Human ingenuity knows no limitations. It has taken us from the ocean’s deepest depths to the highest mountain peaks and then beyond. With sticks and stones, we exterminated the megafauna from most of the world. With syringes and pills, we killed things we couldn’t even see or knew existed a century before. Forty-two years after the first manned flight, we dropped an atomic bomb from an airplane, killing 80,000 people in the blink of an eye.
This essay is dedicated to the technologies of death, what has been, what is, and what will come.
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” – Krishna
Nuclear weapons derive their power from nuclear reactions such as fission, as in fission bombs or fusion, as in fusion bombs, or from a combination of fission and fusion, as in thermonuclear bombs. Both types of bombs can release large amounts of energy from relatively small quantities of matter. For example, the first fission bomb, which was informally named the Gadget, released an amount of energy equal to 20,000 tons of TNT or 84 TJ.
Until this day, the radioactive green glass called trinitite after the Trinity Test, created from the desert sand can be found on the test site. In comparison, the first thermonuclear bomb released an amount of energy equivalent to 10 million tons of TNT or 42 PJ. Thus a nuclear weapon no larger than a conventional bomb could devastate an entire city with its blast, fire, and radiation.
The most commonly used fissile material for nuclear weapons is uranium-235 and plutonium-239. Uranium-233 has been used to a lesser degree. Fission weapons use a mass of fissile material forced into supercriticality, which induces exponential nuclear chain reactions. This can be achieved either by shooting a piece of sub-critical material into another or by compressing a sub-critical sphere of material using lenses of chemical explosives. However, only the latter approach can be used if the fissile material is plutonium. Additionally, neptunium-237 and some isotopes of americium are theorized to be usable as well. Regardless of which fissile material is used, all fission reactions create radioactive remains of split atomic nuclei.
The amount of energy released by a fission bomb can approach the equivalent of 500,000 tons of TNT or 4.2 to 2.1×108 GJ. Ensuring that a substantial amount of the fissile fuel is consumed before the device self-destructs has been proven difficult.
Thermonuclear bombs function by using the energy of a fission bomb to compress and heat fusion fuel. All multi-megaton yield thermonuclear bombs have used the Teller-Ulam design that places a fission bomb with fusion fuel such as tritium, deuterium, or lithium deuteride in a radiation-reflecting container. The detonation of the fission bomb emits gamma and X-rays that heats and compresses the fusion fuel. The ensuing fusion reaction emits high-speed neutrons, inducing fission in matter not prone to it—for example, depleted uranium. In megaton-ranged thermonuclear weapons, about half the yield comes from the final fissioning of depleted uranium.
Most modern thermonuclear weapons use a two-stage design. It is possible to add additional fusion stages, where each stage ignites a larger amount of fuel. This construction can be used to make thermonuclear weapons of arbitrarily large yield. The largest ever deployed, released energy equal to over 50 megatons of TNT or 210 PJ. For practical constraints on missile warhead space and weight requirements, most thermonuclear weapons are considerably smaller.
Fusion reactions do not create fission products and thus contribute far less to nuclear fallout than fission reactions. But as thermonuclear weapons have at least one fission stage and many high-yield variations use a final fission stage, in practice, they generate more nuclear fallout than fission-only weapons.
Boosted fission weapons increase their efficiency and yield through the neutrons produced by a small number of fusion reactions. This can be achieved by layering the outside of the bomb core with concentric shells of deprecated uranium and lithium-deuteride or injecting it with a deuterium-tritium mixture.
A neutron bomb is a thermonuclear weapon designed to yield a small explosion but a significant amount of neutron radiation to cause massive casualties and leave infrastructure mostly intact while creating a minimal amount of fallout.
A so-called salted bomb can be created by surrounded a nuclear weapon with materials such as cobalt or gold. Such a device produces large quantities of long-lived radioactive contamination. Such a weapon could contaminate earth with large amounts of radioactive material with half-life’s of decades by lifting it into the atmosphere where winds could spread it over the world.
If a nuclear weapon detonates at a high altitude, an electromagnetic pulse is created from high-energy electrons produced from the bomb’s gamma rays. The flash of energy can disrupt or permanently destroy electronic equipment if insufficiently shielded. The effect is useful to disable an enemy’s military and civilian infrastructure over a wide geographical area.
