What do you get when you cross racing cars and warships?
Combat lasers, apparently!
Dragonfire, the Royal Navy’s chosen Laser Directed Energy Weapon (LDEW) system, has been proposed for the next generation of defensive systems aboard warships (and, most likely, eventually for civilian ships as an anti-piracy measure), to defeat not only incoming anti-ship missiles, but drones and other potential dangers to life.
For decades, traditional defensive systems have had a layered approach with physical ‘kinetic’ countermeasures, involving interceptor aircraft, missile systems and Close-In Weapons Systems (CIWS), such as Phalanx, which fire hundreds of bullets at approaching missiles. The problem is, salvos of several missiles have to be fired at each incoming target to guarantee a hit, as some may malfunction, miss or be spoofed. Warning time is also critical, as countermeasures require ‘lead time’, not only to predict trajectories but to fire the appropriate missile or gun in time to destroy the threat before it gets too close. After all, even shrapnel can do damage (especially to personnel or exposed electronics gear, such as radio masts).
Enter the allure of direct energy weapons, such as lasers. With missiles costing thousands, potentially millions of dollars, per shot, firing a laser can be achieved for mere pennies. Even better, the beam will literally hit the target at the speed of light, making the entire process far more advantageous for saving lives. Being absent of an explosive warhead, these are also excellent tools for surgical warfare, able to target the outboard motor of a small pirate boat and essentially leave it dead in the water, utterly harmless, with no loss of life.
Ever since the Reagan administration, attempts have been made to gradually scale down the size of lasers and increase their power. The latter is especially vital for a functioning weapon system, as simple atmospheric effects can otherwise massively negate their effects. A laser is, after all, only an extremely powerful beam of light.
It’s only recently that the US Navy has succeeded in mounting such a device to a warship (ironically helmed by the suitably-named Captain Kirk). The United Kingdom, however, has been pursuing a different system for its own Royal Navy.
With energy demands being so critical (especially for a ship which may have to fire multiple systems simultaneously to stave off attacks from multiple different angles), the Ministry of Defence saw obvious uses for the Flywheel Energy Storage System (FESS) developed by the Williams F1 racing team and offered to them for defence purposes.
Further efforts in exploring this technology are ongoing and likely to produce additional benefits for power generation. While the advent of drone technology and ‘swarming’ tactics exploited by modern-day pirates (and, more recently, by Iran and China) have created new dangers on the high seas, it’s hoped that countermeasures such as Dragonfire will help to blunt these efforts and provide much-needed security options.
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