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US navy to battle Iranian mini-ekranoplan swarms with rayguns

Laser energy cannon vs 'stealth' WIG-ships

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The US military-industrial complex has unveiled its answer to the much-vaunted "swarm" tactics of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval forces, which might see squadrons of "stealth" flying boats and attack craft overwhelming the defences of US warships in the Persian Gulf. The US Navy will deal with this, apparently, using rapid-firing laser raygun cannons to sweep their swarming enemies from the seas and skies around them.

American weaponry megacorp Northrop Grumman says that shorebased testing of its Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD) blaster cannon have been successful, and the firm is confident that seagoing trials later this year will be a triumph. The high-power lasers used in the MLD are the same units developed under the earlier Joint High Power Solid State Laser programme, which were the first solid-state, electrically powered kit* to deliver a combat-strength 100 kilowatt war ray.

"Unlike commercial lasers that form the core of some laser systems intended for use at sea," sneers Northrop raygun honcho Dan Wildt, "MLD's power levels can be scaled to 100 kilowatts and beyond."

In a statement just released, the company goes on to add:

Northrop Grumman is developing MLD for the Office of Naval Research with a goal of demonstrating the readiness of solid-state laser weapon systems to begin transition to the fleet to engage targets that challenge current defensive systems such as swarms of enemy fast patrol boats.

"Swarm" tactics have been much discussed in Western naval circles in recent years, with particular reference to operations in the Persian Gulf against Iranian forces. The regular Iranian navy is not thought to offer much of a threat to powerful Western warships, and Iran is unlikely to procure a powerful new fleet along conventional lines.

But the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which has air and naval units as well as land ones, would like to be able to choke off the Gulf - and with it the flow of oil - nonetheless. In recent times, the Guard - known as the Pasdaran in Iran - has acquired large fleets of small, fast attack boats and other craft intended to swarm US naval task groups and saturate their defences. Surviving Parsdaran crews, once they reached close range, would then be able to cripple billion-dollar US warships designed for Cold War combat against the Soviet Navy, and so ultimately seize control of the Gulf.

Pasdaran commanders generally announce new purchases of these craft or exercises involving them with a good deal of bombast, as in the recent description of some new Bavar reconnaissance seaplanes - more than somewhat primitive in construction - as "stealth flying boats" (see the vid above).

In fairness to the Iranians, the "stealth" referred to here doesn't mean any serious design effort to make the craft absorb radar transmissions or reflect them away from the scanner, as a Western stealth aircraft does. Rather, the Bavar appears optimised for low flying very close to the sea surface, probably within ground effect much of the time (like the famous Soviet "ekranoplan" wing-in-ground effect - WIG - cruisers of yesteryear).

A Bavar zooming along almost in the water would be more difficult to pick out of the sea clutter for a US naval radar operator: though not really any more difficult than a regular speedboat, especially in the calm conditions it would require to fly so low. And a Bavar would tend to be detected by high-flying US radar aircraft long before it could get close enough to see/detect any US ships itself.

Whether swarm tactics would actually work remains open to debate. Some US wargames have indicated that they could be very effective: other studies suggest that the swarming waves of Pasdaran speedboats, WIGships etc would simply be slaughtered without any major effect on US and allied navies seeking to keep the Straits of Hormuz open and the oil flowing out to the West.

In any case, it all makes a good enough hook for Northrop to hang its new electro-laser technology on. One issue with swarm tactics is that US warships and aircraft might simply run out of missiles and gun ammunition before Iran ran out of attackers: but electric ray-cannons developed from the MLD, powered by the carrying vessel's generators, could potentially keep on blasting as long as the ship had fuel left.

According to Northrop, the MLD "burned through small boat sections" in tests conducted last month at the Potomac River Test Range, indicating that its performance over water is up to the job.

"This successful test series gives us confidence that we will be successful at the at sea demonstrator scheduled later this year," says Northrop bigwig Steve Hixson. ®

Bootnote

*Existing weapons such as the jumbo-jet-mounted Airborne Laser Testbed use chemically-fuelled gas lasers, which can develop much more power - in the range of several megawatts, reportedly - but are hugely cumbersome and can fire only a limited number of "shots" before requiring a complicated topping up with hazardous fuels.

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