Boeing Co. expects to begin flight tests this summer of a prototype aerial laser that a senior company official believes could “revolutionize the battlefield.”
The Advanced Tactical Laser, which is intended to strike targets on the ground, “will give the warfighter a speed-of-light, precision engagement capability and avoid the kind of collateral damage sometimes associated with such traditional weapons as bombs and missiles,” said Pat Shanahan, vice president and general manager for Boeing Missile Defense Systems, in a Jan. 23 news release.
Boeing reached the first major milestone in the effort Jan. 18 when it received a C-130H aircraft from the U.S. Air Force’s 46th Test Wing that will be modified to carry a high-energy chemical laser and related subsystems, according to the news release. The aircraft will fire the laser through a 127 centimeter-diameter hole that already exists in the C-130H’s belly.
That hole has been used in the past to demonstrate prototype sensors, according to a written statement provided by Marc Selinger, a Boeing spokesman.
Boeing will perform some modifications to the aircraft to strengthen it to carry the laser hardware, according to the statement.
The Advanced Tactical Laser, whose power is described as “kilowatt class,” is expected to be turned on for the first time during ground testing this summer, and fired at ground targets during flight testing in 2007, according to the news release.
Boeing Missile Defense Systems of St. Louis leads the companies work on the Advanced Tactical Laser, as well as an industry team developing the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Airborne Laser. The Airborne Laser, which is designed to knock down ballistic missiles shortly after take-off, features a more powerful “megawatt-class” laser.
Boeing expects to begin flight testing the Advanced Technology Laser this summer with all subsystems on board with the exception of the high-energy laser, which will be represented by a surrogate low-power laser.
The Advanced Tactical Laser system has some skeptics on Capitol Hill, who believe the Pentagon is moving too quickly with its development.
In a report accompanying its version of the 2006 Defense Authorization Act, the House Armed Services Committee stated that it has doubts about the feasibility of the system. The committee indicated that it believes that U.S. Special Operations Command, which funds the effort, has “more urgent and useful priorities,” and reduced the $61.8 million funding request for the program by $20 million.
The Senate Armed Services Committee called the Advanced Tactical Laser a “potentially promising concept,” but recommended reducing the 2006 budget request for the program by $15 million in an effort to slow the work.
The Senate reduced the request for the program by $10 million in its version of the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act, the House cut $20 million, and the two compromised with a $12 million reduction.
Meanwhile, another aerospace contractor is working to promote the use of laser systems within the Defense Department. Laser technology development is currently outpacing military plans to field and use such systems, according to Richard Dunn, a senior analyst at the Northrop Grumman Analysis Center in Arlington, Va.
Northrop Grumman currently works on Pentagon laser programs including the Joint High Power Solid State Laser, Airborne Laser and Tactical High Energy Laser.
Lasers may ultimately challenge traditional projectiles as the primary way to strike military targets, Dunn said at a Jan. 17 briefing for reporters at the National Press Club in Washington.
Lasers with powerful levels from one to 10 kilowatts could be used to blind enemy forces, destroy sensors, detonate land mines and destroy some aircraft at short range, according to charts Dunn used at the briefing. Power levels of 100 kilowatts or above could be used to destroy aircraft at long range as well as artillery rockets and shells.
Lasers are prized for their ability to strike quickly and repeatedly, with high accuracy, according to the charts. Lasers are also less expensive per shot than many munitions, including ground-based missile defense interceptors, according to the charts.
Missions that can best take advantage of lasers are generally those characterized by the need for precision, speed and numbers of shots rather than destructive power against heavily armored targets, according to the charts.
Limitations include line-of-sight dependence, possible eye-safety issues and the ability of atmospheric distortion to affect laser beams, according to the charts.
The charts promote the use of lasers for a variety of purposes, including space-based missile interceptors. Northrop Grumman was a member of an industry team developing a prototype system for this purpose called the Space Based Laser that was canceled in 2002.
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