Directed-energy weapons based on lasers can offer low cost per shot and almost limitless magazines to provide an efficient and effective means of defending against missile salvoes or swarms of unmanned systems.
Many countries, such as the US, China, Israel, France, Germany and Russia, have been researching the weapons for a long time, and major powers are ramping up their development to gain an upper hand.
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Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military commentator, said laser weapons were among those with the potential to change the face of warfare, and were of great importance.
“An arms race of laser weapons has long begun,” he said. “The US has a more solid technological foundation, but China is working to narrow the gap.
“Laser weapons can also be seen as an important symbol of the Chinese military’s transformation, given that their adoption will change the form of future warfare.”
The US has been researching directed energy since the 1960s, according to a Congressional Research Service report in early August, and it is unquestionably the leader in developing laser weapons.
In May, the US Navy’s USS Portland ship tested a laser weapon capable of destroying aerial, sea and land-based threats in the Pacific, according to the US Pacific Fleet.
The American navy installed a laser weapon aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Dewey in November, before announcing it in late February, according to Military.com.
Called the Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy, or ODIN, the system is the technological successor of the Laser Weapons System (LaWS) – a 30-kilowatt laser installed in 2014 on the amphibious transport dock USS Ponce, which was the US’ first operational directed-energy weapon.
The US Navy expects to have eight warships it can equip with the ODIN within the next three years, according to a report in early July by automotive website The Drive.
China is also developing laser weapons, in both naval vessels and warplanes. In late July, state media reported that China had equipped its warships with advanced generators to power high-energy weapons such as lasers and railguns. The exact type of the vessels was not disclosed, but it was widely believed to be the country’s most advanced destroyers, such as the Type 055 guided-missile destroyer.
A procurement notice published by China’s People’s Liberation Army in January showed that it could be developing the ability to attach a new laser weapon to its planes.
Although the detailed requirements for such equipment are unknown, it is likely to be a new type of tactical assault weapon, rather than laser guidance devices for missiles that are already widely in use.
Airborne laser pods would be mounted to Chinese warplanes such as the Shenyang J-15 “Flying Shark” carrier-based fighter, the J-20 “Mighty Dragon” heavy fighter, and support aircraft such as the Xian Y-20 heavy transport.
The development of laser weapons by the US and China has already resulted in confrontations.
In February, the US Navy said a Chinese warship fired a laser weapon at one of its surveillance aircraft. It published a post on Instagram warning the Chinese military that “you don’t want to play laser tag with us”.
This was not the first time the US had accused China of targeting its forces with laser weapons. In 2018, military officials warned pilots that a Chinese airbase in Djibouti may have targeted its planes with “military-grade laser beams”, which also caused a diplomatic protest.
Regulation of such weapons’ use has been in place for some time. In 1995, to help defuse potential future conflicts, the United Nations issued the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which came into force in July 1998. As of April 2018, the protocol had been agreed to by 108 nations.
The protocol prohibits use of laser weapons specifically designed – as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions – to cause permanent blindness.
More from South China Morning Post:
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- Chinese military: Rocket Force drills prepare for possible US nuclear weapons attack
This article Playing laser tag: US dominance and Chinese ambition point to new arms race first appeared on South China Morning Post