Will vehicle cannon become obsolete?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve published two articles about the increasing use of larger cannon aboard infantry fighting vehicles (IFV’s) and armored personnel carriers (APC’s):

There’s an impressive amount of effort being put into the development of such weapons.  Trouble is, on the horizon is another development that may make them all redundant.  I refer, of course, to the vehicle-mounted laser.

Lasers have been vehicle-mounted for some years already, but in low-power configurations that might take out a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at relatively close range.  They’ve grown steadily more capable in this role.  Last year, Raytheon demonstrated a 5KW laser that’s mounted on a militarized dune buggy (shown below).  It’s able to shoot down small UAV’s at ranges of up to 5,000 meters (just over 3 miles).

Larger, more powerful lasers have shot down mortar and artillery shells in flight.  This was achieved as long ago as 2002, albeit with a large, stationary laser that could not be vehicle-mounted.  By 2022, it’s expected that a 100KW laser will be fitted to an armored vehicle.  This will be powerful enough to engage almost any target at ranges up to 5 miles (obviously, the closer the better, in terms of energy transfer sufficient to destroy the target).  Its main limitation will be the guidance system, which will have to react fast enough to aim the weapon accurately at high-speed targets.  I daresay that by 2030, prototype weapons of ten times that power will be available;  and that’s enough to threaten anything within visual range.

Lasers have the potential to revolutionize vehicular combat weapons.

Lasers have many advantages over conventional projectile weapons. A laser moves at roughly the speed of light, or 186,000 miles per second. Unlike a missile, an accurate laser beam can’t be avoided. Lasers aren’t affected by strong winds and can’t be blown off target.

Laser weapons are invisible, operating at an optical wavelength the human eye cannot discern. They are also silent and unlike bullets and shells, do not produce miniature sonic booms. Unlike conventional weapons, which utilize a controlled explosion to generate energy, lasers have no recoil.

Lasers are also affordable. A single Griffin short-range missile costs at least $115,000. A shot from a laser costs usually costs less than a dollar, the price of the energy used. The actual laser system is more expensive … but expect the price tag to fall as they become more common.

There’s more at the link.

That being the case, there’s an argument that much of the current investment in heavier cannon for light armored vehicles may be misplaced.  I’m sure there’ll always be a need for cannon to do things a laser can’t – like shoot in arcing trajectories over hills and other obstacles, for example;  the laser can only shoot in a straight line – but for vehicle-versus-vehicle combat, I think the laser is going to reign supreme as soon as it can be made powerful enough, and given an adequate power supply.  There’s even talk of putting one aboard combat aircraft before long.

AFRL is leading a project to develop an experimental podded solid-state laser weapon for fighter jets under the Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program. The main goal there is to demonstrate a system that would be able to shoot down incoming missiles.

But if this arrangement works, it could provide a starting place for an offensive directed energy weapon. Such a system could theoretically work in both air-to-air and air-to-ground roles and could offer a host of advantages over more traditional guns, missiles, and bombs.

The inherent ability of a laser focus its beam narrowly on a particular point could improve overall accuracy and help limit collateral damage during air strikes, especially in constrained environments such as densely populated urban areas, which is itself an increasing topic of concern across the Pentagon. Depending on the exact nature of the power source, it could also offer an effectively “bottomless magazine,” allowing an aircraft to remain on station and armed for a protracted period of time, even after engaging multiple targets.

Again, more at the link.

The one aspect of a laser weapon that I haven’t seen mentioned in the literature (so far) is how to protect it against the effects of electromagnetic pulse (EMP).  They’re not new:  an EMP weapon was used in combat as early as 2003.  Here’s a 2013 video about a test of Boeing’s CHAMP EMP weapon.

On future battlefields, we can expect EMP to be used to disable enemy electronics and reduce their effectiveness.  (There are rumors that they’ve already been used by the USAF in Syria.)  Being electronic, I daresay a laser cannon will be susceptible to such attacks too.  Can it be insulated against them in some way?  Can its power supply and guidance systems also be protected?  That remains to be seen.  If it can’t be easily or fully protected, then the good old-fashioned cannon may still have a long and useful life ahead of it.



  1. Lasers are very susceptible to weather conditions. Fog, rain, dust all reduce their effectiveness significantly. Look to see near automatic smokescreen deployment against them.

  2. Where you say "By 2022, it's expected that a 100MW laser will be fitted to an armored vehicle" I think you meant 100 kw as in kilowatts. 100 mw on a ground vehicle would be impressive indeed!