The maintenance and development of nuclear weapon delivery systems are among the most expensive parts of a nuclear weapons program and is an essential factor in nuclear weapon design. The simplest method is to drop a gravity bomb from an aircraft. While this method places few restrictions on weapon size, it limits attack range, response time to an impending attack, and the number of weapons that can fieldable at a time. The primary means for nuclear weapons delivery are miniature atomic bombs delivered by strategic bombers and tactical fighter-bombers.
Nuclear weapons mounted on long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles or submarine-launched ballistic missiles are preferable from a strategic standpoint. These systems can deliver nuclear weapons over the globe with a high likelihood of success. Missile defenses are penetrable by systems such as multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.
Other methods of delivery used are artillery shells, landmines, as well as nuclear depth charges, and torpedos for anti-submarine warfare. The United States has tested an atomic mortar and small two-person tactical weapons such as the Special Atomic Demolition Munition. However, the difficulty of combining sufficient yield with portability limits their military utility.
A nuclear war with approximately 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear explosions could cause enough firestorms and subsequent soot thrown into the atmosphere to blanket earth, cutting out the sunlight for years on end and create atomic winter. Tens of millions would die from the climatic effects alone.
Those near the Hiroshima explosion that survived the initial blast subsequently suffered a variety of medical effects. The highest number of deaths occur during the first 1-9 weeks, 90% from thermal injury, and 10% from super-lethal radiation exposure. Comparatively, most deaths during weeks 10-12 were from ionizing radiation in the median lethal range. By weeks 13-20 was seen an improvement in survivors’ conditions.
Those exposed to a few hundred to a thousand millisievert of radiation saw an increase in sub-fertility, infertility, and blood disorders. Furthermore, ionizing radiation above a dose of around 50-100 millisievert has shown a statistical rise in cancer-related death with 25%. The heightened rate of cancer was still present after 5+ years. Other complications are eye cataracts and some minor effects on various organs and tissues.
The term chemical weapons concise chemicals and their precursors formulated to inflict harm or death in humans and the devices used to deliver them, whether filled or unfilled.
Chemical weapons are classified as weapons of mass destruction, though distinct from nuclear, biological, and radiological weapons. They are dispersible in solid, liquid, or gas forms, and their extreme volatility can easily afflict others than the intended targets.
Binary munitions contain two isolated chemicals that do not produce lethal effects until mixed, usually just before battlefield use. In contrast, unitary weapons are lethal in their existing state and make up most of the chemical weapon stockpile. Examples are GB, GA, GD, VX, and blister agents such as sulfur mustard formulations, for example, HD, HT, and H, which become gaseous when released but are otherwise liquid at room temperature. The sulfur mustards H and HD freeze in temperatures below 12.8 °C. Mixing lewisite with distilled mustard lowers the freezing point to −25.0 °C.
Mustard and phosphene gas and others were widely used during the First World War, causing lung searing, blindness, and death. Chemical weapons are designed to injure or kill opposing forces and deny the use of a particular area of terrain or, for defoliants, kill vegetation and deny its use for cover and concealment. CW can also be used against livestock to cause starvation.
Some types of chemical agents are designed not to kill but to produce mind-altering changes and render the victim unable to perform. These are classified as incapacitating agents, where lethality is not a factor in their effectiveness.
The basic configurations for storage are self-contained munitions like projectiles, cartridges, mines, and rockets. All containing these can contain propellant and explosive components. Other forms are aircraft-delivered munitions without explosive content and raw agents housed in one-ton containers.
A storage concern is the risk of temperature-induced explosion. A fire at one of the storage facilities would endanger not only the personnel but also the surrounding community.
A laser is a device that, based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation, amplifies light. As light is only slightly altered by gravity, windage, and the Coriolis force, a laser’s trajectory is almost entirely flat. Thus, the aim is much more precise than conventional weapons, and its range is only limited by line-of-sight and beam diffraction by intervening atmospheric contents. The exceptional speed and range of lasers make them suitable for space warfare.
There are so-called Pulsed Energy Projectile systems under development, which creates rapidly expanding plasma at the target. The system intended as a non-lethal weapon for crowd control temporarily paralyzes the target with its painful electromagnetic waves and sound. However, it can also be used as a lethal weapon.
