plans for sharks as yet"

    Sharks on drones...?

    Interesting...

    1. Allan George Dyer Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: "Sadly no plans for sharks as yet"

      Obviously, you'd need some sort of life-support for the shark, but it gives plausible deniability for assassinations...

      "He died in a shark attack"

      "I didn't know he could swim"

      "Sharks can attack in less than one metre of water"

      "Wasn't he in a desert?"

      1. RIBrsiq
        Happy

        Re: "Sadly no plans for sharks as yet"

        "but it gives plausible deniability for assassinations"

        Exactly!

        I think you'd fit right in, at DARPA... ;)

        1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge

          Re: "Sadly no plans for sharks as yet"

          So exactly how big a crater would an average sized shark make if dropped on someone from 10,000ft?

          Enquiring minds want to know. And indeed how much sushi would you get as a by-product?

          1. Simon Harris Silver badge

            Re: "Sadly no plans for sharks as yet"

            "So exactly how big a crater would an average sized shark make if dropped on someone from 10,000ft?"

            I don't know about a shark, but there's literary precedent for trying it with a sperm whale (and a bowl of petunias).

    2. TitterYeNot
      Coat

      Re: "Sadly no plans for sharks as yet"

      "Sharks on drones...?"

      Yes, I hear they've been experimenting with shark guided chemical weapons, the most successful of which has been the SIM missile - Shark Infested Mustard.

      <Sighs> OK, OK I'm going...

    3. erhumdm

      Re: "Sadly no plans for sharks as yet"

      I think Sharks get a bum rap ...

      Nowhere near as dangerous as say:

      a Buffalo (Buffalo are thought to kill around 200 people every year, first they charge and then they gore their victims.)

      or Hippos (https://youtu.be/Su7GkqwxG08)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "Sadly no plans for sharks as yet"

        "Buffalo are thought to kill around 200 people every year"

        But remember, Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

    4. Scott 53

      Re: "Sadly no plans for sharks as yet"

      "Sharks on drones...?"

      Isn't that the plot of Sharknado 4?

  6. Public Citizen

    Seems to me it would be cheaper to have drones loitering using rockets equipped with kinetic weapon packages.

    Both are well developed technologies, which equals a high degree of reliability.

    By using swarms of cheap drone-with-rockets packages the cost per successful launch for both SAMs and Ballistic Missiles quickly turns into a financially bankrupting situation for most adversaries.

    But then again, the US Department of Defence can get more money out of the Congress for exciting and shiny new toys than for some boring extension of current technology.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      That would seem logical, but kinetic interception of missiles has a dismal success record if I am not mistaken. Even if you have a dozen drones at the ready, there seems to still be a good chance that you'll fail to take it down reliably. That is why the military chose lasers, because if you've got it in your sights, you'll hit it.

      The issue with laser is power, and if they couldn't get a bloody big Boeing to succeed, I don't think there's a snowball's proverbial they'll get a drone to win that contest.

      So this is just money down the drain and pork for buddies again. Then again, there might be a remote chance that something actually useful will come from this program, and succeed in miniaturizing power generation to an extend unheard of at this time.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Happy

        howabout a

        a nuke pumped laser?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Still not reliable

        That would seem logical, but kinetic interception of missiles has a dismal success record if I am not mistaken. Even if you have a dozen drones at the ready, there seems to still be a good chance that you'll fail to take it down reliably. That is why the military chose lasers, because if you've got it in your sights, you'll hit it.

        The only way to reliably stop missiles is to disabled them before they launch.

        Obviously a complete pre-emptive nuclear strike on targets in North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and Luxembourg is in order.

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: Still not reliable

          The problem with that being the only reliable way to disable ICBMs before they launch is to launch your own ICBMs, as any other approach can be intercepted. An ICBM takes time to hit: time enough to detect it, take it as an attack and just launch YOUR ICBMs in retaliation. About the only thing stopping the end of the world is that no one currently in possession of ICBMs is crazy enough to welcome Armageddon and launch regardless.

          1. Mark 85 Silver badge

            Re: Still not reliable

            Well, there is that little crackpot in N. Korea but so far, they don't have that capability. It'll be a game changer if he gets them.

  7. Esme

    Sure, and given enough..

    given a big enough hammer, we can smush all those Earth-threatening asteroids to dust so they can't do much harm* - and a big enough engine attached to a big enough mass to swing the hammer, and a gig enough rocket to boost it all out there - sure we could do it!

    Methinks someone just likes messing with frikkin' lasers. Which whilst I don;t have any problem with that as a thought experiment, it's a tad annoying when it;s huge amounts of txation being spent on something that's unlikely to be workable with current technology.

    *Yes, I know, gigatons of dust and fines hitting earths atmosphere might well have bad effects too, but when have little details like facts and plausability ever stopped folk wasting taxpayers money?

