Saturday, November 12, 2016

A stealth drone carrying a laser? This sounds interesting.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, makers of the Predator and Reaper drones so beloved of the US armed forces, launched a jet-powered model back in 2009.  The Predator C, or 'Avenger', was developed as an internal company venture, using their own money, rather than being funded by the US government.  It had a rather shorter endurance than the earlier models, but was considerably faster, and had stealth features incorporated into its design. It offered an internal weapons bay with a capacity of up to 3,000 pounds of ordnance, which could also be used to carry a 'semi-submerged, wide-area surveillance pod'.

Avenger prototype (click the image for a larger view)

There have been few announcements about the Avenger since then.  It's been offered to the US Navy as a carrier-borne drone, the so-called 'Sea Avenger'.  One example was bought by the US Air Force for trials, and it's been suggested (but never proved) that several were bought by a three-letter-acronym agency of the US government for unspecified duties.  Your guess about that is as good as mine.

The very lack of information about Avenger is intriguing.  If the program were still being funded only out of corporate resources, it would surely have been dropped a long time ago, because such aircraft are very expensive to develop.  Therefore, the ongoing activity about it suggests that external funding is available;  and that, in turn, suggests some very high-powered interest in it.

This week, that was compounded by an announcement from General Atomics.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has announced completing first flight of an extended range Predator C Avenger on 27 October, which features wings extended by 3.2m to 23.2m (76ft).

The extended-range variant of the jet-powered Avenger has kept its 13.4m (44ft)-long fuselage and 1,360kg (3,000lb) payload bay, but GA-ASI also added about 1,000kg of fuel, extending the platform’s endurance from 15h to 20h.

. . .

Meanwhile, GA-ASI is investing [internal research and development] funds into the power, thermal management, beam control and beam director for a high energy laser weapon compatible with the Avenger. The company could begin integrating the laser package onto the platform by 2017.

There's more at the link.  Bold print is my emphasis.

This puts a whole new perspective on the Avenger program.  An extended-endurance model, carrying a laser?  Hmmm . . .  Dispatched from (for example) a South Korean or Japanese airfield, an Avenger is fast enough to reach a North Korean ballistic missile launch facility within a relatively short time.  Its stealth features would enable it to orbit without being detected (at least at night), and within laser range of the facility.  If North Korea were to launch a ballistic missile, the laser would be able to hit it during the initial boost phase, when it was still moving slowly and was a relatively easy target.  Even without a launch, the laser might be able to destroy critical infrastructure at the site, rendering it unusable.

Such a capability would effectively nullify North Korea's ability to strike other nations . . . and that's just the beginning of what such a weapons system could do.  How about launching it from a carrier, to shoot down incoming anti-ship missiles at long range?  How about sending it over the territory of an enemy state, to shoot down aircraft as they try to take off?  How about deploying it over the Persian Gulf to take care of 'swarming' missile- or gunboats, such as those deployed in the hundreds by Iran's Revolutionary Guard?  A laser can fire as often and as rapidly as its power supply allows, and isn't constrained by magazine capacity.  The possibilities are as extensive as the imagination of those deploying the Avenger.

I suspect that rather more than just 'internal' research and development funds are behind this program.  This will bear watching carefully.



Billll said...

Good applications, but why not visit the Norks the night before the launch and let them have an unexplained failure of the missile while it's still on the pad?

Likewise the Iranians although getting up in the morning and discovering lengthy burn marks in all their inflatables would probably give the game away.

Duke of URL VFM#391 said...

Could easily be launched from a Naval ship, too - that'd make defending even harder, as the direction of approach would be unpredictable.
"A laser can fire as often and as rapidly as its power supply allows, and isn't constrained by magazine capacity."
You forgot the necessary cooling time.

m4 said...

@Duke: Not familiar with the intricacies of laser weapons; which components need cooling and how hot do they run?

Anonymous said...

This is high-tech and cool, but it pisses me off that our politicians, etc. think it's their right to use weapons like this on other countries, just because those other countries aren't doing things to suit the politicians.

This is done in my name, but I get no say in the matter. Hordes of other people are thereby justifiably pissed off at me, as an American.

And the regular citizens wonder why we've been at war or in some kind of skirmish more than 90% of the time we've been a nation

Defending once we're attacked or we're in actual imminent danger of being attacked, even as far as "bombing them back to the stone age", is fine, if they asked for it by attacking us first.

Pre-emptive strikes, just because we can, are quite another.

- Charlie

Minecraft Chuck said...

Well, just as an example, our first foreign conflict, under President Jefferson, was with Muslim terrorists operating from safe bases.

Islam has been at war with the entire rest of the world for over 1400 years. It's rather silly and pathetic to not return the favor.