A dazzler is a directed-energy weapon that, with visible light temporarily blind and disorient its human target while causing no damage, as well as with infrared light disrupt sensors. Most systems are man-portable and operate in either the red or green areas of the electromagnetic spectrum, with a laser diode or a diode-pumped solid-state laser.
Northrop Grumman built and tested an electric laser in 2009, emitting a 100-kilowatt ray, powerful enough to destroy cruise missiles, mortar rounds, artillery, and rockets. In 2011, the U.S. Navy mounted and successfully tested a laser manufactured by Northrop Grumman on the navy test ship, former USS Paul Foster. The laser was described as having a destructive effect on a high-speed cruising target, and while classified, the laser range is measured in miles. In 2008, Northrop Grumman announced a modular system called FIRESTRIKE, using 15 kW modules that can be combined to provide various power levels.
Boeing has designed a laser system with a current power level of 10 kW, which will be increased to 50 kW, and eventually 100 kW. Mounted on a truck can engage artillery shells, mortar rounds, cruise missiles, and crew-less aerial vehicles. A 60 kW fiber laser can maintain a high-quality beam at high-power outputs while simultaneously using less electricity than solid-state lasers is developed by Lockheed Martin to be mounted on the HEMTT.
The U.S. Navy is evaluating Free-electron anti-aircraft and anti-missile directed energy weaponry. The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility has built a free-electron laser capable of 14 kW power output. Multi-megawatt free-electron lasers are undergoing research, and in 2009, the Office of Naval Research awarded Raytheon a contract for a 100 kW free-electron laser.
At energy densities of around one megajoule per cubic centimeter, laser beams begin to cause plasma breakdown in the atmosphere, called blooming. This effect causes the laser to defocus and disperse energy into the surrounding air, worsening if there is dust, fog, or smoke in the air.
Techniques such as spreading the beam across a broad and curved mirror that focuses on the target and keeping the energy density lower are usable for reducing bloom. The downside is the requirements for a large, precise, and fragile mirror requiring heavy machinery to aim the laser.
Another technique uses a phased array, but for typical laser wavelengths, this would require billions of micrometer-sized carbon nanotube antennae. This technique would not need lenses or mirrors and can be made flat, not requiring a turret-like system for aiming. However, the downside being a loss of range if the target is at extreme angles to the phases’ array’s surface.
Theoretically, phase arrays could perform phase-conjugate amplification by using a guide laser illuminating the target. Specular points reflect light sensed by the weapon’s primary amplifier, amplifying inverted waves in a positive feedback loop and destroying the target with shockwaves as the speculation regions evaporate. The most conductive optical path is shown by the waves passing through the blooming, automatically correcting the distortions caused by blooming. Other techniques for avoiding blooming are using very short pulses or focusing multiple lasers of relatively low power at a target.
Countermeasures for defending against lasers are dielectric mirrors, ablative coating, thermal transport delay, and obscurants. Simple countermeasures against non-highly pulsed, high-energy laser weapons are a rapid rotation that spreads the heat by not allowing a fixed target, accelerating and increasing the distance, and changing the angle quickly.
Coatings made of susceptible substances such as low-cost metals, rare earth’s elements, carbon fiber, silver, and diamonds processed to fine sheens, can counter specific types of lasers. The downside is that a different type might match the coating’s absorption spectrum enough to transfer damaging amounts of energy into the target.
Biological weapons are replicating entities such as fungi, bacteria, and viruses meant to harm or kill humans, animals, and plants as an act of war. They may also be employed to gain a strategic or tactical advantage over the enemy through threat or to deny a geographical area. Psychochemical agents and toxins are considered so-called mid spectrum weapons as they do not reproduce in the host. Biological and chemical weapons overlap to an extent. The use of the toxins from some organisms is considered both under the provisions of the chemical and the Biological Weapons Convention.
The use of biological weapons is a war crime as they are prohibited under customary international humanitarian law and other international treaties. Biological weapons have the potential for a level of destruction and death far exceeding nuclear, chemical, or conventional weapons – mainly from their far lower cost of development and storage relative to mass.
