High Power Laser are Maturing into Weapons Grade Systems


Defense industries and U.S. government research and development authorities are rapidly progressing to mature high power solid-state lasers (SSL), for use as directed energy weapons capable of delivering lethal effects at long range, at the speed of light. “It really is a historical event,” said Michael Rinn, vice president and program director of Boeing’s Airborne Laser Systems. “As we look back … we’ll understand how important it was.”

For more than thirty years, the Army and other DOD organizations have developed and tested a variety of directed energy devices, including both chemical and solid state lasers. High-power chemical lasers proved to be successful in testing against rockets, artillery and mortars (RAM), but by using chemical fuels, would cause a large logistical burden for the warfighter. In 2005 the Army decided to focus on all-electric SSLs, as the lower cost high energy laser (HEL) path to the future, with the only consumable, being diesel fuel for electric generators.

When weaponized, a 100kW class SSL will be capable of protecting the warfighter against RAM threats and unmanned aerial systems. Other mission applications for scalable high power SSLs include stand-off negation of unexploded ordnance and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), anti-sensor applications, and precision strike, with minimal collateral damage. Boeing has also developed and is testing an Airborne Tactical Laser aboard a C130 gunship, capable of targeting ground vehicles. This type of system could be employed by special operations units.

Similar high power lasers are proposed as standard equipment for future manned and unmanned strike aircraft, including the F-35 and future unmanned combat aerial vehicles. The recent successful tests included the Boeing-led Airborne Laser Testbed intercepting ballistic missiles from long range, using powerful chemical lasers which have captured the headlines, but parallel programs employing solid-state lasers are also under progress. Two of the programs expected to reach maturity in the near future, are the U.S. Navy’s Free Electron Laser, and the Joint High Power Solid State Laser (J-HPSSL) sponsored by the Army.

The U.S. Army and Navy are progressing toward Missile Defense Recent tests, involving high power laser which have demonstrated, that directed energy weapons are maturing and becoming more feasible, evolving toward weapon-grade systems. The FEL weapon will employ a powerful electrons beam, conducted through a series of powerful magnetic fields, generating an intense emission of laser light that can be used to disable, or destroy high speed cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles, at the speed of light. Such a device does not exist yet, but in March 2010 the Boeing Company, developing the system for the U.S. Navy, has successfully completed the preliminary design of the U.S. Navy’s Free Electron Laser (FEL) weapon system, a key step toward building a FEL prototype for realistic tests at sea. Following this milestone the Navy is expected to decide this summer, whether to award additional task orders to Boeing, completing the FEL design and building and operating a laboratory demonstrator.

Another solid-state high-power laser is the Joint High Power Solid State Laser (J-HPSSL) being developed under an effort of the U.S. Army Space & Missile Defense Command. The first of two lasers developed under the program will soon be deployed to the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility (HELSTF) in New Mexico. The new facility will employ the solid state laser, coupled with the beam control, command and control systems already built for the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) in the 1990s.

The THEL system was developed under cooperative effort to deploy a directed-energy Counter Rocket-Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) weapon, protecting Israeli settlements along the northern border, against attacks by Palestinian terrorists and Hezbolla militias. Funding for full scale development and fielding of the system was halted when the Israeli army withdrew from occupied South Lebanon, in May 2000. Several attempts to revive the program, were shelved and the Israel MOD finally opted to develop a missile-based C-RAM system instead (Iron Dome). The new transportable facility will broadly follow the path projected for the THEL follow-up system known as MTHEL, utilizing a solid state laser instead of the megawatt-level chemical laser source. It will provide the Army with the necessary infrastructure for first high-power, Solid State Laser Testbed Experiment (SSLTE).

BAE Systems was selected to be the prime contractor responsible for the systems engineering and test planning of SSLTE. The company is developing a modular and transportable enclosure to house the powerful laser device and its control room at the site. This first JHPSSL Phase 3 laser device, built by Northrop Grumman, is one of two SSL laboratory devices being developed in cooperation with the High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office and other services. The second device, being built by Textron Corp., has also achieved 100 kW performances this year. A 100kW laser can rapidly heat a target causing various catastrophic effects, such as exploding a warhead or initiate airframe failure.

Under the J-HPSSL program the Northrop Grumman laser has reached the 100kW power level threshold for a solid-state laser, demonstrating turn-on time of less than one second and continuous operating time of greater than five minutes, with very good efficiency and beam quality. The system built by Textron Defense Systems has also demonstrated a +100kW operation recently, using a laboratory demonstration device. Textron designers are utilizing the THINZAG, employing a single-aperture power oscillator with unique, scalable optical configuration enabling designers to achieve high average power for use in the operational, weapon-grade applications.