USMC Wants Truck-Mounted Plasma Weapon To Temporarily Blind, Deafen, And Even Yell At People

The service is hoping the same less-than-lethal weapons will be able to do double duty as communication systems and short-range sensors, too.

US Army

The U.S. Marine Corps is pushing ahead with research and development into laser-induced-plasma less-than-lethal weapons that can temporarily blind and deafen individuals, produce painful burning sensations on their skin through clothing, and even blast out verbal warnings and commands at them from hundreds of yards away. Now, the service is interested to know if the same system can also function as a secure communications device or a sensor to warn friendly forces to incoming missiles or other projectiles and be compact enough to fit on a small truck.

On Oct. 24, 2018, the Marines closed their call for proposals for such a system as part of what is formally known as the Scalable Compact Ultra-short Pulse Laser Systems (SCULPS) program. In March 2018, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD), the Pentagon’s top less-than-lethal weapon program office, which the Marine Corps leads, demonstrated a similar experimental Non-Lethal Laser Induced Plasma Effects (NL LIPE) system at the Directed Energy to DC Exhibition in Washington, D.C.

“Past efforts to develop USPL [Ultra-Short Pulse Laser] weapon systems that generate scalable laser induced plasma effects (LIPE) have shown some promise, but these efforts were not able to achieve the desired effects at the required range,” the notice on the U.S. government’s Small Business Innovation Research program website explained. “The developed system was cumbersome and not feasible to be integrated on a small tactical vehicle.”

At a range of nearly 100 feet, the NL LIPE system was able to create flashes of light as bright as two million candela, thousands of times brighter than a typical household light bulb, according to the contracting announcement. At that same distance, it could generate blasts of disorienting sound up to 147 decibels, which is around as loud as a gun going off or a jet engine running, and produce “a sufficient level of thermal discomfort on human skin.”

The video below shows tests of earlier Non-Lethal Laser Induced Plasma Effects (NL LIPE) systems.

Experiments have proved in principle that laser-induced-plasma might be able to create verbal announcements, as well. Unfortunately, the prototypes failed to actually issue intelligible commands at the desired range of almost 330 feet.

Laser-induced-plasma systems work by using a short-pulse laser that shoots out bursts of fast-moving amplified light. This produces the plasma, an electrified gas field that has properties that are distinct from matter in the typical gas, liquid, and solid states. When you hit that plasma with a second small laser you can generate light, sound, and heat. In theory, if you can tweak the frequencies of the light, you can make the lasers pump out specific wavelengths of noise and potentially mimic human speech.

Under the SCULPS program, the Marines and the JNLWD are looking for assistance in improving on these previous experiments and getting closer to a viable less-than-lethal weapon system. At the Directed Energy to DC Exhibition, David Law, head of the JNLWD’s technology division, told multiple outlets that the goal was to have a practical prototype ready within five years. Law was named as the main point of contact for SCULPS.

The Marine Corps' new requirements are for a system that can produce between six and eight million candela of light and blasts of noise at 165 decibels or more out to ranges of nearly 110 yards. The service also wants it to be able to generate the burning sensation even through typical clothing rather than just on exposed skin.

The Marines still want to be able to issue short verbal commands, such as “get out,” at distances between 110 and 1,110 yards, too. The complete system, including any equipment necessary to keep the lasers and their power sources cool, has to be small enough to fit inside a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle or a Humvee.

USMC

A Marine Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicle.

The SCULPS notice also specifically calls for looking into whether the less-than-lethal weapons can function in other roles. The two additional capabilities the announcement specifically identified  were secure communications and “incoming object detection.”

Back in March 2018, we at The War Zone had already raised the possibility that the NL LIPE prototype might have a secondary use as a long-range covert communications tool. The ability to send verbal instructions to personnel at a specific location without a radio could be immensely valuable in a day and age where potential near-peer opponents, such as Russia and China, and smaller nation-states are developing and fielding robust communication jamming and other electronic warfare capabilities.

Laser-based communication by itself is already well understood and is in use, especially in space-based applications. As such, the system might be able to act as a communication node even if the more complex “talking plasma” functionality doesn’t work out in the end.

It’s less clear how the bursts of plasma could help spot incoming projectiles. It is possible that they could act in the same fashion as a small radar, with the full system recording the light or sound waves bouncing off objects in the distance and displaying their relative position to personnel on a handheld device or a screen mounted inside a vehicle.

The potential benefits of a laser-induced-plasma system are clear and even just in a less-than-lethal capacity it could replace a number of different weapons that the U.S. military uses today. These include including temporarily blinding laser "dazzlers", acoustic hailing devices, and high-powered microwave “pain rays.” The plasma-based systems also offer the ability to focus the beam on a very small space, even just a single individual, reducing the impact on friendly personnel or other bystanders. Existing systems have much broader areas of effect.

The potential for the system to perform other missions only makes the technology more attractive both to the U.S. military and law enforcement groups. The Marine Corps’ contracting notice indicates that the third and final phase would explore installing working prototypes onto various types of vehicles, watercraft, and even unmanned aircraft.

A drone carrying one of these laser-induced-plasma weapons could be particularly effective as a psychological warfare tool, something else we at The War Zone have noted before. The ability to project disconcerting or disorienting sounds and flashes of light, or even bizarre messages out of thin air, could demoralize or distract hostile forces, or even specific targets, such as leaders of terrorist groups. They might even think they’re going crazy.

Depending on how powerful the output of the lasers are, they may also be able to produce actual physical damage to enemy equipment, especially optics on vehicles, aircraft, and missiles, or cause injuries among enemy personnel. The Small Business Innovation Research program notice makes it clear that this technology is still more experimental than practical, so more roles may become apparent as time goes on.

There are still hurdles that the Marines will need to overcome. Lasers, by their nature, have a tendency to become defuse over extended ranges and lose power and focus in the process. Any laser-based directed energy weapon is still going to need a straight line-of-sight to the target, too.

Less-than-lethal directed energy weapons have long been a lightning rod for controversy, as well. Though there is no conclusive evidence of these risks, there is a running concern that fluctuations in power in order to achieve non-lethal effects at extended distances could inadvertently cause harmful impacts at closer ranges for anyone unfortunate enough to pass in front of the beam of energy.  

But the potential benefits and varied capabilities that a single SCULPS system might be able to provide are clearly significant enough for the Marines to keep pushing ahead with the project.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com