A biological weapon’s cost is estimated to be about 0.05% of the cost of a conventional to produce similar numbers of casualties per km^2. The relative simplicity of production and in combination with their destructive potential and difficulty to detect appeals to terrorists. The FBI suspects anthrax can be created in a garden shed for as little as $2,500 using readily available laboratory equipment. Moreover, the incubation period of 3 to 7 days of the potential organism before effects begin to appear gives the terrorist time to escape before government or secret agencies are alerted.
The use of Clustered Regulatory Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat techniques has become so cheap and widely available that amateurs can experiment with them. In this technique, a DNA sequence is cut off and replaced with a new sequence, expressing a particular protein or characteristic in the organism. The technique can be dangerous if used by people with the wrong intentions.
A biological weapon’s desired characteristics are high infectivity and virulence, non-availability of vaccines, stability, and ability to retain its infectivity and virulence after prolonged storage. Control of the spread of the agent may be another desired characteristic.
Bacteria can, by microbial methods, be modified into only being useful in a narrow environmental range. If the target range differs distinctly from that of the attacking army, just the target might be affected. Or to bog down an advancing army, making them more vulnerable to counterattack.
Bacillus anthracite is an effective agent for several reasons, its hardy spores are perfect for dispersal aerosols, and it is not considered transmissible from person to person. A pulmonary anthrax infection starts with influenza-like symptoms, and within 3-7 days, it progresses to lethal hemorrhagic mediastinitis with a fatality rate of over 90% for untreated patients.
Other bacterial agents known to be or considered for weaponization include Brucella spp., Burkholderia mallei and pseudomallei, Chlamydophilia psittaci, Coxiella burnetii, Francisella tularensis, Shigella spp., Vibrio cholerae, Yersinia pestis, and some of the Rickettsiaceae, especially Rickettsia prowazekii and Rickettsia rickettsii.
Studied and weaponized viral agents include some of the Bunyaviridae, Ebolavirus, Machupo virus, Marburg virus, Variola virus, Yellow fever virus, and many of the Flaviviridae, especially Japanese encephalitis virus. Fungal agents include Coccidioides spp..
Toxins’ suitable as biological weapons include staphylococcal enterotoxin B, botulinum toxin, saxitoxin, ricin, as well as many mycotoxins.
Anti-personnel bio-agents and bio-agents in the United States used to be categorized either as incapacitating agents, for example, Brucella suis, Coxiella burnetii, Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus, and Staphylococcal enterotoxin B, or as lethal agents such as Bacillus anthracis, Francisella tularensis, Botulinum toxin, or
Anti-crop capability was developed by the U.S. during the Cold War, using plant diseases such as bioherbicides, or mycoherbicides, for destroying enemy agriculture. Conditions such as rice and wheat blast were weaponized by containing them in aerial spray tanks and clusters bombs for initiating epiphytotic epidemics. Despite herbicides being chemicals, they often work similarly to bioregulators and biotoxins. Thus they are many times grouped with such.
In so-called entomological warfare, insects infected with pathogens can be dispersed over target areas, acting as a vector and infecting any person or animal they might bite. Or insects can be used to attack the enemy or crops and agriculture directly. Entomological warfare has existed for millennia, and development has continued into the modern era.
Antimatter weapons use antimatter as a power source, propellant, or explosive. Because of technological limitations in creating and containing antimatter, which annihilates upon touching ordinary matter, one gram is estimated at 63 trillion dollars. Antimatter weapons are, while theoretically viable, not yet practically so.
An advantage of antimatter weapons over conventional nuclear weapons is that antimatter and matter collisions result in the entire sum of their mass-energy equivalent being released as energy, which is at least an order of magnitude higher than that of the most efficient fusion weapons, 100% versus 7-10%. One gram antimatter annihilating 1 gram of ordinary matter equals 1.8×1014 joules of energy, or for comparisons 42.96 kilotons, though, in practice, there is a considerable loss by neutrino production. In other words, quantities measured in grams is required to achieve a destructive force comparable to conventional nuclear weapons.
