What is scarier than an Apache attack helicopter? One with a laser weapon strapped to its stub wings. Special Operations Command and the US Army is slated to test just that this summer in an effort to see how such a weapon could be integrated onto the world’s deadliest attack helicopter.
Raytheon is currently working with the Army’s Apache program office to develop the podded laser for testing. According to National Defense Magazine, Colonel John Vannoy, who heads Special Operations Command’s rotary wing program office, said the following at a recent industry conference concerning this new “Laser Apache” initiative:
“There is absolutely a niche I believe for use of directed energy weapons… The lens we are looking at this through right now is: ‘Is it feasible to do this?’ We’re not at the point where we’ve laid out a business case to advance it… We really want to understand the environment on the wing, the beam quality we can get off the wing and the ability to beam steer and keep power on a target.”
Now that solid-state lasers are shrinking drastically in size and increasing in power, they're a great match for rotary-wing aircraft. Attack helicopters typically fight close to their targets—a good thing considering the current energy and atmospheric dispersion limitations of laser weaponry—and they offer a stable platform from which to fire lasers.
Modern attack helicopters are all about precision engagement capabilities. Unless you want a fairly large explosion that will obliterate a small building or a few vehicles, the best weapons available to Apache crews are the helicopter’s 30mm cannon and the recent addition of laser-guided rockets. Yet even these surgical weapons, with their highly-localized effects on the battlefield, still use high-explosives to make a big bang; if you want to be extremely precise with almost no chance of collateral damage, lasers are the way to go.
If you want a tactical aircraft fighting in a combat zone to destroy a piece of equipment, like a power generator, but without destroying the structure it's attached to, or to disable a vehicle without killing anyone standing around it, you're out of luck unless you have a laser. With this in mind, there's a clear and highly relevant requirement for a weapon that can accomplish such feats, a requirement as yet unfulfilled.
Special Operations Command is already all over the great laser revolution. They're already working on fielding a laser weapon, operationally, aboard an AC-130 gunship by the turn of the decade, a move that will give the lumbering, cannon-shell-slinging aircraft the ability to engage targets with almost no chance of causing harm to anything, or anyone, but its intended target.
Again, think about the ability to target a small group of individuals, or even a single individual, on a street without hurting other innocent bystanders going about their business just yards away. Being cooked by an invisible laser beam over the span of a few seconds would be a pretty nasty way for even a bad guy to go, but at least those close by would not have to be sacrificed in the process.
If the “Laser Apache” concept proves to be workable this summer, the Army could move rapidly to procure an operational laser weapon system for its Apache fleet. At the very least, SOCOM could even push the capability forward on its own. But really, if these tests are a success, it could open up a whole new avenue for “plug-and-play” laser weaponry—one where the capability, in a modular form, could be applied to a wide array of helicopters and unmanned systems. And that's a very exciting—or ridiculously terrifying—thought. It all depends on which side of the laser you're on.
Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com