A report on the new laser weapons being tested by the US, a Q&A with the man selling F35s and a makeover for the Malian army.
What do you do with a demotivated army laden with top brass and with a history of staging coups? If you are the head of the Malian armed forces, you have a makeover. Two years after the 2012 overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Touré, Mali’s army (Fama) has spent €2m on new boots, berets, bulletproof vests and uniforms for 44,000 soldiers. Colonel-Major Nouhoum Dabitao, who oversaw the move to a new look, says, “Nothing does more for cohesion than uniformity in dress. There will be no more orange T-shirts and flip-flops.” To cap the makeover, Fama has a new right-shoulder logo featuring the nation’s flag in a rising sun.
A host of high-energy laser (hel) weapons projects are coming to fruition, heralding a new dawn of lightspeed warfare. The US Navy is leading the way with engineers set to sign off testing of a 30kw laser weapon system by April, ahead of the world’s first overt operational hel deployment aboard the USS Ponce in the middle of the year. The Navy hopes the lasers will be able to blind spying electro-optical sensors, destroy drones or burn through the engines of a pirate skiff.
Both the US Air Force and the Army have their own laser weapons programmes in development already, with the Air Force due to begin using their new weapons by the end of the year; the Army programme won’t be ready until 2017.
This is a huge turnaround for laser weapons. When the US killed off the Boeing 747-mounted Airborne Laser project – designed to shoot down ballistic missiles mid-flight – in December 2011, many analysts thought that was the death knell for all laser projects but in reality it just refocused attention on more practical and less ambitious programmes.
Financial defence specialist IHS Jane’s DS Forecast projects US spending on hel weapons will soar from around $80m (€58.2m) in 2013 to just over $300m (€218.3m) by 2020. That may be small change by defence standards but it is significant for an entirely new and as-yet untried weapon technology.
Outside of the US, there are several live European projects, at least one in South Korea and there is rumoured to be a series of weapons ready for fielding in China. Israel’s Rafael revealed at the recent Singapore Airshow that it has conducted over 100 hitherto-classified c-ram (counter rocket, artillery, and mortar)tests of its own hel weapon known as Iron Beam. According to Rafael’s deputy general manager Senderovits Ezra, the system features on a cluster of 10kw lasers focused onto a spot the size of a coin.
Ezra points out that unlike costly missile-based defence, “with Iron Beam, each shot costs almost nothing and there are no real limits on the number of shots you can take”.
Concerns over Canada’s runaway military spending has prompted government officials to wrestle back control from the generals. All major purchases by the armed services will now be signed off by ministers from the departments of Public Works, Defence, Industry Canada and the Treasury Board. While some military analysts worry that the new system may prevent necessary spending, the move is welcome news for those frustrated with cost overruns and delays. An example is the suspended procurement of F-35 stealth aircraft to replace the country’s fleet of 1980s CF-18 fighters that could leave taxpayers with a CA$44bn (€28.8bn) bill.
Lockheed Martin’s fly-by-wire stealth fighter jet, the F-35, is a showpiece for technological advancement in combat aircraft as well as international cooperation. It’s also been beset by design issues, delays and cost overruns. Steve Over, Lockheed Martin’s director of international business development for the F-35 tells Monocle what to expect from it.
What is so special about the F-35?
On older aircraft the pilots control every individual sensor while flying and have to form a mental picture of the battlefield. With the F-35 we do that all with software so that the pilot can focus on making decisions. The pilot has almost a god-like perspective of the entire area around the aeroplane – for hundreds of miles in some cases. Then we data-link these aircraft together so when you send a group of four F-35s out to fight, they fight as a pack.
Has multi-national development been important?
All eight nations involved in the programme had a seat at the table with the US government, helping to establish requirements for the aircraft and managing it through development. That’s a first in the world. The US uses products such as the F-35 as tools for foreign policy, to establish and maintain relationships with foreign governments. That puts tremendous responsibility on our shoulders because they need an industrial partner that’s reliable.
What are the prospects for the programme?
We’ve sold more than 4,600 F-16s to 26 nations. The F-35 is intended to replace not only the F-16 but a variety of other fourth-generation platforms, so we see a market that’s even bigger than that.