Antimatter creation involves particle accelerators or particle bombardment, which both are ineffective and expensive. The global yearly production of antimatter is only 1 to 10 nanograms. In 2008, at the Antiproton Decelerator Facility of CERN created several pictograms at the cost of $20 million. At the current production level, the equivalent of a ten-megaton hydrogen bomb, about 250 grams of antimatter, would require 2.5 billion years of the entire earth’s yearly energy production. It would take CERN two million years to create the antimatter equivalent of the Hiroshima atomic bomb at the current rate of production.
Since the first creation of antiprotons in 1955, production rates increased nearly geometrically until the 1980s, before leveling out. However, significant advancement has been made recently as a single antihydrogen atom was produced suspended in a magnetic field. In 2008 physicists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California dramatically increased the number of positrons or antielectrons that can be created, using an ultra-intense laser to irradiate a millimeter-thick gold target, which generated more than 100 billion positrons.
Even with efficiencies far exceeding what is physically possible, say converting energy directly into particle and antiparticle pairs without any loss, a power plant generating 2000 MWe would take 25 hours to produce one gram of antimatter. With an average price of $50 per megawatt-hour of electricity, the lowest limit on antimatter costs is $2.5 million per gram.
Another practical problem of weaponizing antimatter is that it needs to be suspended and not in contact with ordinary matter, or else it annihilates. In essence, this is achievable by producing solid charged or magnetized particles of antimatter suspended by electromagnetic fields in a near-perfect vacuum – in contrast to conventional nuclear weapons that explode with full yield only if the nuclear trigger is fired in perfect precision, any containment failure in an antimatter weapon would result in total yield annihilation. Whereas a nuclear weapon does not detonate unless deliberately made to do so, an antimatter weapon must actively be kept from detonating.
The antimatter weapon core would have to be made primarily of neutral antiparticles. Due to their mutual repulsion, it would not be possible to construct a weapon using positrons alone. The antimatter weapon core’s overall electric charge has to be very small compared to the number of particles to achieve compactness given macroscopic weight, as heavier antimatter atoms are yet to be produced.
More realistic use of antimatter is as small weapons for on-off assassinations. One billionth a gram of positrons contains as much energy as 37.8 kg of TNT. For example, excluding the containment device’s cost, an antimatter equivalent of an MK3 hand grenade containing 227 g of TNT would cost $600,000. Antimatter can be used as a trigger to initiate small nuclear explosions. The technology can be used to construct fission-free low fallout weapons.
To incapacitate, injure, or kill an opponent, sonic and ultrasonic weapons use a focused beam or area field of sound. High-power sound waves can disrupt or destroy a target’s eardrums, inflicting pain, disorientation, and incapacitation. Weaker sound waves can cause the experience of nausea and discomfort, suitable for both anti-citizen and crowd control settings.
Long-range acoustic devices have been used onboard cruise ships to deter pirates from chasing and attacking the ship. Still, a more common application is for dispersing crowds of rioters and protesters. Sonic devices are used to deter unwanted teenagers from lingering by emitting an ultra-high frequency blast, 19-20 kHz. Age-related hearing loss prevents the sound from being a nuance to other parts of the population. Also, a high-amplitude sound of specific patterns and frequency close to the sensitive peak of human hearing or 2-3 kHz, is used to deter burglars.
The acoustic hailing device LRAD is an acronym for Long Range Acoustic Device, designed for sending messages and warning tones over long distances or at a higher volume than possible with conventional loudspeakers and a mean for non-lethal, non-kinetic crowd control. The system weighs from 6.8 to 145.1 kg and emits a 2.5 kHz sound in a 30°-60° beam.
A sonic cannon using pulse-detonated methane gas in a combustion chamber leading to two parabolic dishes pulse-detonated at roughly 44Hz was developed in the early 1940s by Axis engineers. The dish reflectors magnified the sound, vibrating the inner ear’s fluid, causing vertigo and nausea at 200-400 meters. At closer distances, the sound waves are repeatedly compressing and releasing organ tissues and fluids. Compression resistant organs such as the liver, spleen, and kidneys had little effect on malleable organs such as the stomach, intestines, heart, and lungs. The device was highly vulnerable to the enemy deforming the parabolic reflectors and rendering the wave amplification ineffective.
Exposure to high-intensity ultrasound at frequencies between 700 kHz and 3.6 MHz causes lung and intestinal damage in mice. Vibroacoustic stimulation can cause changes in heart rate patterns resulting in severe consequences such as bradycardia and atrial flutter.
