Force fields have been a mainstay in science fiction since just about forever. Now, the future may finally be close at hand as Boeing recently patented a "method and system for shock wave attenuation via electromagnetic arc," which aims to make invisible and instant protection from nearby explosions a reality.
The concept behind Boeing's force field goes something like this: a sensor mounted on a vehicle would detect a shock wave caused by a nearby explosion. A computer then figures out the range direction of the shock wave based on sensor data so that it can know how to defend against it. As with all things in life, timing is everything.
Then, an "arc generator' creates a 'second medium' (atmosphere being the first) by initiating an electronic arc that travels along a conducive path via a laser system that emits a series of pulses. The combination of which ionizes the atmosphere between the vehicle and the shock wave and creates a plasma field that temporarily protects the vehicle from the incoming shock waves. Other alternative catalysts for making a conductive ion trail are listed as pellets, microwaves, sacrificial conductors, projectiles trailing wires and magnetic induction.
Although the concept is not yet envisioned as one that can protect a vehicle against direct projectile strikes, it could protect it from the deadly shock waves produced by things like roadside bombs and nearby artillery and bomb strikes. The shock waves of such blasts are known to be more deadly than the shrapnel deployed from them, which is a problem that still plagues ground combat vehicle and combat personnel equipment designers.
The fact of the matter is that there is already a solution for protecting from 'direct fire' attacks on vehicles in the form of Israel's 'Trophy' active defense system and its many clones that are now arriving on the international weapons marketplace. By pairing Boeing's blast wave defense system with an active defense system like Trophy, a vehicle's occupants could presumably be protected from both forms of attack. In doing so, their chances of surviving even intense combat situations could astronomically increase. Additionally, the fielding of both system may allow future combat vehicles to be less heavily armored, much more maneuverable and faster, not to mention cheaper to build. All of which would give a military force an edge in sustained combat.
There is also the possibility that such a system could one day be fielded aboard aircraft. Most surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles do not kill their targets via impacting them directly. Instead they use proximity fusing to explode nearby the target so that there is a better chance of affecting the target at all.
The shock wave of such a nearby detonation can have devastating effects on fragile, high performance aircraft, along with the missile's fragmentation warhead's projectiles. Still, peppering an aircraft with shrapnel is not akin to breaking its back or wing via a nearby highly concussive explosion. With this in mind, the idea of mounting such a 'force field' system on an aircraft one day in the future is intriguing.
The same can be said for surface combatants that have to contend with cruise missile attacks. Although these missiles may be destroyed before impacting a ship's hull via close-in weapon systems, this does not mean the two thousand pounds of explosives going off a few hundred yards from that same ship may not kill deck crew or damage key aerials and external systems. Boeing's force field system could help protect against such secondary effects.
It is amazing to think that laser induced plasma fields could be really the future's armor, but after 15 years of counter-insurgency warfare, incredible developments in self protection systems were bound to happen. Now all we need are phasers, oh right we have those too, both at sea today and in the air tomorrow...
H/T ABC News
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com