US lasers? PLA preparing to raise its deflector shields

Chinese scientists say they have developed protective coatings that would render weapons like the US' ship-mounted laser useless in battle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 3:26am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 4:37am

Laser weapons like those developed by the United States pose little threat to the PLA - smog or no smog - because mainland researchers have pioneered coatings that can deflect beams and render them harmless, mainland scientists say.

PLA Navy Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong drew widespread ridicule last month when the National Defence University researcher suggested that China's thick smog provided the country's best defence against military lasers, like the gun the US Navy plans to deploy aboard a vessel in the Middle East this summer.

But scientists said such weapons represent a small advantage - even on clear, cloudless days - as coatings have been developed to turn away lasers or even reflect them back to their source.

The government has sponsored numerous research projects over the past two decades to develop such coatings, some of which may have already been applied in the field, according to public documents.

Thus, Chinese military researchers tend to regard the "game-changing" laser that the Pentagon plans to deploy on the USS Ponce as a paper tiger - more of a vanity project than a real concern.

Professor Huang Chenguang, a specialist in high-energy laser beams at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is involved in military research, said any laser, no matter how powerful or destructive, was still composed of light that could be deflected by various materials.

After extensive research, Chinese scientists can now manipulate the physical and chemical properties of anti-laser materials and precisely control the amount of reflection, or absorption, of lasers, Huang said.

Lasers, including laser weapons, concentrate high amounts of energy at sensitive spots on a target, such as missile's guidance system or an aircraft's engine. If most of that energy is reflected, the most powerful laser weapons could be as harmless as a torch.

But, Huang cautioned, there were still a number of uncertainties regarding the effectiveness of the Chinese-developed anti-laser technology.

Any artificial coating can only deal with certain kinds of lasers. If there is a significant mismatch, the beam could still burn through the coating and damage or destroy the target.

"Fortunately, we can usually make a good guess on the type of laser used by any system," Huang added. "Openly available information such as the system's size, power consumption, major components and laser generation methods can determine the nature of laser beams.

"Then, you just select the appropriate coating to fortify sensitive areas with an anti-laser shield."

While the US military and defence industry have promoted laser weapons for decades and recently had conducted visually impressive tests, China has quietly developed its own cutting edge protective coatings. The theory is that - in laser warfare, at least - "a shield" was much less expensive to develop than "a spear", Huang said.

Research papers published in mainland academic journals show that government scientists have employed various materials to make anti-laser coatings.

Low-cost metals, rare earths, carbon fibre, silver and even diamonds had been processed to fine sheens and tested against various types of destructive lasers.

Researchers in many of the papers say they have closely monitored laser developments in the West, especially in the US, and their coating technology has been tailored to counter specific weapon systems.

Many of the nation's top research institutes and universities have been involved in anti-laser research, including Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Xian Jiaotong University, the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics, the Harbin Institute of Technology and the Naval Aeronautical Engineering Institute of the People's Liberation Army.

Although most research teams declined to be interviewed due to the sensitivity of the subject, one scientist said China still lagged behind the US in laser weaponry due to technological bottlenecks such as energy generation and storage.

Firing a deadly laser beam from a warship, for instance, required a powerful generator and a battery or capacitor capable of storing and discharging such high energy rapidly, the researcher said.

"We can build a laser cannon but it will be of no use without enough 'ammunition'," he said. "The Chinese military is very pragmatic. They won't invest heavily in weapons that can't be deployed in a decade or two."