DRDO’s next: Star Wars-like weapons

NEW DELHI: Move aside Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, DRDO is trying to develop its own set of Star Wars-like weapons. From laser dazzlers to control rioting crowds to high-powered lasers to destroy incoming missiles, DRDO is working on a slew of directed energy weapons (DEWs).

“Lasers are weapons of the future. We can, for instance, use laser
beams to shoot down an enemy missile in its boost or terminal phase,”
said DRDO’s Laser Science & Technology Centre (LASTEC) director
Anil Kumar Maini, talking to TOI on Monday.

Incidentally, DRDO chief V K Saraswat
himself has identified DEWs, along with space security, cyber-security
and hypersonic vehicles, as focus areas in the years ahead. ” LASTEC
has the mandate to develop DEWs for armed forces,” said DRDO’s chief
controller (electronics & computer sciences) R Sreehari Rao.

While conventional weapons use kinetic or chemical energy of missiles
or other projectiles to destroy targets, DEWs decimate them by
bombarding with subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves at the
speed of sound. Apart from the speed-of-light delivery, laser DEWs
cause minimal collateral damage.

DRDO, of course, often promises much more than it
can deliver. But even the defence ministry’s recent “technology
perspective and capability roadmap” identifies DEWs and ASAT
(anti-satellite) weapons as thrust areas over the next 15 years, as was
first reported by TOI.

The aim is to develop laser-based
weapons, deployed on airborne as well as seaborne platforms, which can
intercept missiles soon after they are launched towards India
in the boost phase itself. These will be part of the fledgling
ballistic missile defence system being currently developed by DRDO.

The US, incidentally, is already conducting tests of high-powered laser weapons on a modified 747 jumbo jet, the ALTB
(airborne laser testbed), which direct lethal amounts of directed
energy to destroy ballistic missiles during their boost phase.

It will, of course, take India several years to even conduct such
tests. For now, LASTEC is developing “a 25-kilowatt” laser system to
hit a missile during its terminal phase at a distance of 5-7 km. “All
you need is to heat the missile skin to 200-300 degree and the warhead
inside will detonate,” said Maini.

LASTEC is also working on a vehicle-mounted “gas dynamic laser-based DEW
system”, under project Aditya, which should be ready in three years.
“But Aditya is just a technology demonstrator to prove beam control
technology. Ultimately, we have to develop solid-state lasers,” said
Maini.

Even countries like US have now shifted their focus to
the more efficient, smaller and lighter solid-state laser DEWs since
chemical (dye and gas) lasers are dogged by size, weight and logistical
problems.

LASER POWER

Non-Lethal systems:

— Hand-held laser dazzler to disorient adversaries, without collateral damage. 50-metre range. Status: Ready.

— Crowd-control dazzlers mounted on vehicles to dispel rioting mobs. 250-metre range. Status: take 2 years more.

— Laser-based ordnance disposal system, which can be used to
neutralise IEDs and other explosives from a distance. Status: trials
begin in 18 months.

Lethal Systems:

— Air defence dazzlers to take on enemy aircraft and helicopters. 10-km range. Status: take 2 years more.

— 25-kilowatt laser systems to destroy missiles during their terminal phase. 5 to 7-km range. Status: take five years more.

— At least 100-kilowatt solid-state laser systems, mounted on aircraft
and ships, to destroy missiles in their boost phase itself. Status:
will take a decade.