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Lasers, Rail Guns, and Atomic Battleships Might Be the Future of Warfare

The military in the US and elsewhere is looking to develop hardware that might cost a lot to build but then is very cheap to operate.

by Ryan Faith
Jul 18 2014, 6:00pm

Photo via General Dynamics

Lasers are still the subject of a lot of military interest and development in the US, and elsewhere, according to a recent article in National Defense Magazine. The report correctly points out that the proliferation of relatively cheap missiles and drones — which are normally countered by expensive, high-capability missiles — creates a potential attrition threat.

This means that attackers can saturate defenses by simply launching enough cheap(ish) drones and missiles to overwhelm fairly expensive and limited numbers of defenders. This is not too different from the situation between Gaza and Israel, where the question is becoming whether a Hamas rocket is, relatively speaking, much more or less expensive that the Israeli countermeasure.

The cost-per-shot of rail guns is low, meaning that the navy would be able to shoot a lot and not break the bank.

Lasers offer a way out of this. While expensive systems to build and develop, they then cost relatively little per shot to operate. This shifts the cost burden back over to the other side of the table, meaning that the defenses can much more easily saturate the incoming attack. Rather than expensive missiles, the relevant consumable for lasers is energy, and naval vessels can be designed to produce a lot of power. For example, the recently launched but not yet operational DDG-1000 destroyer is designed to generate electrical power to run the entire ship, rather than treating electrical and motive power as separate.

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The interesting counterpart to lasers are the high-energy rail guns (and electromagnetic guns in general) currently under development. These systems use a big burst of electrical power to move a projectile to insane speeds, giving them a long range and the ability to put a lot of destructive kinetic energy on target. Like lasers, there’s a substantial R&D cost involved, but the operational cost-per-shot is low, meaning that the US Navy would be able to shoot a lot and not break the bank.

These three trends coming together could mean that the pendulum that shifted from away from battleships towards aircraft carriers in World War II is now swinging back again, reintroducing the age of dreadnoughts. If this is the way things will be going, listen for increased chatter about revisiting the idea of major nuclear-powered surface combatants.

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Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Image via US Navy

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