Doug Beason is Director of Threat Reduction (a job title you don’t see every day) at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He’s also a writer of speculative techno-thrillers. In The E-Bomb, he’s combined his two personae, peppering this factual analysis of directed energy (DE) weaponry with scenarios that read like future fiction – but many are current reality.
Beason takes us laypeople by the hand and introduces us to DE weapons – what they are, how they work – in language we can comprehend. He uses the model of a string held taut at both ends and then shaken. The slower moving, longer, oscillations are the friendly microwave and microchip we are all familiar with. DE, or laser beams, are faster moving, shorter, waves. The only real difference, Beason tells us, between your laser pointer and a laser weapon is power.
Lasers have been analyzed and defined by scientists for at least 100 years – no one person is credited with their discovery. Industry exploited laser technology so readily that we tend to take it for granted. The possibility of laser weapons has always been floating around, with sci-fi writers seeing its potential immediately, jumping the laser gun and leaving the lab guys to catch up. The trick to using DE for weaponry, according to Beason, is to “mature the technology from a neat science experiment into an engineering reality that…can be exploited by 19-year-old soldiers instead of geeky physicists.”
The testing that has been done to develop DE weaponry includes experimentation with “large spot human pain intolerability” (non-lethal anti-personnel lasers). These weapons cause a burning sensation in small patches of skin, initiating what is termed “Active Denial,” or a basic flight response. In other words, people feel pain, so they run away. This is a way of clearing an area without injuring the innocent. So far, AD weapons are not in current use, but the possible applications are a fantasy spin-off of the nightly news. Beason posits a scenario in which an embassy is being overrun by terrorists using women and children as human shields. An AD has the potential to target the bad guys, making them run without touching the good guys. Sounds good, though as with all such technology there are what are called “unknown unknowns” that may arise in future testing.
Other DE technologies looming on the horizon run the gamut from ARM (aerospace relay mirrors) used to redirect lasers by bouncing them off an airborne platform, greatly extending their range, to MTHEL (mobile tactical high-energy lasers) ray guns with attitude, for shooting down conventional short-range rockets and artillery.
The problem with DE weapons is not so different from the problem with all weapons. What if the enemy gets them first, makes them bigger? As soon as a weapons technology is spawned it carries within itself the seeds of a newer, more destructive weapons technology and so, as it seems, ad infinitum. The idea is to be the first kid on the block with the greatest strike capability or fastest defensive response time. That’s what keeps the sci-fact guys awake at night. Their goal is a revolution in military affairs (RMA) – the next mega-leap in technology that would change the rules of engagement as radically as did the invention of gun-powder.
Beason’s highly readable book points the way to that next giant step.