The Boeing Company [NYSE: BA] is developing a new megawatt scale laser weapon for the U.S. Navy. This power level is considered essential for ship defense. The system will comprise a Free Electron Laser (FEL), which emits the high power electron beam shaped through a series of powerful magnetic fields, exiting the intense emission of laser light.
The FEL based weapon system is promising to transform future naval warfare capability by providing an ultra-precise, speed-of-light capability and unlimited magazine depth to defend ships against new, challenging threats, such as hyper-velocity cruise missiles. Furthermore, the future weapon could be employed in different levels, from non lethal to lethal effects. Other benefits of FEL include its ability to engage multiple targets at light speed, reduced dependency on explosive magazine, provide counter-surveillance at sea, flexible defense of the battle group, advanced maritime situational awareness and high-resolution imagery. FEL is expected to be deployed with the Navy’s future all-electric ship architecture.
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is investing nearly $25 million in the FEL program during fiscal year 2009. In April, ONR awarded Raytheon and Boeing $6.9 million to complete the preliminary design of the electric-powered Free Electron Laser; additional $156 million are earmarked or the system’s development and demonstration in realistic tests at sea. Boeing will partner with U.S. Department of Energy laboratories, academia and industry partners to design the laser. According to the Navy’s request the weapon class FEL demonstrator will be a 100kW device, designed to operate at the 1.6 micron near infrared (NIR). A follow-on Megawatt class FEL could be an element of the full fledged weapon system test bed to follow the current development, that would include a beam director, beam control and fire control elements for eventual introduction into the Fleet.
Boeing’s FEL research dates back to the early 1980s; “we believe this technology is now ready to move from the laboratory to a prototype suitable for testing,” said Ed Pogue, Boeing FEL program manager. FEL is part of Boeing’s expanding stable of directed energy laser weapon programs which also include the Airborne Laser (ABL), Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL), the High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HELLAD), Laser Avenger, the Re-deployable High Energy Laser System and the Tactical Relay Mirror System.