ARMY CONCEPT FIELD LASER: The U.S. Army hopes to better protect our troops by fielding in the next few years a mobile, ground-based laser weapon that can zap out of the sky multiple incoming rockets, missiles, or mortars. Live-fire tests of the compact, 100-kilowatt-class, solid-state laser technology’s capabilities for precision targeting and area defense missions are to begin by the end of this year. Image: PHOTO COURTESY OF NORTHROP GRUMMAN AEROSPACE SYSTEMS
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After more than a century of popular sci-fi fantasies that feature deadly energy weapons, including War of the Worlds, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Star Trek and Star Wars, it looks like the ray gun has finally arrived in the real world.
And even if the first ray guns out of the lab can barely fit on the bed of a 30-ton off-road truck rather than in a soldier’s palm, the novel, "speed-of-light" capabilities that lasers could bring to the battlefield has drawn the keen interest of the Pentagon brass, which spends about $400 million a year on directed-energy beam weapons.
At the end of this year, which marks a half-century of amazing progress in lasers, defense contractors Northrop Grumman and Boeing plan to test-fire a prototype mobile laser weapon against examples of the lethal ordnance—rockets, artillery, mortars—that insurgents in Afghanistan and elsewhere shoot at U.S. troops every day, says Mark Neice, director of the Department of Defense's High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office in Albuquerque, N.M. As long as such an area-defense system is fed electrical power (from the grid or battery packs), its 100-kilowatt, solid-state, or electric, laser should be able to use its “unlimited magazine” of low-cost shots and ultra-precision tracking/targeting system to zap out of the air multiple inbound munitions from several kilometers away, he explains.
Weapons engineers will use the live-fire tests of the one-micron-wavelength (infrared) beam, which will take place at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, "to validate our notional models of beam propagation," Neice says. These results, “will allow us to determine what targets we can take on, at what power levels, what ranges and so forth.” The U.S. Army hopes that laser cannons can shield its bases from insurgent attacks while minimizing the risk of collateral damage to the civilian populations among which guerrillas often hide. A cannon’s powerful beam will be able reach out to incoming weaponry, and either detonate, disable or knock them off-course, whereas its ultra-precision aiming capability would presumably enable troops to pick off ground targets without hitting nearby non-combatants.
The U.S. Air Force has in the meantime taken the lead in a project sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop even more powerful and compact solid-state lasers that could fit on combat aircraft. Such systems could provide the nation’s air arm with what Michael W. Zmuda, manager of the Air Force Research Lab’s Electric Laser on Large Aircraft (ELLA) program, calls the “game-changing capability” to carry out beyond-the-horizon, air-to-air engagements and precisely targeted, air-to-ground strikes. “It would open up a raft of new tactical and defensive roles, such as defeating targets that are close to our own troops while avoiding collateral damage to civilians and property, as well as a range [of] rapid-response missions against a whole new set of targets,” he says.