Captain Kirk and Darth Vader may have used them on the silver screen, but the US Navy is working to make death rays a deadly reality in its bid to develop energy and electric weapons. By Ashwin Tombat.
Death rays, phasers, photon torpedoes and lasers that instantaneously vaporise the enemy; we've seen them all, in films and on TV serials like Star Trek. But science fiction may soon become fact.
The US Navy has a 'Directed Energy and Electric Weapons Program Office' that plans to develop a range of energy and electric weapons, including electromagnetic (EM) rail guns, high-energy lasers (HELs) and high-power microwaves, in the not-too-distant future.
In fact a little-known company called Envisioneering Inc, in Alexandria, Virginia, has received a sole source $9.2 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract on an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity basis, for systems analysis, system-component design and development, system test and evaluation, data collection and analysis in support of the programme.
While over 90 per cent of the work will be done at Envisioneering's laboratories in King George, Virginia, 8 per cent will go to its other facilities; 6 per cent to Kauai, Hawaii, and 2 per cent to Kirkland, Washington. The project is expected to be complete only by July 2012. The contract was not competitively procured, as Envisioneering is the only firm with the knowledge and technical capability for the job.
Started in 1982 by a war veteran, the company has 160 employees spread over eight locations in four states in the US. Envisioneering says it specialises in countermeasures, directed energy technologies, photonics, electronic sensors and systems, modelling, simulation and analysis, systems development and integration, test planning and support, laboratory and facility operations, defense and homeland security, and force protection.
Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm Jay Cohen had told defence publication Jane's in June 2003, that these futuristic 'speed of light' energy guns and 'electric-enabled' weapons will be able to fundamentally change the nature of war, both on land and from the sea.
Several different streams of research, development and engineering come together in these daring new technologies of war that the Bush administration feels will enable the US military to "leap a generation" of weapons. That is why it set up the Naval Directed Energy Weapons Program Office in 2002, to oversee the development of electric weapons.
Later that year, the programme was expanded to include EM rail guns, when the programme was renamed the 'Navy Electric Weapons Office' and later, the 'Naval Directed Energy and Electric Weapons Program Office'.
Directed energy weapons (DEWs) include lasers, microwave radiation emitters and particle beam accelerators. While conventional weapons rely on kinetic and/or chemical (explosive) energy to destroy the target, DEWs direct large, concentrated doses of energy - photons or particles travelling at or near the speed of light (about 300,000 km per second) - towards targets to destroy them.
Because a DEW beam can travel great distances almost instantly, the complex job of tracking the movement of targets so as to accurately intercept them becomes almost redundant. The target's chances of evading the beam are also much smaller.
DEWs have the potential for revolutionising warships; there is no longer any need for explosives on board. Instead of magazines, war vessels will have to accommodate the wherewithal to generate the huge bursts of energy that the new weapons will require. The impact on naval warfare will be huge.
The US Navy is already preparing for this. It has decided to install integrated power systems (IPS) and integrated electric drive in its next class of warships, dubbed DD(X).
And while the Navy may be the first frontier, the air force is bound to be next in line. Most interesting, how long will it be before the first handheld energy weapons are developed? Fact has a way of catching up with fiction…