09 March 2007

Wondering about a wonder weapon

Where does the line of Science Fiction and Science cross? Very hard to tell these days with things that had seemed extraordinary back just 30 years ago are now common place. You are reading this due to those advances and the world that developed was quite different than what we have, but we are still working on it. Back in those days the Soviet Union was the eternal threat and postulated to always be so... until it evaporated. But the legacy lives on and now a bit from the past comes to the forefront. In this day and age of WMD nightmares, we hear from the far off reaches about a new wonder weapon developed to combat the USSR that might disarm/suppress/damper nuclear devices.

Here is the pertinent quote from Endgame: The Blueprint for Victory in the War on Terror, by Thomas G. McInerney and Paul E. Vallely:

In Rowan Scarborough's book, Rumsfeld's War, it was revealed that the Israeli defense forces have eighty-two nuclear weapons as part of their nuclear deterrence force. In our research for this book, we discovered that a group of countries, led by Israel and the U.S., had been working since 1981 on a mega-secret project to develop and deploy a weapon system that can neutralize nuclear weapons. The highly advanced, space-deployable, BHB weapon system, code-named XXXBHB-BACAR-1318-I390MSCH, has extraordinary potential and is a key part of the West's deterrence strategy. For the past twenty-five years, the project and the scientists involved in it were kept in strict secrecy and their existence denied. The scientists rejected Nobel Physics prize and Nobel Peace prize nominations and have been repeatedly and deliberately the subject of intense military disinformation through the media in order to divert attention from their highly secretive work. In 1981, when CIA director William J. Casey signed onto the SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) — a missile defense shield against incoming nuclear warheads — he gave the green light for the technology's development for deterrence purposes and peaceful use only. Although we have only limited information, it appears that Iran's rapidly developing nuclear capabilities could be neutralized and rendered obsolete, as could the capabilities of other rogue countries.
Yes, nuclear devices neutralized!

And what was the outlook in 1984? Well, this is from the National Technical Information Service that Congress had look into things, and the most likely candidate is Directed Energy Weapons (DEW). Thus this report was generated: Directed Energy Missile Defense in Space NTIS order #PB84-210111. And from Section 10: Principal Judgements and Observations we get this conclusion:
4. In all cases, directed-energy weapons and other devices with the specifications needed for boost-phase intercept of ICBMs have not yet been built in the laboratory, much less in a form suitable for incorporation in a complete defense system. These devices include chemical lasers, excimer and free electron lasers, x-ray lasers, particle beams, lightweight high-velocity kinetic energy weapons, and microwave generators, together with tracking, aiming, and pointing mechanisms, power sources, and other essential accompaniments.

It is unknown whether or when devices with the required specifications can be built,
Further on the USMC put out a paper on Air Defense Tactical High Energy Laser MNS 95116DA and they wanted something to replace the system they had and looked at THEL for various reasons:
(b) TBMD. IHAWK is the only MAGTF system with any demonstrated capability against TBM attack. The IHAWK (Phase III) system is capable against a limited portion of the TBM threat set, specifically the shorter range ballistic missiles. Stinger based systems, MANPADS and Avenger, have no TBMD capability, and only limited counter CM capability. Although the Marine Corps is actively pursuing an aggressive TBMD program, current interim and near term solutions to TBMD are deficient in their ability to engage multiple TBM attacks, particularly when those attacks are combined with ABT attacks. Thus, the deficiency centers on the proper mix of AAW weapons to counter the ABT, which will allow the IHAWK or its replacement to concentrate its fires against the TBM threat. This deficiency is addressed through the fielding of an air defense, THEL weapon which will be capable of rapidly and effectively engaging the short and medium range/altitude air breathing threat, while IHAWK or its replacement system, is freed to focus on the TBMD mission. Although the projected far term solution for USMC TBM potentially will address this shortfall to some extent, the MAGTF will not possess the numbers and mix of AAW weapons which will be capable of simultaneously providing air defense for two MEFs.
For those in the Science Fiction realm they then looked at alternatives to the THEL:
b. Nondevelopmental. Several technical solutions may meet this need. Each of the services is pursuing laser technologies for specific applications ranging from target designation to target destruction. The U.S. Army initiatives in HEL technology most closely reflect the Marine Corps mission need. Additionally, technologies obtained from other DEW such as Charged Particle Beams (CPB) and Neutral Particle Beams (NPB) may be beneficial. It is anticipated that future technologies must achieve downsizing to meet amphibious and strategic lift requirements. There is strong potential for interservice and allied cooperation in the development and fielding of any HEL system. Specific laser technologies development which might be investigated center around tunable solid state lasers, semiconductor laser diodes, dye lasers, and linear/nonlinear optics.