    *yes,

  8. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

    "Now the Pentagon is investigating how to build the laser technology onto smaller drones that can loiter over a target for a long time in readiness to shoot down a launch. These drones could be permanently stationed over launch silos without the need for human pilots."

    That would be some very, very large and very, very expensive drones if they can 1) pack laser gear powerful enough to down an ICBM during launch 2) loiter over target "for a long time".

    Anyone with the cash and the technology to bulid and operate a nuclear armed ICBM will be able to detect those drones and do something about them. Maybe using a swarm of small, cheap drones.

    Esme is right, I think - someone likes to tinker with lasers.

  9. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    FAIL

    "given enough power, given enough beam quality, given enough altitude,"

    in a package small enough to fit on a drone that isn't the size of REL's Skylon

    Good luck with that.

    A note on mirrors.

    Conventional polished surfaces can do broadband reflectivity in the 70-90% range.

    Fabry Perot multilayer mirrors can achieve 99% reflectivity in a narrow bandwidth IE specific colour and can (in principal) be made in large sheets.

    Narrow bandwidth light is what lasers generate.

    1. horsham_sparky

      Re: "given enough power, given enough beam quality, given enough altitude,"

      Only if you happen to know the wavelength of the laser they're using..and even then its not too difficult to change the wavelength of a laser if you need to.

      1. Vic

        Re: "given enough power, given enough beam quality, given enough altitude,"

        its not too difficult to change the wavelength of a laser if you need to.

        That rather depends on how you'r generating the laser. For many types, it would mean a complete strip-out and replacement with a different type of laser - assuming such type had actually been created and could do the job.

        The COIL used on YAL-1 had a wavelength of 1.315µm (acording to Wikipedia). That's not changeable. To use a different wavelength would mean using a laser not based on iodine. That wouldn't be a twenty-minute refit...

        Vic.

    2. Simon Harris Silver badge

      Re: "given enough power, given enough beam quality, given enough altitude,"

      "Narrow bandwidth light is what lasers generate."

      So have the sharksdrones operate in pairs - each with a different laser frequency.

    3. The First Dave

      Re: "given enough power, given enough beam quality, given enough altitude,"

      Given 70-90% reflectivity, the attacking laser needs circa ten times as much power output (either ten times brighter, or ten times longer) which could easily be enough to make this scheme unworkable. 100% is _not_ needed.

  10. msknight Silver badge

    Cheaper to just fly the drones in to the boosters, or have a head-on with the missile in question. OK, light is faster than a drone... but... I mean.. sharks don't swim very well in air.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Not if the missile is moving at several Mach. What you propose would be like trying to catch a dragster en passant with a grappling hook: even with tracking, the window in which you can actually score a hit is vanishingly small because it's too quick to chase and will be, relative to the kill vehicle, gone in a blink. That includes an attempt at a head-on because the slightest miscalculation and the missile slips away to the side.

  11. DougS Silver badge

    I sure hope we never make this work

    Being able to stop missile launches would just embolden the idiots who think military action is the first and best solution to any international problem. With no fear of counterattack, suddenly nuclear strike becomes an option to them.

    More likely the solution will be imperfect or defenses will be found and it will just create another arms race. We'll see ICBMs that can't be shot down, and/or building dozens of decoy ICBMs launched for every actual one. As well as anti drone drones patrolling the skies over silo sites - which would inevitably shoot down a manned airplane by accident (or "by accident") at some point.

    1. chris 17 Bronze badge

      Re: I sure hope we never make this work

      Fixed site ICBM's are vulnerable to attack and are now the less prefered option. Land based Mobile ICBM's where considered an option for a while, but now they use submarines that can position themselves anywhere in the oceans and launch at a moments notice. Much harder to spot and much harder for laser drones to circle.

      Smaller nuclear states like everyone other than USA & Russia are likely still vulnerable to this as they will have fixed position or land based mobile ICBM launchers.

      1. DougS Silver badge

        Re: I sure hope we never make this work

        Yes; I should have made clear I was talking about second tier nuclear powers - not the US, Russia and China. But countries like North Korea and Pakistan would be more vulnerable to nuclear strikes if a nutjob like Ted Cruz became president and the US military had (what they thought was) protection against ICBMs.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I sure hope we never make this work

        But missile subs are necessarily big, so the counter to a missile sub is another sub: the fast attack sub, smaller, more nimble, and usually able to hide in the bigger sub's wake. I wouldn't be surprised if most missile subs these days are tailed by attack subs.

        1. DougS Silver badge

          Re: I sure hope we never make this work

          Maybe so, but unless you can be sure you are tracking EVERY last missile sub and are able to kill it before it can launch, that's not something you want to hang your hat on.

  12. Mage Silver badge

    Interesting: Yes. Practical: No.

    Makes the power supply issue worse.