    In regards to EMP, much, even most critical military electronics are EMP-hardened to a reasonable extent. That said, the EMP produced by a high-altitude nuclear detonation (those in the atmosphere produce no damaging EMP outside their radius of total destruction) is very different from a microwave beam weapon like that used in CHAMP. For one thing, the former is transient while the latter is continuous (in relative terms at least). However, it would take something much higher-energy than CHAMP's emitter to damage military electronics. If the beam energy is at a damaging level for the electronics in question, then my understanding is that the only means of protection is enclosing the relevant systems in a Faraday cage.

    Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) lasers in the 50 kw + range do have quite a bit of seeming utility against relatively soft targets. Humans aren't nearly as hard to track as a mortar round, movement wise, and we're easier to damage than the steel casing of an artillery shell.

    Laser range performance is limited by the minimum beam-waist at a given range, which determines the maximum beam intensity at that range. For ideal lasers the limit is diffraction, but for real high-energy lasers this is dominated by thermal distortion effects in the optics, among other things. Generally speaking, though, the beam waist goes up linearly with range, and thus intensity (power/area) goes down with the square of range, obviously an important fact.

    Nonetheless, the relative softness of human targets means that the anti-personnel range of a specific laser is still going to be significantly greater than it's anti-materiel range. There will be a range bracket above the anti-materiel range at which the primary effect will be inflicting 3rd degree burns and setting flammable materials (e.g. clothing) on fire, then one where synthetics melt but don't burn and skin suffers decreasingly severe burns, and so on.

    The above assumes a perfectly still atmosphere. Atmospheric distortions will cause the beam (and thus the illuminated spot) to wobble about at long range even though any credible weapons laser weapon will be using adaptive optics for stabilization, meaning that it will not be possible to keep the laser focused on one target at such ranges. This effect will be more pronounced the greater the range.

    Oh, and it's probably important to point out that weapons lasers are, and are probably going to stay, in the near-infrared frequency band in terms of the light they produce. There are a number of reasons for this that I'm not going to go into in this already substantial wall of text, but the upshot is that the beam is invisible.

    Jeff has already mentioned that laser performance can be degraded by bad weather and obscurants. This is true and largely unavoidable, though the latter is really only an issue against ground targets that are moving slow enough to remain shrouded by an obscurant while being targeted by the laser. Nevertheless, I think it implies that lasers will mainly continue to be specialized anti-drone, anti-aircraft, and C-RAM weapons for the foreseeable future, though with increasing utility against ground targets, rather than replacing guns (I suppose I had to get around to answering Peter's question eventually…). I hasten to add, however, that the fact that aircraft were limited to operating in only favorable weather conditions up through WWII hardly made them unimportant or impractical as weapons of war!

  3. Three months after you field a laser, the enemy will have a smoke screen system tuned to its wavelength in general deployment.

    Lasers do have recoil. Not to mention massive amounts of heat. Newton will not be ignored. And you have to have a power source capable of providing at least three times the power output.

    And the article mentions a 100 kilowatt system, not megawatts.

  4. Since the obscurants angle seems to be a focus point here, I think it's worth keeping in mind that they have their own limitations. For instance, wind dissipates them, you can't keep your ground forces swathed in a cloud of blinding smoke for the entire time they're operating and you won't always or even often know where the enemy's units are to do it to them either, they require planning and cooperation for large-scale use, such large-scale use helpfully highlight the location of your forces for targeting by the enemy's more conventional weapons (mainly thinking of artillery, here), and so on.

  5. In operations research, we identify a few pitfalls or cognitive traps that frequently come up when thinking about these kinds of issues:

    "The Fallacy of the Last Move"
    Hah! With the introduction of the super-whamodyne 3000 we shall have a decisive advantage over our enemies and nothing will be able to stand against us!

    "The Fallacy of the Second to Last Move"
    Feh! If we introduce the super-whamodyne 3000, the enemy will just counter it by introducing anti-whamodynes for all their forces, there's no point!

    The flaw in the first is easy to spot, the second maybe a little less so. The key to the fallacious nature of the argument is that it assumes that the introduction of anti-whamodynes is effortless and costless for the enemy vs. simply continuing as they are. The reality is that not only are such countermeasures not costless and effortless, but just as with maneuver forces in the field, intelligently taking the initiative forces the enemy to dance to your tune. There's also a tendency to assume that your opponent's intelligence is perfect with regards to the capabilities and limitations of your hardware and operating procedures.

