Earlier this month, China announced a major breakthrough in laser technology, deploying laser-based high-speed communication technology on commercial satellites. As a result, space-to-ground data transfer speed had been increased tenfold, to 10 gigabytes a second. As Lia Yalin of the Aerospace Information Research Institute (AIR) – part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences – explained, ‘With [such] optical communication, it is possible to transmit a high-definition movie in one second, which is 10 to 1,000 times faster than the current microwave communication method.’ The space race for earth to satellite communication, which has historically relied on microwave technology, has entered new territory.
But laser technology is about much more than business, as important as that is. It also has a crucial part to play in the defence sector. Indeed, advances in laser-based communication solutions are and will increasingly be central to national security. Increases in data transfer speed, capacity, and security are major battlefield advantages. Making use of these to the maximum, however, depends on embracing the exciting new innovations in the field. The nations that do will benefit hugely. And that is why, amid rising Chinese investment in laser technology, the US must make sure it remains at the bleeding edge of the field.
What are those innovations? One is ‘multi-plane light conversion’ – the manipulation of the shapes carried by a single laser beam so that data may be transferred more reliably and transferred in greater quantities, and so that laser technology can be used in a far more diverse number of ways than before. This transformative technology, which was developed by the team at Cailabs, helps to overcome a major obstacle that, until recently, was believed to be insurmountable: the high-speed, distorting effect on laser communication of atmospheric turbulence. In a nutshell, the complex and variable structure of the Earth’s atmosphere plays havoc with laser beams, warping their strength and shape and deviating them from their intended course. That corresponds to a laser link that drops intermittently, scrambling data. Now that problem has been solved, laser transmission from satellites can be relied upon – something that can be literally vital in a conflict situation.
Other problems that have traditionally hampered laser communications are increasingly to do with scaling, rather than technical challenges. The lasers used for lasercom are now eye-safe, in the same danger category as conventional, off the shelf pointers. Two points on two objects moving at speed through large areas – on two satellites, for example – can now be joined. The real differentiating innovations in defence are now vanishingly small and ‘niche’ while, at the same time, corresponding to major advantages. Put more succinctly, it is in embracing and making use of technical advances like light-shaping, taking place at the bleeding edge of a bleeding-edge field, that the US will gain the upper hand over its rivals in China.
In respect of doing this, the Pentagon has a major advantage over its Chinese counterpart. In the 1990s, the US military moved away from its historically proprietary approach to technological innovation and looked to the private sector instead. Having realised that free enterprise was a better engine of innovation in the fields relevant to the military, the Department of Defense began to hand out contracts more widely, motivating entrepreneurs and established companies to push themselves to innovate, and incentivising specialisation. Smaller companies have thus become essential pieces in the US military puzzle. Small teams spread mostly across North America and Europe are developing the machinery, technology and equipment to maintain the position of the US as the world’s dominant military power.
With the outbreak of war in Ukraine in February last year, Western countries were reminded, in brutal fashion, of the necessity of defence as a means of asserting soft power, supporting their friends around the world against aggression and exploitation, and of deterring those who would do them harm from engaging them in conflict. The costs of falling behind in the race to maintain and develop a modern, high-tech, battle-ready military are very high indeed. That race is now very much on, and those companies friendly to the US are working at double speed to develop the tools, techniques and technology to equip and empower its military. It is now up to the US to meet them halfway.