The chief technologist of BAE Systems is optimistic about fighter aircraft carrying directed energy weapons in the not-too-distant future, as he also discusses other emergent technologies.
"The amount of power [a directed energy weapon] actually needs isn't as much as you might imagine," says BAE Systems chief technologist, Nigel Whitehead.
"If you can put the energy on a spot and keep it there…then you don't need an awful lot of power on the spot to disable an aircraft, a munition, or a missile coming towards you," he says.
Key to achieving this precision are beam direction, targeting, and coping with aberrations in the atmosphere.
Whitehead made the remarks to a small group of journalists during a recent visit to Singapore. He is also the firm's group managing director programmes and support.
Directed energy has applications both for surface and air platforms, he believes.
"[Directed energy] requires power, accuracy, and speed of response. These are things we're working on. It's an exciting area, and definitely in our lifetime."
Whitehead, however, is sceptical about the applications of 'swarming drones.' He believes a key challenge is getting it into airspace near an adversary, and then making it a credible threat. He also notes that swarms can be defeated through directed energy and other means.
"There are ways of defeating swarms," he says. "Our view is that there is a limited utility in swarms if [the adversary] is set up to counter it."
Of greater interest to BAE Systems, are larger unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) that can work alongside conventional aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon. He points to the company's work with its Taranis technology demonstrator as an example of this. BAE, along with Dassault, is playing an integral role in the joint UK-France Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which aims to develop a UCAV by 2030.
"This is not just as an extra bomb bay, bearing in mind you can take an unmanned asset into a dangerous place and not put human life at risk," he says. "Sending the UAV ahead to have a look and maybe knock out some enemy air defences seems like a good idea."
Whitehead also touched on the issue of technology transfer, an essential requirement for many developing countries when obtaining defence equipment from major international contractors.
"The business model worldwide accepts, and encourages, technological development and technology transfer," he says. "We enter discussions and agreements with our customer nations with an acceptance and understanding that this is something that is going to be important."