The word “warfare” summons images of bombs bursting in air, tanks rolling across scarred battlefields and the rat-a-tat of gunfire. But technological advances in warfare are making war invisible as tools like infrared lasers, fire control radars and cyberweapons are increasingly being deployed.
As these tools evolve, many conventional weapons are losing some of their punch. Rather than replacing such weapons, the evolving arsenal of invisible weapons enhances them and introduces new levels of complexity to warfare.
In the movies, lasers shoot colorful streams of light that can set distant objects aflame. Only the latter part is accurate. The infrared lasers used for military purposes are invisible but can actually heat up distant targets. A powerful laser can heat the explosive in an artillery shell to trigger an explosion or shoot down drones.
This isn’t some sci-fi vision, either. The U.S. Navy is currently fielding a laser weapons system in the Persian Gulf on the U.S.S. Ponce amphibious transport system. It’s considered to be the world’s first active laser weapon, according to CNN. Unlike bullets or missiles, precisely targeted laser beams travel at the speed of light.
That laser is designed to destroy small boats and aircraft. However, a new generation of Navy laser systems might be able to shoot down missiles.
Laser weapons of varying power levels are being developed for different missions and target sets in the air, on land or at sea. These devices can be installed on range of armored vehicles, naval vessels and even aircraft.
Fighting in the Electromagnetic Spectrum
While there’s nothing futuristic about radar — it has been used since World War II — the technology keeps improving. State-of-the-art modular radars enabled by gallium nitride semiconductor chips have far greater detection range compared to traditional systems and provide fire control for targeting enemy aircraft and missiles with interceptors. These radars precisely determine the target’s trajectory and its future position.
For fighter aircraft, the United States and its allies have begun employing fifth-generation active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar technology in combat. Two examples are Northrop Grumman’s APG-81 AESA for the F-35 and the TPS-80 Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar for the Marine Corps. For ground surveillance aircraft and other platforms, Northrop Grumman engineers have developed the Vanguard Radar, which can scale up in size and power by adding radar panels like building blocks.
Similarly, electronic warfare is a battle that takes place in the electromagnetic spectrum. Electronic weapons can be used to thwart and detect IED attacks, jam enemy communications — including radar — and take control of enemy drones.
The Joint Counter Radio-Controlled Improvised Explosive Device (RCIED) Electronic Warfare (JCREW) is one example of using electronic warfare to prevent IEDs from setting off. Soldiers have operated this software-programmable jammer, also developed by Northrop Grumman, in the field for many years, and it has saved countless lives. Electronic warfare systems carried by the EA-18G Growler emit powerful but invisible radio frequency energy to suppress enemy radar and communications sites, denying them the ability to target and shoot down friendly forces. The ALQ-131 pod can protect aircraft from radar-guided weapons.
At a smaller scale, microwave energy weapons that operate a lot like radar have been developed to fry electronic equipment using pulses of power. These high-powered microwave devices have been successfully tested against rows of computers and even flying drones.
Finally, because of technological advances in warfare, today’s battles are increasingly fought in cyberspace. Cyberwarfare encompasses everything from the widely reported Stuxnet attack against an Iranian uranium enrichment site to Russia’s takedown of Ukraine’s power grid. Often, the damage from such attacks degrades an opponent’s ability to operate and can also disrupt the economy.
According to The Guardian, Lloyd’s of London estimated that a successful hack against cloud computing services could cost as much as the cleanup for Hurricane Katrina. A cyberattack could lay the groundwork for a conventional invasion in some cases, as could an electromagnetic pulse attack. National Interest explained that in the U.S., a low-yield nuclear missile detonated at high altitude could take out 75 percent of the nation’s power.
Such invisible weapons can be just as scary as conventional ones and ultimately wreak more damage. Fighting them requires a new breed of soldiers who are just as comfortable in front of a computer terminal as behind a gun. That may not fit with the standard view of war heroics, but these days, taking down a cyberattack is becoming just as critical to victory as shooting down an enemy plane.