c. Research and Development. Although the U.S. Army has pursued tactical laser development in support of the infantry for a number of years, efforts specifically targeted to air defense applications are of relatively recent development. Research and Development specialists from the U.S. Army Space and Strategic Defense Command (SSDC) are pursuing top level concepts and technical evaluations for a number of theater high energy laser systems. These systems can either be mounted on the M1086 standard U.S. Army Vehicle, or a M993 MLRS chassis. Laser alternatives being evaluated by the Army consist of HF/DF Chemical, Solid State, Free Electron, CO2 and Chemical Oxygen Iodine variants. U.S. Army developmental efforts show great promise as they meet, and in some cases exceed aspects of IHAWK missile system capabilities, while greatly exceeding the engagement rates of either the IHAWK (Phase III) or Patriot PAC 2 systems. The U.S. Navy has been investigating the use of ship based high energy lasers for anti-ship missile defense. Lasers considered to be most promising in this mission are primarily based on CO2 laser applications. The U.S. Air Force has focused its effort on development of airborne lasers systems for helicopter and fixed wing aircraft (707/747 airframes). New research and development efforts exploiting emerging technologies such as adapted optics, atmospheric compensation techniques and compensated thermal blooming, may be required to meet Marine Corps required range, altitude, fire rate parameters. The acquisition of CORPS SAM or similar air defense systems along with a high energy laser weapon could satisfy the deficiencies stated above. As mentioned above the Army RRAD concept employing advanced radar, gun systems (76MM) and smart projectiles (hit to kill) could potentially satisfy portions of stated MAA 32 deficiencies.
So in MAY 2004 the GAO looked at the progress made towards the Airborne Laser System, and the large costs and complexities of it. These have proven to be a bit more than expected in 1996, but that is standard for fielding a brand-new, untried system that does things that were, indeed, Science Fiction in the 1980's. Do note that this does *not* fall under the SDI folks, but USAF, so this is not a project nor program one would define as clandestine or secret or any such. The National Missile Defense budget has been putting in about $1B per year to R&D, according to GAO in 2000, which gets divvied up amongst all R&D projects. Thus, with so much being spent on interceptor types and software and controls and such, only a portion of this budget would be amenable towards looking at some things above and beyond the interceptors and THEL.

All of that takes us back to the US National Labs under the Dept. of Energy which, in turn, leads us to the JASON group, which does the review of all the National Labs work for National Security. This link at FAS gives some idea of what they have been up to in recent years. Most of these topics, ranging from aging to quantum computing are well known and not what one would call secret. The problem with modern day technology is that it is outstripping the ability to properly analyze how and if it can be integrated in to the Nation's Armed Forces. Civilians do not have the same problem with sustained operations and such, so the overhead and necessary foresight to move something from mere civilian realms and into the military is daunting. And due to the turnover of personnel at JASON, over time, difficult to sustain an ongoing program. Thus we are back at the US National Labs as the only place with continuity of operations and security for such work to be done. From their core competencies only comes a couple of places where they would fit:

Advanced Energy Technologies and End-Use Applications.
Nuclear Science and Technology.
Integrated Defense Science and Technology Competencies.
And each of those is not what I would call revolutionary, but evolutionary in outlook.

So, where does that leave us with this wonder weapon?

On the technology side from the 1984 list:
1) Chemical lasers - This is covered by the USAF Airborne Laser System. Purely evolutionary in concept and more engineering than science.

Excimer lasers - Known technology, used in LASIK surgery. These tend to be short range and have low penetration capability, so not what one would really want for a magic anti-nuclear weapon device.

Free electron lasers - Lovely, solid state devices that eat up energy like nobody's business. Now the Navy is looking at these as the DDX program may just have enough energy on-board to use these if they scale up well. That said distance and having to fire from the ocean's surface may limit the ability of even the X-Ray laser version to perform in anything save a point defense or, paradoxically, ship to orbit anti-satellite weapon.

4) X-ray lasers - Currently being looked at by
Lawrence Livermore National Labs amongst others. And recent advances point to a good 'tabletop' version that may be available for medical imaging, if the power source can be found for it.

Particle beams - This has long been sought as a means for armaments, as it uses sub-atomic particles (electrons or neutrons, typically) accelerated to near light speed and then sent on their merry way to cause havoc. The USAF has been looking at this since the early 1980's and would fit the bill for a 'magic nuclear bullet' on many levels. These, of course, eat up energy like nobody's business, too, but offer the ability to pre-saturate a nuclear warhead with neutrons and start off a miniature chain reaction at a distance. This would not necessarily cause detonation, but might cause heat and warping of the nuclear materials and bathe the entire triggering array of electronics in very hard radiation. Ensuring that the neutrons get through the exterior shell and casing of the weapon is another thing entirely, however.

