A team of Chinese researchers claims to have developed a new laser system small enough to be deployed on a satellite. The device could inform the development of future weapons systems by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to one expert.
“This small but powerful laser is reportedly intended for communication,” said Paul Crespo, president of the Center for American Defense Studies. “It may not be best suited as a weapon, but a larger version certainly will be.”
The research team that created the laser said that it was not a weapon. An unnamed scientist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, however, also said that a larger version could be weaponized, according to a report by the South China Morning Post, which first covered the development.
A New Development and a New Threat
The new laser could be used in a multitude of roles, both civilian and military, ranging from everyday communications to target acquisition.
One of the parties that conducted the research, in fact, was the Shanghai Radio Equipment Research Institute (SRERI), a state-owned contractor that supplies the CCP’s space program. Scientists from the company previously published research into space-based target detection and surveillance technologies.
The potential for weaponization could spell trouble down the road, as the laser packs a powerful punch for its size.
The system can generate a 1-megawatt laser and fire 100 times per second continuously for half an hour while in space. It and its power source combined weigh just over three pounds, an achievement in laser miniaturization.
For comparison, a foray into laser technologies by the United States in the mid-2000s resulted in the development of the YAL-1, an aircraft-mounted laser system designed to shoot down missiles. That system produced a 1-megawatt laser and weighed roughly four tons.
Whereas the Chinese laser emits lightning-quick but weak pulses of light, however, the American system shot one long beam, hence why the Chinese system cannot incapacitate larger weapons such as missiles.
While the new laser is too small to seriously damage weapons systems, it does present a meaningful miniaturization of solid-state laser technology. This is important as size and weight considerations have consistently barred the widespread adoption of laser weapons by militaries throughout the world.
The new system is also important because it could easily be upscaled to work as a weapon. Crespo, who previously served as an officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that it would almost certainly be adopted by the Chinese military in the future.
“Everything the Chinese civilian sector does is dual-use,” Crespo said. “Of course [the laser] will be used in military applications.”
Dual-use refers to the capacity of a technology to fulfill both civilian and military uses. It is a core aspect of the CCP’s national strategy of military-civil fusion, which seeks to ensure that all developments in the civil sector also improve military technology.
To that end, laser systems are facing increasing scrutiny as a potential avenue for covert military development and have been targeted by U.S. sanctions against China. The U.S. Department of Commerce added several Chinese companies to its trade blacklist last year because of their role in driving “military modernization programs related to lasers.”
A key reason for this, according to Crespo, is that satellite-based lasers could give China an advantage in weaponizing outer space, which is increasingly viewed by defense and security experts as a warfighting domain.
It is for this reason that Crespo considers the CCP’s space program and associated technologies a threat.
“Space-based platforms could decide which superpower dominates space,” Crespo said. “And whoever dominates space could dominate earth.”
US Not Without Response
Despite an old military adage that lasers will always be a weapon of the future, the United States is not without response to the new Chinese technology.
The recently-passed National Defense Authorization Act authorized the research and development of new energy weapons for the purposes of missile defense, and several recently-developed military programs exist to provide the United States with directed energy weapons.
Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood, who serves as director of hypersonics, directed energy, space, and rapid acquisition for the Army, spoke about the issue during a conversation hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Jan. 12.
He described U.S. efforts as “a campaign of learning and experimentation,” and said that developing such systems was important as a cost-effective alternative to kinetic systems that require a projectile to be launched. He also explained that creating multiple technologies to fill different battlefield roles was essential.
“A high energy laser is designed to see a target, kill a target, and move to the next target,” Thurgood said.
High power microwaves, on the other hand, are different and designed “to kill swarms of things.”
Among the new developments in U.S. energy weapons is a recently awarded $18.6 million contract for the creation of a compact directed energy system designed to counter drones. The system will augment other Army technologies such as the 30 and 50-kilowatt systems which are typically mounted on strike vehicles and deployed in strike groups with more conventionally armed counterparts to enable, in Thugood’s words, “killing in layers.”
Notably, the Army will test a 300-kilowatt laser later this year, believed to be capable of taking down missiles in flight.
Similarly, the Navy has deployed prototype laser systems on some vessels, designed to defend against drones and other small craft. One ship, the USS Portland, conducted a successful shooting of a target drone in 2020, and again in 2021.
Thurgood stressed that there was a need for the United States military to invest heavily and broadly in such technologies, to cover a wide array of potential fighting scenarios.
“There is no perfect weapons system that works everywhere, all the time, in every environment,” Thurgood said.
To that end, he described directed energy weapons as “another arrow in the quiver,” to be combined with more conventional weapons.
“Giving multiple ways for soldiers to be successful on the battlefield is really the heart of the issue,” Thurgood said.
Relatedly, the U.S. Navy announced the creation of a new division on Jan. 10 that will focus solely on developing new high-power microwave directed-energy weapons. The division follows the December opening of a new Directed Energy Systems Integration Laboratory in California.
“The near-peer and actual peer adversarial threats faced by the Navy today are so stressing that if we don’t have facilities like this, we are simply not going to be able to keep pace,” said Vance Brahosky, deputy technical director for the naval surface warfare center in a press release.
“The directed energy and high-power microwave technology testing that can now be done in this facility will allow us to evaluate and field warfighting capabilities so that the Sailors and Marines on our ships can fight and win.”