The latest in a long line of technologies being developed for modern wars are laser weapons. The Americans began to plan for such technologies over 50 years ago, but conducted their first successful tests in 2009, even though the platform was so large that it needed a Boeing 747 aircraft to carry it. But despite USD 5 billion of investment, they cancelled the laser program in 2011. However, the US army also announced after breakthroughs, that a 50 Kw laser weapon, mounted atop the Stryker armoured vehicle, could be put in use by 2022, against threats from air.
This news came after announcements by the Russians that they have hypersonic gliders that can fly for long, taking a circuitous route; hence their targets would be hard to detect and can avoid missile defences.
Such hypersonic gliders have been tested since 1928 when German engineers had tested if the V-2 could also glide. German advances in rocket technology, it is said, were stolen by America and Russia, after World War II, who began testing hypersonic gliding in the 1950s. This was refined in their space race.
The US set aside USD 2.6 billion in its 2020 defence budget for hypersonic weapons to induct wedge-shaped gliders and even smaller, tactical systems of cheaper rockets to be launched from ships and aircraft. This is all a product of major research that was undertaken over the past decade in fluid dynamics, new materials (in the body of these objects) and their electronics cum guidance systems.
Even though much of the American nuclear arsenal is based on ICBM systems, their accuracy is around 120 m of ‘circular error of probability’. This is fine with nuclear bombs, but not quite for targeting ships or other specific objects like a house—with terrorists within. But with HGV (hypersonic gliding vehicles), things could be different.
And they could circumnavigate the globe—they’ll have a greater range than ICBMs, which fly straight from one point to another—and hit targets that even ICBMs are intended to, but without causing alarm that the US ICBM will cause to Russia or China, while it flies over either country. Moreover, gliders with longer ranges than ICBMs, needn’t be nuclear-tipped.
All this will, however, require even greater dependence on technology that would be semi-autonomous, as decisions would have to be made in double-quick time. And though the UN’s disarmament office suggests that the countries involved in this new arms race—the US, Russia and China, primarily—should exchange details of their ‘star wars’ tests, but none are keen to do so. Instead, their rivalries are on the rise and so is the race to induct more new technologies in their armouries.
Ironically, however, such new technologies could be useful in the psychological wars the big military powers play, but when it comes to the crunch in winning a war on the ground, the US has learnt once again in Afghanistan, as it learnt in Iraq and Syria, that technology per se, cannot help you win a war.
Blowing up your targets, which often lead to scores of innocent civilian casualties, maybe good for the optics as television screens flash those pictures, but those very televisions will not kind to big military power in retreat, as the US pulls back its troops from Afghanistan after a fruitless campaign of 19 years or more. The essential point is that ‘star wars’ technologies are as good for your military reputation as is the basic man-machine mix to win wars of the future.
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