  6. I read your commenter's inputs (above) and they all had very intelligent takes on the situation. For low intensity conflicts, artillery will be king of the battlefield. We need to include overhead air assets and directed JDAM 500lbs and 1000lbs snake and specialty yield bombs in that. Overhead artillery, directed from the ground is a thing to behold because they strike right where you designate. Danger close can creep even closer.

    Ever since combined arms evolved from unarticulated infantry, it's been the way to win. Adding lasers on vehicles is just one more aspect to that IMHO. I was speaking of the Battle of Hastings with my grandson and he wanted to know how William won.

    1. William brought combined arms – cavalry, infantry and archery/artillery to the contest when Harold only had a shield wall.

    2. Harold's troops were exhausted from the march to York (Stamford Bridge) where they fought a pitched battle and then back down the island to Hastings.

    3. William brought a Papal Bull, with a declaration that any who fought against him would be excommunicated and sent to hell. The Pope's flag flew next to his.

    4. William was supplied from the sea, Harold from the land but both had secure logistic trains (so long as the weather was calm).

    In that we see the same aspects of warfare prevalent today. Combined arms, morale and rested troops and political (PSYOPS) warfare.

    We could also use Caesar's campaigns in Gaul. Same dynamics. But I admit, the lasers are increasingly important.

  7. Fixed the KW/MW issue, thanks.

    I understand the negatives listed by many commenters above. However, those aren't enough to stop the US armed forces continuing to plan to introduce operational laser weapons as soon as possible. Clearly, they must have overcome at least some of those drawbacks, otherwise they wouldn't be working so hard to introduce a weapon of limited effectiveness. No-one's talking much about it, of course, but I suspect a combination of wavelength, focus, power, etc. can/has overcome many of the issues involved. I guess we'll see in due course.

  8. Peter, it's not so much about overcoming the drawbacks as the realization that they are increasingly outweighed by the advantages.

    This change has been made possible by tremendous advances in solid-state semiconductor laser technology over the last 20 years, advances which have exponentially increased the available power output for a given system weight and volume, and have increased the energy efficiencies from single-digit to double-digit percentages (and could realistically push it to near 50% in the foreseeable future).

    Solid-state and fiber lasers also lack many of the intrinsic drawbacks of other laser technologies, like consumption of large volumes of toxic chemicals. They can be much more easily made rugged enough for use in the field and it seems increasingly likely that they will be able to benefit from reductions in cost due to mass production (as much as any modern military article is "mass" produced).

    And, as you point out, power is expected to continue increasing into the hundreds of kw, at which point they become effective against cruise missiles and manned aircraft flying at low altitudes. Think of it a bit like a successor to systems like Gepard or the ZSU series radar-directed rapid-fire AA guns, one which doesn't need to lead the target, whose effects reach the target at the speed of light, and whose ammunition is energy produced from the fuel. This comes at the cost of doing less instantaneous damage and needing to "dwell" for a short time to do damage.

  9. And, to expand on what LL said, when people are shooting at you don't look up. 🙂

    For those who want an interesting take on Lasers At War, check out the Traveller game. Shipboard and vehicle lasers can be degraded in performance by sand, basically fine shiny particles, cheap sand (hense the name) being one of them. In an atmosphere, smoke and chaff dispensers fire automatically when guide lasers are on the target, and environmental conditions (as noted above) like smoke, haze, fog, rain, volcanic eruptions etc all degrade or stop laser fire.

    One of the things about lasers is they are all surface-strike, and are self-defeating unless pulsed or strobed at a specific rate. That's right, the very material being lased has an effect on the strike efficiency of the laser.

    Lasers are good for soft targets. Hard targets? Maybe when they do get to the mega-watt range. Maybe.

    Kinetic Energy Projectiles are still the best. And look to be the best, either railguns or chemically powered guns. If you can power a high-power laser, you can power a high-power rail gun. And that means you'll be able to fire a variety of projectiles out of said rail gun, at a variety of speeds needed to do the job.

    Now, if we listen to John Ringo and have a bunch of space-based solar mirror collectors acting like lasers….

  10. I'm thinking a mix of laser and projectile is going to be an optimal solution.

    The laser will do well against aviation targets and soft ground targets in clear weather. Various shielding methods will degrade performance if conditions favor them. The near infinite ammo supply is a big plus that no projectile weapon can surpass. The rail option does come close on ammo supply if the projectiles are small enough.

    The projectile option for the foreseeable future is going to be able to put more energy on target than laser and weather conditions or shielding do not have as much impact. Shielded, armored or even hiding behind a building targets need to be serviced with a lump of something.

    I put missiles in the "nothing better will fit on my vehicle" class. Better than nothing but training, cost and storage space are all downsides.