6) Microwave generators - This is becoming a part of the
Active Denial System. As the microwaves get absorbed by the very surface layer of skin to heat it, anyone subjected to it gets the feeling that a blast furnace has opened in front of them, but no cellular damage is caused. Microwaves have also shown capability at knocking out un-hardened electronics, so has some utility there, too.

7) Plasma energy weapons - Here again the National Labs play a role and have been looking into this since
the mid-1990's. But no phased plasma rifles seem to have come of that yet, so the worries about Terminators can be put off for awhile yet.

Do note that all of these are
Directed-energy weapons of one sort or another, and to deliver energy to a target they must have that energy to *start with*. This is a huge problem as having a spare nuclear reactor to power one's weapons is still science fiction, although Mr. Bussard's concept for fusion may change that in the moderate to near future, but his research has been above board for decades. Then the phased plasma rifle will become, I am sure, used by hunters everywhere.

8) Lightweight high-velocity
kinetic energy weapons - These are *not* The Rods from God or, as Jerry Pournelle puts it, tungsten telephone poles as envisioned for Project THOR. From the description I am pretty sure that what we are talking about are small projectiles moved to a high speed, possibly via a rail gun. Until you get up to about half the speed of light, the old formula of Force = mass x acceleration still holds, and to get that force takes energy, which is in direct proportion to the size of the mass multiplied by its acceleration duration. In theory one should be able to get very small bits of magnetic substance moving at very high speeds, but getting from here to there on the technology has been a problem. Again the US Navy [ppt link] has been looking at this for large masses to replace cruise missiles and standard guns. Being able to get a large, GPS guided projectile 200 miles inland at Mach 5 would be a great boon to it. We are still a long way off to a reliable weapon, however.
That doesn't leave much beyond *other*, such as the Electroweak interaction. And since that linkage already gained a Nobel, there isn't much save trying to figure out the practical applications of it. That is still beyond high tech and still Science Fiction.

So, besides the science and technology end, what would the practical end of this entail?

First a program in the US Federal Government able to last 25 years as a Classified program. Now if it started in 1981 and was just stood up from scratch funds *then*, and was not planned for by the previous Administration, that leaves us with the complete change over of both the Legislative and Executive branches a couple of times. And with the high number of leaks and such going on, a program like this would surely have been stumbled upon by some blabbermouth, somewhere. Lets face it, when the National Labs have a problem of missing hard drives being left out in the open on copier machines, you have a problem. Perhaps one of the best programs for a short duration was the Stealth Fighter program, and even *that* had model kits coming out based on night-time observation of the craft itself some time before the aircraft was even acknowledged. Because it was kept totally to one design team, and segregated via budget, external controls and internal controls, it took a political slip of the tongue to bring it out into the open and then the actual need to lower pilot losses due to night crashes finally ended the secrecy. Similar happened to the SR-71. Mind you each of those had development to final product of less than a decade.

For this proposed weapon to be space based, it must reach down through the atmosphere, accurately target a nuclear device, disable it or otherwise render it less than functional. The choices are very, very limited on that. Lasers of all sorts have an attenuation problem with the inverse-square law of the beam spreading over a given distance. Particle beam weapons have that in spades as interaction with atoms along the way can disrupt the beam itself. Using X-ray lasers may help, but getting energy in to disrupt the on-board systems is problematical until tried and tested in real life. A MASER (microwave laser) might be more useful, in that regards. Still, no real work on Masers have been done as that technology got played out in the 1960's. Neutron based particle beam weapons would need a lot of energy to get any decent mass of neutrons up to the necessary speed so that when they got to the target they would still be effective once passing through the outer casings as those tend to slow neutrons due to atomic scale interactions. And anything that is in an underground or hardened facility will be immune to these things.

I have problems thinking of *any* branch of physics that has remained uninvestigated since 1981 openly, if it showed any promise whatsoever in these areas as there are useful civilian applications to all of them. And putting forth a branch of physics that was theoretical *then* would have put it through the mathematical wringer since then, if it is to be a substantiated part of the field. Peer review must go beyond JASON so that the entire physics community can rip into any new areas and ensure that they truly represent something, or if problems crop up that discredit the hypothesis being presented.

At this point it is up to the authors of such works to provide more than mere citation of attribution to non-technical individuals. What the technology *is* requires proof via demonstration to make it effective, unless it is so overwhelmingly simple that the mere simplicity of it keeps it from being recognized. And even then, it still needs to be shown so that it can be used as a diplomatic deterrent. And I fully doubt that this United States Government can keep *any* secret longer than a decade. Just look at all the loose-lip folks that have circulated through Congress and various Administrations over that period, and the confidence in any such claims drops very, very quickly. The burden of proof is in the demonstration, not the assertion, as you sooner or later are backed into a corner of 'put up, or shut up'.

And with nuclear devices, that could have a very high death toll attached to it.

No comments: