Instead of missiles and cannons, the biggest threat to military aircraft may be lasers and microwave beams. Several nations are developing directed energy weapons (DEW) designed to destroy planes. missiles and drones.
This naturally raises the question of how can aircraft protect themselves from lasers. In the past, aircraft relied on speed and maneuverability to avoid kinetic weapons. But that’s tougher when evading energy beams traveling at the speed of light.
So, the U.S. Army is looking for cheap anti-DEW skin coatings that can be quickly and easily applied to fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and drones.
“With improved performance in both high energy lasers (HEL) and High Power Microwaves (HPM), the susceptibility of aircraft, their stores, weapons systems, and their sensors used in seekers or targeting systems could be seen as degraded in a warfighting environment when they encountering high power DEW effects,” according to the Army research solicitation, titled “Aircraft Survivability for Countering Directed Energy Weapon Threats (C- DEW).”
Current anti-DEW coatings tend to be ad hoc. “Existing protection solutions are often taken on a case by case basis, and not cost-effective or easily replicated/produced,” the Army said.
The Army sees paint and tape as viable defenses against high-energy weapons. “Recently, a focus on quick reaction, ‘fat fieldable’ solutions that utilize paints, ‘stick on’ coverings, or other applied coating methods have been growing in interest,” the solicitation noted.
The commercial sector may already have these solutions.
Look to the civilians
There are “many military requirements as well as commercial protection requirements for electromagnetic radiofrequency interference (EMI/RfI) shielding – such as electrical conductive tapes or electromagnetic paints used in reproduction industries,” the Army said.
“Therefore, innovations in thin, easy to apply, small, low-density (kg/cm3), with efficient ‘in field’ application for aircraft protection that has a commercial analog or that leverages similar EMI/RfI applications trade space is highly desirable,” it added.
In fact, the military could use commercial products as “an immediate solution while enhancements are co-developed and tested with the government resources.”
The solicitation lists specific requirements for anti-DEW coatings, including a price of less than $10,000 per application for aircraft such as the F-35 or UH-60. Applying the coating should take less than a day when applied by untrained crews in a hangar. The coating should also function in temperatures above 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) and at minus 40 degrees Centigrade (minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit).
Countering directed energy weapons is an urgent priority
Phase I of the project calls for designing coatings. Phase II will involve prototypes for testing, with Phase III going to low-rate initial production. Protecting aircraft against energy weapons also offers spin-offs for the civilian world, including telecommunications workers who work with lasers and microwaves, and who must currently use bulky and expensive protection.
The Army appears to be treating this project as urgent, and for good reason. The first Stryker armored vehicles armed with 50-kilowatt laser weapons will be fielded by the Army this year. Though designed to shoot down drones, missiles, and artillery shells, they can be used against manned aircraft. Israel has successfully tested its Iron Beam laser air defense system, while China is looking at airborne laser weapons that can be mounted on aircraft.
Lasers still have obstacles to overcome as practical weapons, including power consumption and cooling requirements. But they will inevitably appear on the battlefield within the next few years. And aircraft will need all the protection they can get.
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