2009 To Be a Pivotal Year for Laser Weapon Technology

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WASHINGTON The U.S. Defense Department for the past few years has been investing in the development of electric-powered lasers for use on the battlefield, and with several of those programs set to culminate with demonstrations, 2009 is shaping up to be a make-or-break year for the technology.

Until recently, only chemical-powered lasers were considered powerful enough for military use. Zapping rockets or mortar shells out of the sky requires power levels of at least 100 kilowatts, which chemical lasers have been capable of for decades. Though several recent tactical chemical laser programs like Northrop Grumman’s Tactical High Energy Laser proved effective in testing, their large sizes and use of hazardous chemicals made them impractical for battlefield use, and to date the United States has fielded no such system. However, development continues on some chemical laser programs, such as Boeing’s Airborne Laser and Advanced Tactical Laser, the first of which will attempt to shoot down a ballistic missile target in summer 2009.

Electric-powered lasers, also known as solid-state lasers, 10 years ago had only reached 5 kilowatts. That power level was useful only for taking out stationary targets that could be lased for extended periods of time, such as sensors or landmines. The U.S. Army and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are interested in developing solid-state laser technology to defend against rockets, mortars and artillery, and both started programs with that intent in 2002.

Under the Army’s Joint High-Powered Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) program, Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., and Textron Systems of Wilmington, Mass., in 2005 each received three-year contracts worth $56.7 million and $32 million, respectively, to demonstrate 100-kilowatt lasers.

Northrop Grumman announced in March it would reach 100 kilowatts by the end of 2008. However, issues with suppliers and testing facilities and an overly ambitious production schedule have prevented the company from reaching this goal, said Dan Wildt, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of directed energy systems.

Northrop Grumman’s design uses 15-kilowatt systems called laser chains that will be combined to generate higher power levels. All seven of the chains are complete, having produced the desired power and exceeded the required 17 percent efficiency of power-in to power-out, so the company still thinks it will be able to reach the 100-kilowatt milestone in February, Wildt said.

Northrop Grumman has leveraged research done under the JHPSSL program on a laser weapon it is offering the U.S. government called Firestrike. The system packs a 180-kilogram, 15-kilowatt laser chain into a unit that can be scaled up to higher powers.

Textron Systems’ JHPSSL contract was extended through July and the company is on track to meet the program requirements by that time, said John Boness, Textron Systems vice president and chief technology officer.

“That’s our plan, to have a 100-kilowatt laser,” Boness said. “We are confident we will meet that goal.”

If the JHPSSL demonstrations are successful, both companies’ lasers will be considered for the Army’s new High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator program. The service in 2009 will select one of the JHPSSL competitors, or another solid-state laser, to be mounted on a tactical truck to shoot down rockets and mortar and artillery shells, according to Army documents. Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis completed a preliminary design for the program’s beam control system last summer and in August was awarded a $36 million extension to continue its development.

DARPA’s High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense (HELLADS) program is similar in application to the JHPSSL, with a notable difference being that the DARPA lasers are intended to be liquid-cooled and reach 150 kilowatts. Competitors Textron Systems and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of San Diego each will deliver by late summer or early fall a unit cell module that will serve as the building block for the full 750-kilogram, 150-kilowatt laser, DARPA spokesman Richard Spearman said in an e-mail. If both companies meet the requirements, the agency will hold a shoot-off in 2009 to determine which will be chosen to build the full laser weapon system, he said.

Another Pentagon laser weapon initiative that could get moving in 2009 is the Robust Electric Laser Initiative. This program will seek to develop a rugged, scalable, high-power weapon system that breaks new ground for solid-state lasers in efficiency. Responses to a request for information were due to the Pentagon’s High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office in September. A request for proposals has not yet been issued.

Northrop Grumman’s Wildt believes the maturation of the technology and evolving threats finally will push laser weapons out of the test range and onto the battlefield.

“Our adversaries are getting their hands on more and more sophisticated weaponry,” Wildt said. “The future is going to require the use of high-energy lasers for robust defenses against these evolving and proliferating threats, and I think that will lead to an upswing in business opportunities for high-energy lasers.”

Laser weapon technology is no longer a challenge of physics, but challenges of engineering and continued political will, said Doug Beason, a writer and consultant who formerly oversaw laser programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Solid-state laser programs have significant support behind them today, but the question will be whether supporters will stick it out through the inevitable bumps in the road that new technologies encounter.

“Right now the political will is there, and they need to capitalize on that,” Beason said. “I think if they are serious about it, we could see this technology on the battlefield in five years.

“I think a lot could be riding on the upcoming shoot-down test of the Airborne Laser. If it is not successful, there could be some splash-back where some people [in Congress and the Pentagon] are soured on laser weapons.”