Will said...


heat generation and transfer to components is a major problem with lasers. No matter the type of laser, it gets hot, and an aircraft as small as that would have to dedicate a large percentage of its payload capacity to cooling systems to handle waste heat from a worthwhile laser system. Basically, consider a laser beam to be a heat/energy beam. I've been away from the industry for 20 years now, but the efficiency of energy in-to-out was about 20% in the best ones back then.
The type of energy output makes a difference in heat generation, also. Lots of variables to play with, including the type of target intended. I suspect they may go with different packages depending on the target. Fun to work with, along with being dangerous to the techs involved.
A friend designed a laser system to remove paint from Navy aircraft. It required the internal mirrors to be liquid cooled. That was just to handle the energy of a beam that vaporized a couple square inches of paint, and left the primer intact.

Jonathan H said...

The Air Force cancelled their airborne laser project (converted 747) for several reasons. One of them was that they had trouble hitting their target; a smaller aircraft like this would have even more trouble - unless the system has HUGE advances in capability, I doubt they will be trying to hit anything in flight.
I agree with the first poster - a system like this could be used to discretely cause damage and leaks to enemy infrastructure that would be 'deniable'. i.e. hard to trace the source - refinery or a missile on the pad could spring a leak, critical cooling system could shut down, an above ground wire could fail, etc.

Anonymous said...

> It had a rather shorter endurance than the earlier models, but was considerably faster ...

Turbojet engines are notoriously fuel-inefficient compared to piston engines, but for the same thrust they are much lighter -- and, if maintained properly, routine maintenance is rather less expensive.
Their main virtue is that they allow higher speeds and run well at higher altitudes (where drag is less and therefore fuel efficiency is less a problem.)

Think of this like many SR71s, but with weapons.

And to Charlie, get real. This isn't about bombing Angela Merkel, it's about providing sufficient disincentive to tyrants who have openly threatened the lives of Americans and/or our allies.

Ed McLeod

Anonymous said...

"It is good that war is so terrible; or we would come to love it too much."
Attributed to General Robert E. Lee

It's one of the real, lasting and on-going tragedies of the human species that, while there are, in fact, logically and morally justifiable wars - from the perspective of (sadly) sometimes BOTH sides, and often enough at least ONE side - the vast majority of wars among humans are observably neither logically nor morally justifiable, for at least one side and often enough for all directly-involved or even just instigating.

This is why, so often, we may hear that "War is merely the extension of diplomacy (i.e., politics) by other (and more-violent) means".

It is also the reason why, of course, that humans have both "arms races" and anti-war "movements".

"If you would have Peace, then prepare for War" and "The best Defense is a strong Offense" are therefore two of the most terrible truisms inherent - apparently - in the human condition...

(It always seems to me that, the more we seek to avoid the actual violent injury or death of human combatants in warfare - such as through the employment of drones and other longer- and longer-distance "standoff" weaponry - the more "inhuman" [and therefore, in some measure, inHUMANE] we are making combat, or "force projection" [to employ a favored - by some - euphemism for injuring, killing and/or destroying]...and the end-effect can easily-become [and often does] to make lethal, destructive combat more readily employable and therefore incrementally more likely to occur.

We make war "less terrible" - at least, on an immediate basis - and can [and too often DO] come to employ it too some measure, we "come to love it".)

J. S. Bridges
Wilmington, NC

RandyBeck said...

I love the idea, but wonder about a single-engine plane flying over enemy territory with that kind of advanced technology.

I'd hope it has a self-destruct device for the sensitive hardware.

Dan said...

This is another step in the direction of the Star Wars/Star Trek type weapons being sought to allow the US to stay ahead of the rest of the pack. Current laser technology allows for a laser to be put in a plane this size but it's not an extremely powerful laser. But you don't need a massive amount of power to cause a ballistic launch vehicle to fail. The key with the use of such devices is aiming and control. Lasers don't yet have enough power to destroy a target in a fraction of a second. They have to target a specific part of an incoming vehicle or missile long enough to heat the metal and penetrate it. That takes anywhere from a second or more to several depending on how thick the target exterior is. Still not an easy thing to do.

I would equate todays lasers that are being deployed militarily to
perhaps the level of military planes in early World War 1. Useful but limited.....but I expect they will evolve quickly. Within 50 years or perhaps less we will be seeing some real Buck Rogers type of
weapons being used in real world situation.

The key....the biggest obstacle, is power. Getting enough power out of a small enough source to make lasers truly feasible. We aren't there yet although we may be closer than some may think.

Phssthpok said...

Lemme guess...First test target will be a giant ball of raw popcorn wrapped in aluminum foil.

Wraith said...

Great. Drones with frickin' laser beams on their heads.