In mice, the threshold for both liver and lung damage is at about 184 dB, with damage rapidly increasing with intensity. There are no proven biological effects associated with unfocused sound beams with intensities below 100 mW/cm² SPTA and in focused one mW/cm² SPTA.
Scuba divers exposed to continuous low-frequency tones for durations longer than 15 minutes, in some cases, develop immediate and long-term problems affecting brain tissue, resembling those of minor head injuries. Prolonged sound exposure might result in enough mechanical strain to induce encephalopathy in brain tissue. Sinus and lung injuries have been found in both divers and aquatic mammals exposed to high intensity, low-frequency sound. The sound passes from water into their body, but not into any pockets of air, reflecting the sound due to mismatched acoustic impedance.
Other effects unrelated to hearing are chest wall and lung tissue effects, vibrotactile sensitivity change, auditory shifts, cardiovascular function change, muscle contraction, vestibular effects, and central nervous system effects.
Electro-shock weapons use an electric current to temporarily disrupt muscle function and inflict pain or death. The framework of most electro-shock weapons uses a simple design based on either a resonant circuit or oscillator, a power inverter, step-up transformer, or diode-capacitator voltage multiplier to achieve a continuous or an alternating direct-current discharge.
Hand-held stun guns and baton-style prods must touch the subject when used. Two electrodes insulated from each other and placed approximately 2.5 centimeters apart protrude from the baton’s metal end. The mechanism and batteries are contained in the body or handle of the device, which has a switch. Shooting stun guns are similar in design but fire two dart-like electrodes that stay connected to the central unit by conductors that deliver the electric current to the subject.
Prototypes of electro-shock guns that replace the solid wire with a stream of conductive liquid have been made. This design offers an increased range as well as the opportunity for multiple shots. Problems with this design are pooling of conductive fluid under the subject, making apprehension difficult, the need to carry a large tank of the liquid used as well as a propellant canister. Another design uses aerosol as the conductive medium. Problems with this design are low electrical conductivity, short-range as gas cannot readily be propelled greater distance than 3 meters, and a gassing effect where all subjects in an enclosed space are subjected to the effects.
There are long-range wireless electro-shock projectiles containing a small high-voltage battery that can be fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. Another similar technology uses a piezo-electric projectile that generates and releases electric charge on impact.
Most electro-shock weapons are programmed to be active in automatic five-second bursts. The operator can inflict repeated shock cycles with each trigger pull as long as the electrodes stay attached to the subject. The only technical limit to the number of electrical cycles is the life of the battery.
The threshold of energy needed to induce deadly ventricular fibrillation decreases dramatically with each successive cycle of bursts of pulses. In some cases, one pulse might be enough to cause fatal ventricular fibrillation; women’s threshold is lower.
Electrolasers, a directed-energy electro-shock weapon that, with the help of lasers, form electrically conductive laser-induced plasma channels through which an electric current is delivered to the target. It is functioning overall as a large-scale, high energy, long-distance version of an electro-shock gun.
A laser beam is emitted through the air, and its electromagnetic field rips the electrons from the air molecules and creates an electrically conductive plasma channel. The air’s rapid heating causes a sonic boom similar to lightning as the mechanism is the same. Then alternating current is sent through a series of step-up transformers, increasing the voltage and decreasing the current. The final voltage of the current may be between 108 and 109 volts and is fed into the plasma channel created by the laser beam.
The technology can kill or incapacitate a living target through electric shock, damage, disable or destroy electrical or electronic devices. A spark gap created from an aircraft carrying an electrolaser can precisely direct lighting strikes from thunderheads onto targets, using a relatively low amount of initial input.
The publicly-traded company Applied Energetics develops directed-energy weapons for the United States military. In 2006, the company produced a device deemed unfit for field use, called the Joint IED Neutralizer or JIN, intended for safely detonating improvised explosives. While most future designs are to be mounted on land, air, and sea vehicles, a hand-held infantry version is in development. The design will primarily work as a non-lethal alternative to existing weaponry but can also deliver a high enough voltage to kill.
According to unconfirmed reports, the U.S. Navy may have tested an electrolaser in 1985 within the Strategic Defense Initiative research program, called the Phoenix project. However, this report may have referred to an early test of MIRACL, which is or was a high-powered chemical laser.