    EMP is a danger to any of these options, shielding is all well and good but as a last resort a manual, non-electronic aim and fire fallback option should not be left out, hard to do for all but conventional guns.

  11. The really nasty side-effect of battlefield lasers will be the large numbers of visually impaired soldiers and civilians as a result of incidental reflections of parts of the beam. Doesn't take much energy to damage an eye, BT;DT. The Russians have been firing lasers at our pilots for years now. Even low power lasers (alignment/aiming types) can cause vision problems that may last for minutes to days or weeks.

    Protective eyewear is available, but the filtering has to be designed for a specific wavelength(s), and the power density of a beam can still overload it.

    At some point, you will never again see active military types without protective glasses or goggles or face shields. Direct vision windows will vanish from military vehicles and buildings.

    This will be a gamechanger for insurgencies, I suspect. If you can't afford, or acquire, the protective gear, you have a major problem.

  12. My first assignment in the AF was the AF Weapons Lab. From there I was sent to missiles, and later, one of my Deputy Missile Crew Commanders was assigned to AFWL. I stopped in to visit once, and he showed me a patch with a standing Cobra, hood fully flared, with a beam of light coming from its mouth. The legend on the patch was "Peace Thru Light".

  13. 30 years ago using magnetohydrodynamics we could make 5 MegawAtts burning fuel the size of a truck tire. Basically it was a solid state rocket that created a plasma that was converted into electricity. Unfortunately the end of the Cold War killed that research. STC Research was the company. Navy was interested.

  14. Reflectance will be valuable; those gizmos that dispense colored confetti can easily dispense reflective foil. Limited protection, certainly, but some degree of it nonetheless. Something for The Wizards to work on.

    As costs fall the probability of air-dropped automated anti-personnel or anti-vehicle lasers goes up; when they become cheap enough to be disposable one side – the one with enough money to do it – can litter the anticipated battlefield with them.

    Which means the OPFOR will have to find a way to target the human element; don't attack the laser, kill the human(s) who place or control them.

  15. High powered, reliable lasers have great potential for neutralizing the other emerging threat – drones. Drones are inherently fragile. Manned aircraft are good targets, too. And lasers don't need much lead on the target. (Take a look at the old science fiction game Ogre – there are no aircraft, and cruise missiles are shot at by everything they fly near. Laser towers give line of sight over trees and low hills.)

    Lasers can also be used with a fast scan capability to blind sensors, including but not limited to Mk I eyeball. CCDs are sensitive to overload, too.

    I wouldn't want to drive a fuel truck anywhere near an environment with weapons grade lasers.

    The naval use of lasers is coming. Large platforms with a huge generating capacity are ideal for such things, if they can deal with salt water around the emitters. And the standard (non-submarine) threats to ships are all flying things.

    Hmm. Do you actively seek engagements in storms? Weather degrades targeting, but would it degrade laser defenses even more?

  16. @Peter,I don't think any of the naysayers are saying that lasers aren't going to be useful,they are just disputing the idea that lasers will eliminate projectiles.

    lasers will kill drones they can detect within their line of sight, there are cases where they will be useful against other ground targets, but ground features will provide lots of blind spots

    stealthy, slow, high altitude drones are going to be hard to kill because they will be hard to detect, but once they are detected, will die instantly. This may greatly limit high speed manned jets (note, there is a treaty against blinding pilots, I expect that to go by the wayside early in the next war, in practice if not in theory)

    Helicopters will also be pretty vulnerable, but only within a line of sight. This may really hurt their use as weapon platforms, but could still be useful as troop transports (just like trucks are useful as troop transports,even though they re vulnerable to many weapons)

    I think that the air-to-ground possibilities are going to end up being pretty interesting as well.

    Remember, radar can be pinpointed at a much longer distance than it can get a return, and ground targets tend to be near roads most of the time. A high altitude weapons platform could visually search for a target (possibly even through the laser optics) and then shoot at it. Searching the ground is easier in many ways than searching the sky (again, assuming the aerial target is quiet (to defeat audio sensors), slow (so no large IR footprint), stealthy (low radar return, especially compared to detect-ability of the transmitter), and camouflaged (making it harder to detect optically)).

    This seems like the makings of a sea-saw cat-and-mouse game where the offensive/defensive balance can swing back and forth rapidly.

    At sea, you don't have the problem of ground features, ranges are long, and power is readily available, so you will have a lot of adoption by the Navy. The Navy is also looking really hard at other energy powered weapons (particle beams, rail guns, etc)

    David Lang

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *