We All Know EVs Save Money, But Electric Lasers Save Big, Big Money

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One of the great things about EVs is that they can save money. Nobody’s going to save money buying the highest-end EVs, obviously, but we’re to the point where budget EVs have a lower total cost of operation than comparable ICE Vehicles. Why? Because ICE vehicles need refilled with an expensive consumable liquid, while EVs can be recharged using cheap energy that can come from a variety of sources (fossil fuels, nuclear, renewables).

But, militaries around the world are finding that they’ve got an even bigger cost problem that can be fixed by going electric. High-end weapons that protect free people from terror attacks often use a very, very expensive consumable that can’t economically compete with what terror groups are throwing at them. But, going electric can turn this situation around and take the economic advantage away from terrorists.

Here’s a video from CNBC that explores the challenges of switching to electric lasers and the important benefits. (article continues after embedded video)

This new arms race to develop good, usable directed energy weapons (lasers and microwave emitters) has come at the cost of over $1 Billion annually. Why? Because they’re in bad shape when it comes to increasingly cheap but lethal threats, and western militaries need cheaper ways to stop them.

In the past, lasers haven’t been very strong. Laser pointers are common, and similar lasers have been used for targeting and lighting things up for decades. But, until very recently, they haven’t been powerful enough to actually burn things at a distance. Now that kilowatts of power can be used, lasers are powerful enough to do things like burn rockets and drones. This can overheat them, disorient their cameras and sensors, or directly destroy them.

Older laser designs have relied on chemical reactions instead of electric power. These designs were able to generate powerful laser beams, but they were bulky and expensive to operate. One program used a modified 747 “jumbo jet” to carry such a system into the sky, but it didn’t work out for any practical uses and the project was canceled.

But, newer solid state lasers just use electrical energy to create a laser for far cheaper. This basically gives them unlimited ammo to use against aerial threats, and for only a dollar or two per shot. Smaller lasers with about 100 kW of power are sufficient to deal with things like drones, but more powerful lasers will be needed in the future for larger threats.

Israel’s military will be among the first to field a defensive laser system, and the reasons for doing so are a good example of why militaries around the world are trying to do this. Basically, Israel’s population is constantly having inexpensive rockets, mortars, and missiles fired at them. This lead to the Iron Dome system of missile and rocket interceptors, but Iron Dome is extremely expensive to shoot. It doesn’t take long for an adversary to overwhelm both the system and the people funding it with cheaper and more plentiful rockets and drones.

But, being able to fire a cheap laser means that the system won’t cost 50x or more to fire than the threats heading toward cities. Instead of spending $50,000 to stop a cheap unguided rocket, a laser system called Iron Beam will be able to do it for cheaper than groups like Hamas or Hezbollah spend launching. It won’t be able to replace Iron Dome, but Iron Beam will at least be able to reduce the number of expensive launches that need to happen.

The United States uses systems like C-RAM to counter similar threats. C-RAM is basically a computer and radar-aimed 20mm cannon that fires a bunch of big bullets at the threat. But, C-RAM is expensive, as 20mm shells aren’t cheap. So, viable replacements that use a laser could save a lot of money there, too. The Navy has been testing a system called HELIOS to take out damaging threats and perform a cheaper point defense.

The Army and other branches are focusing on smaller lasers that fit on a vehicle and provide air defense. Savings happen for similar reasons, and testing has already been successful.

But, there’s still a big learning curve for the militaries of the world to climb. Only the first lasers are deployed on ships and vehicles, and there’s almost no real-world experience with them. By fielding these first units, militaries will figure out a lot more about how they work, what threats they’re the most effective against, and how they’re best used against those threats.

Another system that shows promise is high-powered microwaves. These are used for “drone zappers” and other systems that often interrupt electronics instead of going for physical destruction of the threat itself. There’s a lot of work left to do on those.

Why Drones Are Such A Big Part Of This Topic

As I’ve pointed out before, electric aviation is already here. Small electric drones are doing lots of life-saving work for cheap enough that it’s practical compared to aviation. But, with cheap operations to do good things comes cheap operations to do bad things.

For example, flat pack drones are now a thing. Instead of spending thousands of dollars and requiring a crew to carry, set up, and operate, militaries like those in Ukraine are doing this on the cheap with something akin to Ikea furniture, but from cardboard instead of wood.

These dirt cheap drones are able to carry several pounds of explosives over 75 miles, making them a super, duper cheap cruise missile. Firing a missile at these makes little sense because missiles cost tens of thousands of dollars, and this lets poorer militaries and terror groups deplete the expensive weapons high-end militaries use. And, the technology is only getting cheaper.

Even worse (especially if you’re Putin), these cheap aircraft have been going into Russia and busting up expensive fuel dumps, fighter jets, and other expensive things. They’re slow, but because they’re made from paper instead of metal, they’re able to evade detection and get in far without any opportunity to hit them.

Future wars are going to require a much more economic approach to dealing with these threats, and electrifying defense systems gives military leaders a real shot at making it happen.

Featured image by John Williams, United States Navy photo (public domain). The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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