Using ultraviolet beams of 193 nm, HSV Technologies designed a non-lethal electrolaser capable of immobilizing living targets at a distance. There was a plan for an engine-disabling variation for use against the electronic ignitions of cars using a 248 nm laser. However, after the lead scientist Eric Herr died in 2008, the company appears to have dissolved.
In 2012, Picatinny Arsenal demonstrated that an electric current could be sent through a laser beam. Additionally, due to the high laser intensity of 50 gigawatts, which changes the speed of light in air, the laser beam is self-focusing.
Magnetic fields can be used for accelerating projectiles to immense velocities or to focus charged particle beams. Variations or magnetic weapons are the rail gun, which accelerates a non-magnetic projectile, the coilgun that uses a magnetic projectile, or plasma and ion cannons focusing and directing charged particles using magnetic fields.
Railguns use two parallel rails connected to a power source. When a conductive projectile is placed between the tracks, the circuit is completed, creating a magnetic field along the rails to the projectile. The force created pushes the projectile along with them, accelerating it to high speeds until it leaves the rail, and the circuit is broken. The projectile seldom contains explosives. Instead, the design relies on the kinetic energy from the projectile’s high speed to inflict damage.
A helical railgun is a multi-turn design that reduces rail and brush current by a factor equal to the number of turns. In this design, two tracks are surrounded by a helical barrel, and the projectile or re-usable carrier is also helical. By using two brushes sliding along the rail, and two additional brushes on the projectile, it is energized and commuted through wind longs on the barrel and in front of the projectile. This design can be considered a cross between a railgun and a coilgun.
Coilguns use a similar but different mechanism than railguns, having a barrel made up of magnetic coils with the projectile placed between them. A pulse of electricity is passed through the first coil, pulling the projectile into its center. The coils further down the tracts are pulsed in sequence, accelerating the projectile until it leaves the barrel. Coilguns can also be constructed in a manner in which the moving coils are fed current via sliding contacts. An advantage of the induction coilgun design over the railgun is no need for high-speed sliding contacts and a lower current requirement.
Ion cannons, as the name implies, fire beams of ions, particles, or atoms affected in some way as to cause a gain in electrical charge. In practice, they are particle cannons using ionized particles. Due to their electrical charge, the ions have the potential to disable electronic devices, vehicles, and anything else having an electrical power source. This mechanism is similar to the electromagnetic pulse from nuclear detonations.
The DARPA Electromagnetic Mortar Program has shown a coilgun design’s advantages, being relatively silent with no smoke giving away its position. A higher velocity, double the fire rate, and a range increase of 30% for a 120 mm EM mortar are allowed by an adjustable and smoother acceleration than a standard version of similar weight.
Railguns excel as anti-aircraft weapons for intercepting air threats such as anti-ship missiles. The railgun’s design enables a faster reaction time combined with lighter ammunition. Thus, more can be carried. The effective range for intercepting a fast-moving missile is approximately 56 km, with the odds of hitting increasing exponentially as it gets closer.
The United States Air Force Research Laboratory developed a now classified coaxial plasma railgun called the MARAUDER, an acronym for Magnetically Ring to Achieve Ultra-High Directed Energy and Radiation, capable of producing rings of plasma and balls of lightning that exploded with devastating effect when hitting their target.
In 2006, the United States Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division fired a 3.2 kg projectile from an 8 MJ railgun, a prototype of a 64 MJ weapon designed for Navy warships. The millions of amperes of current, immense pressures, and heat are the main problems when firing projectiles with megajoules of energy. In 2008, the United States Navy fired a railgun projectile at 10.64 MJ with a muzzle velocity of 2,520 m/s. A 9-megajoule capacitor bank using solid-state switches and high-energy-density capacitors and a 32-MJ pulse power system provided the necessary power.
The only U.S. Navy ships capable of producing enough electrical energy to power a practically usable railgun are the Zumwalt-class destroyers that can generate 78 megawatts of electricity. In comparison, most current destroyers can spare approximately nine megawatts of power. While, for example, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer could be upgraded with enough electrical power to operate a railgun, this would require the removal of existing weapon systems.