China's New 'Anti-Terror' Drone-Zapping Laser Hints at a Coming Arms Race

Look out America, China wants lasers too.

Ben Makuch

Ben Makuch

Image: news.qq.com

The US has long dominated the laser weapons game: everything from naval guns outfitted with drone-hunting lasers, to humvees with lasers that do the same, America seemed to be one of the only nations actively preparing for ammo-less war.

But China has recently signaled its intentions to join the march toward laser weapons, unveiling a laser system designed to destroy drones. The new lasers match American military capabilities in a growing tit-for-tat arms race between the two global superpowers.

As first reported by the state news agency Xinhua, the China Academy of Engineering Physics said the new system is characterized by its stealthy movement and ability to hone in on any small scale drone within a 1.2 mile radius, flying at low altitudes, around 1600 feet. That could mean targeting any type of quadcopter, other multi-blade drone, or mid-size winged surveillance drone. 

Designed with private collaborators like China Jiuyuan Hi-Tech Equipment Corporation, the system can reportedly bring down a drone within five seconds of locating the target, and is operable within a 1.2 mile radius of the installation. In the first public test of the laser, the military shot down more than 30 drones. 

The government is concerned about possible domestic terror threats from drones, according to Xinhua. The system was designed to counter targeted attacks on crowds or populated centers using what the report describes as cheap "small-scale, unmanned drones... a likely choice for terrorists." 

"Intercepting such drones is usually the work of snipers and helicopters, but their success rate is not as high and mistakes with accuracy can result in unwanted damage," said Yi Jinsong, a manager with China Jiuyuan Hi-Tech Equipment Corp. He said that the project was currently developing "similar laser security systems with greater power and range."

President Xi Jinping has ordered domestic security tightened in the past year, following attacks on crowds at Tiananmen Square, in Sichuan, and in Western China's Xinjiang region, reportedly carried out by Muslim extremists. Many of the attacks have been carried out with knives.  

Drone video of the protests in Hong Kong 

Protests in Hong Kong may have also raised official concerns about the use of drones by citizens in documenting unrest and police abuse, or filming military locations. Beijing has also raised about the use of drones engaged in "unofficial mapping activities"; in 2013 soldiers went into high alert when an amateur mapping drone was spotted over the Beijing airport.  

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The 10 Kw Chinese system follows the introduction this year by the US Navy of its 30 Kw drone-killing Laser Weapon System (LaWS), which a congressional report heralded as a "game changer ... comparable to the advent of shipboard missiles in the 1950s." Lockheed Martin is also developing a laser for targeting missiles.

The LaWS platform is mounted on naval vessels, and specifically targets surveillance drones at low altitudes, with a cost as low as $1 per shot versus the high cost of firing a missile. It has currently being tested on a vessel cruising in the Persian Gulf, where US Navy warships are currently deployed. 

China's ground-based system is similar to the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) that the U.S. Army began testing this year. Both systems currently use a 10kW laser. The US Marines have also announced a humvee-mounted drone-hunting laser designed for shooting down unmanned vehicles.

From some angles, China's laser could be seen as another chapter in a game of tit-for-tat weapons production with the American military-industrial complex. In recent years, the US has begun a military "pivot" to the Pacific, after years of focusing military resources on Central Asia and the Middle East. At times, Beijing has employed its cyber hacking teams based in Beijing to steal American secrets. Consider China's new next generation J-20 fighter, widely believed to be partly based on hacked F-35 designs, or many of its military drones, which look suspiciously like American designs.

There's some speculation that in the early 2000s China was anxious to counter the US's plan for an unbeatable stealth fighter. Rather than designing one with their own military engineers, they allegedly stole it.

In August, after the US tested its hypersonic missile system in a bid to create a warhead that could strike anywhere on earth within an hour, it was reported that China was eagerly testing their own missile to counter the potential threat. The Guardian reported that US tests are part of a brand new global arms race, à la Cold War.

Still, Chinese military technology is often seen as at least a decade behind the most cutting-edge weapons of the US military.

It's difficult to compare the capabilities of the two systems. In one photograph from the Chinese test, a small quadcopter can be seen burning on the ground. When the US Navy tested its vessel-based laser, it appeared to destroy a higher-altitude military drone. 

A still of a burning drone from a video of the Navy's laser weapon system demonstrations in 2013. (U.S. Navy/Youtube)

China's downed quadcopter. Image: news.qq.com

While the drone laser is a defensive effort, laser weapons will eventually find their way onto Chinese sea vessels, raising the possibility, however slight, of a showdown with another country's aircraft. 

A laser drone war could arise in the contested waters of the Pacific Theatre, where China and Japan have been rattling sabers over claims to the Senkaku Islands. Last year, Japan threatened to shoot down any drone seen flying over its airspace; a retired Chinese general responded by saying that a Japanese attack on a drone would be seen as an act of war.

As my colleague John Dyer writes at Vice News, "it would be a shame if [the new anti-drone laser] emboldened Chinese leaders to go to war and jeopardize millions of lives just because Japan blew up a high-tech remote-controlled aircraft."

There is also a possibility that China could sell its technology to other countries including Pakistan, its neighbor and ally. The Times of India, citing "informed sources," said such a weapons transfer could be used to combat American drones that fly over its airspace.

In 2011, the White House was reportedly incensed when it learned that Pakistan had let Chinese officials examine the remnants of a secret American stealth helicopter that crashed during the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound.