The Pentagon is soon expected to select two competitors to continue working on the development of high-power laser technology that could be used for a range of purposes including anti-satellite efforts and weaponry for unmanned aircraft.
In the current phase of the Joint High Power Solid-State Laser Program, three companies and one research laboratory have contracts with the directed energy office of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) that are worth a combined total of $27 million, said AFRL spokeswoman Judy Johnston.
Th e current participants are Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory of Livermore, Calif.; Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif.; Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif. ; and Textron Inc. of Providence, R.I.
No more than two of them are expected to continue into the next phase, said Art Stephenson, Northrop Grumman’s director of directed energy systems. Under the next phase, which will be managed by the U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, companies are expected to work towards the development of 100-kilowatt lasers after having built 25-kilowatt hardware under the current phase, Stephenson said.
One industry source said that the decision, which is expected to be announced shortly, will result in Northrop and Textron continuing to work on the program. Johnston deferred comment on the matter to the Army.
At press time, Marco Morales, a spokesman for Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Arlington, Va., had not returned a request for comment regarding the status of the competition and the expected value of the awards in the next phase of the program.
High-power laser technology is much more mature with chemical-powered systems, according to Jackie Gish, director of technology development for directed energy systems at Northrop Grumman.
However, solid-state hardware offers the benefit of requiring far less logistical support to power the laser, she said.
Northrop Grumman recently conducted testing where it fired a 27-kilowatt beam for almost six minutes into a target that absorbs the laser’s energy, Gish said. The large laser the company used was in a laboratory setting and will likely need to be shrunk down by a factor of 10 before it could be used operationally, Gish said.
Bob Yamamoto, program manager for solid-state heat capacity laser work at Lawrence Livermore, said that Lawrence Livermore had conducted tests in recent weeks where it fired a 25-kilowatt laser for 10 seconds. While this time was much shorter than that of the test conducted by Northrop Grumman, Yamamoto noted that Lawrence Livermore uses different laser technology.
Lawrence Livermore is using a pulse laser, rather than a continuous-flow system, Yamamoto said. The pulsing nature of the beam puts more heat on the target in a shorter period of time , potentially allowing it to disable or destroy something much faster, he said.
Even a brief period like 10 seconds with a 25-kilowatt laser could be long enough to disable or destroy a target during a clear day where conditions like fog or a sandstorm do not disrupt the beam at a range of 1 kilometer or less, Yamamoto said. With the objective 100-kilowatt laser, the same damage could be done in 10 seconds or less at a range of 3 to 5 kilometers on a clear day, he said.
The high-power solid-state laser technology has the potential for a wide variety of military uses against targets on the ground, air and space, according to the industry officials.
Due to the challenge of shrinking the size of the laser hardware, initial applications would likely focus on equipping ships, ground vehicles and large aircraft, Gish said. As the hardware size is reduced, the lasers could be added to smaller fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, she said.
One mission that the military might want to use the lasers for is clearing minefields, Yamamoto said. The lasers could cause the mines to explode, or sizzle them in such a way that it does not cause a large hole in the ground that needs to be filled in with dirt if vehicles are to pass over, he said.
A high-power solid-state laser also could be used in a similar fashion to the chemical system on the Airborne Laser, an aircraft under development by Boeing Co. to destroy ballistic missiles in their boost phase, Yamamoto said. A laser-equipped aircraft also could disable or destroy satellites used by enemies, he said.