The New Navy: "Luke, Use the Force!"

Rail gun
Photo courtesy of Defense Dept./U.S. Navy

The New Navy: "Luke, Use the Force"
| Published February 18, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The computers, smartphones and handheld technologies of our lives have already taken us to the edge of science fiction and beyond. What were mere fantasies decades ago—the staples found in Star Wars and Star Trek—are now realities thanks to digital technology and smart applications, and we hardly give them a second thought.

But now the United States military is testing new weapons systems that take us past the edge of sci-fi and into a decidedly new era of military conflict.

Even as you read this article, the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines are in the flight test phase for the F-35, a stealth fighter which—among its other amazing attributes—can see (literally) in all directions, is largely invisible to radar, can stop midair on a dime, hover and land like a helicopter, accepts specific voice commands, and comes with a cutting edge computer system which will allow aviators to see digital images projected on cockpit surface areas and inside a specially designed visor.

Did you happen to see the movie Oblivion with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman? Well, something like that flying machine, only without the annoying voice of that woman with the faux Savannah, Georgia pecan pie accent.

The F-35 is also equipped for vertical takeoffs, a function the Marines see as a key attribute, and short-runway carrier take-offs, which is the Navy’s preference. A top-secret helmet and visor, which will be specially fitted and customized for each pilot, will enable the aviator to have a 360 degree, spherical field of vision using image receptors built into the skin of the plane’s fuselage, wings and tail. In addition, the plane's hyper-sensitive omni-directional mapping hardware will increase tenfold a pilot's ability to detect an incoming missile or an approaching enemy fighter.

And though its development and construction has been plagued by cost overruns and lots of missed deadlines—the F-35 “Lightning II” will be the most expensive weapons system ever deployed by any nation—the high tech fighter plane, sans bugs and snafus, is expected to be finally rolling off the Lockheed Martin assembly line at a regular pace by the middle of next year, with hundreds already on order by the Pentagon.

The F-35 is so advanced, and so well-designed for future retro-fittings for as-yet-undeveloped applications and technologies, that some in the military believe that its basic design and deployment may last for fifty years or more.  Which means that the F-35 stops just short of being Luke Skywalker's X-wing fighter.

But exotic high technology is not limited to aviation.

Later this year, probably in July, the U. S. Navy will test a laser weapon on a vessel at sea. The laser has already been developed, tested and re-tested in the lab, as it were, in controlled, land-based facilities. But this year’s at-sea testing will demonstrate the laser’s full potential. The device can be operated by one individual at a single control panel, and can be used to instantly disable an approaching aircraft, drone, rocket or speedboat.

Its biggest advantage, according to the military, is that unlike guns, which can run out of ordnance, the laser can be fired for an indefinite length of time. The laser can also be fired with extreme precision, meaning it can quickly disable, say, a speedboat carrying explosives, at a great distance and with incredible accuracy. An unlike the laser-pointers now in the news for their widespread use in classrooms and boardrooms (and as an annoyance and threat to commercial airline pilots), the Navy’s laser—a narrow particle beam accelerator with a lethal punch—is largely invisible.

The Navy’s new laser weapon is not a toy with which to torment your cat, nor is this Obi Wan Kenobi's light saber.

But the dazzling weapons don’t end with that.

Sometime in late 2015 or mid-2016, the Navy also plans to sea test an electromagnetic railgun—a weapon which can effortlessly hurl an inert projectile at speeds exceeding six times the speed of sound. At sea level, and depending on air temperature, that’s approximately 4566 miles per hour (7350 km/hr).

At that mind-bending speed, a relatively light, non-explosive projectile (read: inexpensive) becomes lethal, and can disable or destroy an incoming rocket, drone or aircraft from a great distance. In the end this reduces cost and also increases the effectiveness of the weapon.

The electromagnetic railguns have already been field tested on land, and the Navy envisions a program in which rail guns can replace conventional heavy guns on most ships within the next 20 years. Some military analysts say that the only thing constraining their deployment has been the enormous amount of electricity required to charge and fire the gun, a problem the Navy plans to have resolved within the next 18 months or so. Many future destroyers will be equipped with on board generating stations designed primary to power the railguns.

All three weapons systems—the F-35, the laser and the electromagnetic railgun—are seen by the Pentagon as essential, proactive tools for fighting “the next war,” which is the polite military euphemism for theoretical match-ups not against Libya, Iraq, Syria or Venezuela, but against the superpowers China and Russia. And because of the surgical precision and purported accuracy of such weapons, they may also be deployed against terror threats and against rogue states like North Korea or Iran, whose potentially sudden and unpredictable moves may trigger regional crises.

Not everyone in the U.S. is on board with all of these weapons systems. The cost of the F-35 has escalated far beyond its original estimates and has now become famously pricey. In an interview with CBS’s David Martin on “60 Minutes,” the Pentagon’s weapons evaluator and buyer called the F-35 program “acquisition malpractice,” and suggested that the project had been badly mismanaged from the start. The special helmet, for example, have cost about $500,000 apiece, and may yet go up in cost by the time the military completes all flight testing.

Then there are the moral and ethical questions, a persistent condition when newer technologies enter the battlefield, even theoretical scenarios: would such high powered, nimble weapons not be prone to mishaps or malfunctions? How safe is a lethal laser weapon if it can be easily operated from a computer workstation by a single sailor? And would not ordnance fired at 4566 MPH pose an obvious risk if triggered by mistake, meaning there would be no time to abort, or hit the self-destruct button? And in a time of great unemployment, underemployment and economic struggle, is it sensible to make a priority of an advanced jet fighter program that has cost more than than it cost the U.S. to send twelve men to the moon.

But there is political support from both Democrats and Republicans who point out that China and Russia may already be working on similar weapons programs even now. And the Pentagon chiefs, along with a lot of flight test officers, nevertheless hold to the opinion that the F-35 and its dazzling advances make the program essential—warts and all. Once debugged, the plane is expected to perform as advertised and revolutionize air combat—with a distinct advantage for American aviators.