Marines Request ‘Long-Range Blow Torch’ for Iraq;
Seek ‘Psychological’ Edge by Roasting Foes with Laser
By Sharon Weinberger
Exactly one year ago today, the First Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq signed off on an “urgent operational need” for an airborne tactical laser that could, in the words of the formal request, create “instantaneous burst-combustion of insurgent clothing, a rapid death through violent trauma, and more probably a morbid combination of both.”
Although the request is based on the technology of the Advanced Tactical Laser, a chemical laser integrated on an AC-130 gunship, the request suggests that a laser weapon could eventually be put on other aircraft, such as drones or, as the picture shows, the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor craft. (Photoshop can quickly solve all engineering challenges.)
According to the Marines’ laser request, obtained by DANGER ROOM, this so-called Precision Airborne Standoff Directed Energy Weapon (PASDEW) wouldn’t just be an improved killed machine. It would also have particularly devastating psychological effects. Such weapons, when used against people, “can be compared to long range blow torches or precision flame throwers, with corresponding psychological advantages for [Coalition Forces] CF.”
In other words, the lasers don’t just kill people, but they kill people in really gruesome, frightening ways — particularly because the beam from such weapons, like the Advanced Tactical Laser, is invisible to the human eye. That means you could have three guys standing around, and one of them suddenly burst into flames.
For context, this is one of a multitude of requests for high-tech (and sometimes sci-fi tech) that came out of 1 MEF. Other requests included exoskeletons, self-aware robots, and, of course, the now popular Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Marines don’t yet have this incredible capability.
If the Marines could have such a weapon, however, what would be the big deal? In other words, why not just use an old-fashioned gunship to take them out? Well, for one, lasers are more precise. And as this request notes, the sort of sudden, nasty death that a laser would cause has certain advantages for the U.S. military:
A precision engagement of a PID insurgent by a DEW will be a highly surgical and impressively violent event. Target effects will include instantaneous burst-combustion of insurgent clothing, a rapid death through violent trauma, and more probably a morbid combination of both. It is estimated that the aftermath of a sub-second engagement by PASDEW will also be an observable event leaving an impression of of terrifyingly precise CF attribution in the minds of all witnesses.The PASDEW capability will give CF an asymmetric psychological edge over the insurgency. It is a lethal capability they cannot readily counter and will not fully comprehend, particularly as the DEW is invisible to the unaided eye and the aircraft can engage from significant stand off. For all witnesses, it will be perceived that overt insurgency participation in the MNF-W AOR is less attractive due to the terrifying potential consequences.
Sounds nasty, right? But, I doubt there’s going to be videos of laser-induced exploding insurgents anytime soon. The Advanced Tactical laser, on which this request is based, hadn’t even reached battlefield-strength threshold of 100 kilowatts as of this summer (the exact number is considered classified). As one senior Air Force official told me earlier this year: “The laser’s not powerful enough to do very much. It’s not powerful enough to deliver the effects you need.”
Right now, the service regards it as a testbed. A good testbed, but still just a testbed.
When I interviewed a Boeing official earlier this year, I was told that the company wasn’t going to have the actual chemical laser integrated on the plane till the end of the year (they had been using a low-power proxy laser during beam control tests). Moreover, Boeing at the time noted that the military was concerned about forward basing a chemical laser. In other words, sending the laser to Iraq integrated on a C-130 (let alone the V-22 pictured above) is not likely to happen anytime soon.