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Pentagon pundits demand sensible raygun research

Call for end to 'death ray myth'

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A Pentagon science-advisory panel's report on the near-term prospects for American raygun weapons has declared that energy-beam blasters would be pretty handy but difficult to make.

The document in question is titled Final Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Directed Energy Weapon Systems and Technology Applications, and was forwarded to the upper levels of the US defence department late last year. Now it is on the web for all to read.

The authors are certainly pretty free with the cold water.

Years of investment have not resulted in any operational systems... The lack of progress is a result of many factors from unexpected technological challenges to a lack of understanding of the costs and benefits... interest in such systems has declined over the years.

Well, you could've fooled us on that last one. But the Pentagon pundits do have some strong points on their side. As they point out, people have been predicting military lasers, particle beams, microwave pulse bombs etc for ever - indeed, radar was actually an unintended spinoff from a 1930s investigation into death rays.

The past six years, since the Board last looked at rayguns, haven't been good for the "directed energy community" (yes, there is one apparently). As the reports notes, the nuke-zapping jumbo jet being developed to blast enemy ICBMs as they soar from their silos has "slipped almost year for year". Tactical battlefield lasers and humongous ray-cannon emplacements for taking out enemy spacecraft have been binned. The US Army's FCS network/robot future force plan has had all its energy guns cancelled.

Bleak stuff for beam-weapon fanciers: but even the Board admits that some programmes are doing better. For instance, Boeing's new "Laser Gunship" is "undergoing user evaluation at the end of a successful concept demonstration". But it "is not a program of record" so that doesn't count.

So, what's the answer?

More accountants, seemingly; or at least more paperwork.

The most fundamental issue... is the need for cost/benefit analyses... The lack of cost/benefit analyses inhibits the effective use of currently programmed resources [ie, money]...

It seems that America - well, the Defence department - currently spends "approximately $1.1bn" pa on its various rayguns*, and the science board taskforce reckon this could surely produce something useful if it were focused on just a few specific jobs rather than a whole bunch of disparate efforts. And for goodness' sake, can we just have an end to people going on about rayguns, blasters, deadly energy beams etc.

A concerted education effort is needed to replace the 'death ray' myth of directed [energy] weapons with a comprehensive understanding of the potential benefits and limitations of low, medium and high power laser and high power microwave...

Huh. Killjoys. ®

*We particularly liked the sound of Adaptive Photonic Phase Locked Elements (APPLE). A nice bit of CUTNPASTE naming (Contrived Unsuitable Technical Names for Projects with Acronym as Sole Target of the Exercise).

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