    I can't see how this can work from technical viewpoint.

    Also anyone with missiles needing shot down can do two things:

    1) Coat missile with what ever the laser's guidance mirror uses.

    2) Shoot down the drone, which is going to have to be very big and slow.

  13. Graham Marsden
    Holmes

    " If there's <s>a way to shoot these things</s> pork to be had...

    "...and empires that can be built, then the military (aided by Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and other contractors) will find it."

    FTFY.

  14. horsham_sparky
    Black Helicopters

    I reckon

    They've already got a system that can knock out ballistic missiles.. probably satellite based. But it easier to keep it secret if they keep working on it in public and failing.. frickin' lasers on drones?! seriously? its all a smokescreen!

    And of course, they never landed on the moon (it was faked), they can probe your mind with WiFi if you don't wear tinfoil hats, and Donald Trump is really an alien hell-bent on world domination! :-P

  15. Rol Silver badge

    Permanently positioned over the launch pad?

    Unless we're talking stationary orbit, then that hasn't got an hope in hell of working.

    However, positioned within a few miles, on the ground, covertly, sitting and waiting to do its duty?

    Welcome to the all American motor home, complete with SAM launchers, or the oil tanker that drives in circles in anticipation of, just the one delivery. Hell, welcome to America's international loft converters!

    Those old, rusting, forty foot containers, that litter the world could easily be hiding Uncle Sam's insurance policy.

    How about an El Chapo inspired tunnel right under the enemies silo?

    Frankly non of these ideas are any less thought out than laser drones, and equally rely on the suspension of reason.

  16. taxman

    Dale Brown

    Wings of Fire AL-52 Dragon plane.

    Just saying

  17. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

    Why would someone having missile launch capability let a drone linger around their launching area?

  18. theOtherJT

    And the "drone" part helps how exactly?

    "In 2012, the US Department of Defense cancelled its Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed [...] Now the Pentagon is investigating how to build the laser technology onto smaller drones that can loiter over a target for a long time"

    And if they couldn't get it to fit in a 747 what the actual shit makes them think it's worth wasting the time trying THE EXACT SAME THING on something only a fraction of the size?

    1. Jimmy2Cows

      Re: And the "drone" part helps how exactly?

      Tech moves on, dude.

      Solid-state electrically pumped lasers are steadily approaching the power levels emitted in the 747 prototype. They're a lot smaller and lighter watt for watt, and are not limited to 20-40 shots because there's no chemical lasing medium used up with each shot. So long as there's electricity, they can keep shooting.

      How to get that much power from a drone is another issue. Maybe they'll go with a small modular nuclear reactor. 25MW should be easily enough to fly and recharge the capacitor banks rapidly for quick successive shots. But I digress.

      Seriously doubt they think for one second they can stuff 72,000kg of chemical lasers into a drone. Unless they expect one mutha of a drone. But remember - military drones can be pretty big, and anything that can fire a MW laser is not going to be your typical Maplin octa-copter.

      Nah. More likely they are pushing for funding to:

      1) advance the state-of-the-art in lighter, electrically pumped solid state lasers

      2) try to shoehorn the tech into a some kind of drone form - doesn't have to be small, just smaller than a 747 - so if it does have to loiter on target within enemy counter range, it can without risking lives of their flight crews.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Go

    Droning On

    Wouldn't all those drones flying around a Silo on soverign ground be a cause for action escalting into war?

    Then what are they going to do about sub-launched missiles - follow them around like a bunch of seagulls?

    Still the silo owner could invest in ground based drone killing lasers, probably cheaper and lower tech than air bourne ones.

  20. Graham Bartlett

    Why a drone?

    If it's a ballistic missile then it's already coming in from so high that there's no practical advantage to a drone a few thousand feet up compared to a truck on the ground. And a truck on the ground can house a whole lot more laser, plus it can be supplied by tankers full of whatever nasty chemicals power the laser.

    1. Kurt Meyer

      Re: Why a drone?

      @Graham Bartlett

      Thank you for your comment. Perhaps a gentle re-reading of the article in question would reveal to you the intention of using the drone/laser combo at the missle launch, rather than at missle strike.

    2. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Why a drone?

      Except the laser's range is limited in atmosphere, so you have to get close, and you have to do this in the boost phase because there are too many ways to defeat defenses in the descent phase: not the least of which is to pack multiple warheads per missile a la MIRVs. A crazy may also choose to arm the warheads once it passes apex so that any attempt to intercept them now sets them off (they won't arm it at launch since a boost-phase interception means the explosion happens over them instead).

  21. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Mushroom

    If you can reduce the size of the laser by a few orders of magnitude, it makes sense...

    It could be useful to have these drones orbiting major cities, but you have to look out for collateral issues, such as any drone that protects New York City would probably also protect Newark, New Jersey. However, Newark could use some nuclear annihilation.

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