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After Warships, Laser Directed Energy Weapons becoming ready to be deployed on Aircrafts, Drones and Vessels

“Laser weapons are no longer a technological problem, It’s one of integration at the service level,” according to Lockheed executives. “The technologies now exist,” said Paul Shattuck, company director for Directed Energy Systems. “They can be packaged into a size, weight, power and thermal which can be fit onto relevant tactical platforms, whether it’s a ship, whether it’s a ground vehicle or whether it’s an airborne platform. “That doesn’t mean that giant city-melting lasers are on their way. Right now, the weapons are limited to the 15-30 KW scale; going much further requires figuring out how to deal with atmospheric interference, an issue which becomes more complicated with weapons mounted on airborne systems.”

The Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) offer a transformational ‘game changer’ to counter asymmetric and disruptive threats, while facing increasingly sophisticated traditional challenges.Laser technology provides major advantages for military applications due to High precision and rapid on-target effect, precise and scalable effects, Avoidance of collateral damage caused by fragmenting ammunition, Low logistics overhead and minimum costs per firing.

US is not alone in working to perfecting laser weapons. Russia, UK,  China and other countries also have similar programs.

The UK Ministry of Defence has officially awarded a £30m contract to produce a prototype laser weapon. The aim is to see whether “directed energy” technology could benefit the armed forces, and is to culminate in a demonstration of the system in 2019. The contract was picked up by a consortium of European defence firms comprising the companies MBDA, Qinetiq, Leonardo-Finmeccanica GKN, Arke, BAE Systems and Marshall ADG.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov has also revealed that the Russian military has commissioned several types of laser weaponry. Borisov said that laser weapons are no longer a novelty for the Russian armed forces, with the military already in the process of commissioning and even adopting several types of laser-based weapons systems.China too is involved in the work on laser weapons. In 2014, it was reported that an experiment by the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics resulted in the downing of a small drone hit from a distance of two kilometers.”

Laser Weapons on Warships

The  US Navy plans to fire a 150-kw weapon off a test ship within a year, Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall, director, Surface Warfare Division said. “Then a year later, we’ll have that on a carrier or a destroyer or both.” “The Navy will be looking at ships’ servers to provide three times that much power,” says Donald Klick, director of business development, for DRS Power and Control Technologies. “To be putting out 150 kws, they (the laser systems) will be consuming 450 kws.”

New Navy platforms such as the high-tech destroyer, the DDG 1000 or USS Zumwalt, is engineered with an electric drive propulsion system and extra on-board electrical power called an Integraed Power System. The integrated power system (IPS) powered by two massive Rolls Royce MT-30 gas turbines and two smaller Rolls-Royce RR450– allow the ships to route and generate 80 mega-watt power –almost as much as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The IPS could free up as much as 80 percent of the ship’s power dedicated to propulsion within a fraction of a second. It’s the first US ship to use electric propulsion and produces enough power to one day support the futuristic  laser weapons.

In 2014, US Navy’s deployed  30-kilowatt Laser Weapon System (LaWS) on USS Ponce, the first laser weapon to have attained Initial Operating Capability (IOC) by virtue of being deployed in a combat theater. The system, offers military leaders precision accuracy at cost as low as a dollar per shot. ONR showed off a video in which the LaWS system — mounted on the ship’s super structure above the bridge — disabled a small Scan Eagle-sized UAV, detonated a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) and burned out the engine of a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB).

The LaWS system integrates six solid-state IR beams, tunable to either low output for warning and sensor crippling, or high output for target destruction. The system is powered and cooled by a so-called “skid” that provides power through a diesel generator and is separate from Ponce’s electrical systems.

General Atomics now plans to start testing another potentially revolutionary weapon, a 150-kilowatt class laser Tests possibly on AC-130 gunship. Bradley Heithold, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, in an interview with Breaking Defense. “The technology is ripe for application on an AC-130.”

General Atomics hopes to see AFSOC install a version of the weapon on the AC-130 gunship in the next few years. They also envision equipping the company’s new jet-powered Predator C Avenger drone with a laser derived from their High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS).

US Army to develop laser weapons by 2023

The US Army is working on developing offensive and defensive directed-energy laser weapons to enhance military capabilities. U.S. Army representative Mary J. Miller said that American armed forces will be equipped with high-energy laser weapons by the year 2023. Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Miller said the Army is committed to developing offensive and defensive directed-energy weapons, including high-energy lasers. Lockheed Martin has already demonstrated a high-energy laser capable of burning holes in a Ford F-150 at distances of more than a mile under a $25 million contract.

Lasers have been promised for a long time, but they’ve never held up and delivered what was asked for, so the operators are rightfully skeptical,” Miller said to lawmakers. However, the Army is currently testing laser weapons in “operational environments” with the goal of delivering reliable directed-energy weapon systems within 10 years. “We have to make sure the lasers work and do the full set of scopes against the threats we project,” Miller said. “And those threats include the counter-rockets, counter-artillery and counter-mortar as well as [unmanned aerial vehicle] and cruise missile threats.” The weapons are scheduled to be developed and integrated into the Indirect Fire Protection Capability programme by 2023.

The US Army has already revealed its high-energy laser mobile demonstrator (HEL MD) programme. The HEL MD incorporates a laser and vehicle-mounted beam director, in addition to enhanced multi-mode radar (surrogate radar) support. Lockheed won the $25 million HEL MD contract from the Army with the aim of delivering a working prototype 60-kilowatt fiber-optic laser by Dec.  2016. The company’s 30-kilowatt ATHENA laser capable of burning holes in a Ford F-150 at distances of more than a mile, is now a success. Lockheed Martin is now working to double the power of its ATHENA laser by and keep the entire laser gun small enough to install aboard a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck.

U.S. Army’s Robust Electric Laser Initiative (RELI) project

Lockheed Martin Laser and Sensor Systems (Bothell, Wash., U.S.A.) received US$14 million under the RELI program in 2010 to design a HEL weapons system that works a bit like an inverse prism, using spectral beam combining of multiple custom fiber lasers with slightly different wavelengths to create a single high-power beam.

Lockheed demonstrated a 30 kW version of its electric fiber laser in January 2014, the “highest power ever documented while retaining beam quality and electrical efficiency,” according to the company. The laser system uses 50 percent less electricity than more conventional solid-state designs, which means it requires less cooling and thus takes up less space.

In February 2014, the U.S. Army followed up on this successful testing with a US$25 million contract for Lockheed to take the fiber system to “weapons-grade” at 60 kW. Lockheed claims that a 60 kW system is powerful enough to down fast-moving targets as well as mission systems on military platforms including aircraft, trucks and ships. The next step is to integrate the fiber laser on the Army’s HEL MD. The company expects to reach 100 kW within the next year or two.

Vehicle-mounted Boeing HEL MD tested successfully

The Army is also developing a mobile high-energy solid-state laser program called the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, or HEL MD. The weapon mounts a 10 kilowatt laser on top of a tactical truck. HEL MD weapons developers, who rotate the laser 360-degrees on top of a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck, say the Army plan is to increase the strength of the laser up to 100 Kilowatts, service officials said.

“The supporting thermal and power subsystems will be also upgraded to support the increasingly powerful solid state lasers. These upgrades increase the effective range of the laser or decrease required lase time on target,” an Army statement said

In November of 2013, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command used the HEL MD, a vehicle-mounted high energy laser, to successfully engage more than 90 mortar rounds and several unmanned aerial vehicles in flight at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

The prototype HEL MD system incorporates a commercial-off-the-shelf 10 kW solid-state fiber laser at an infrared (IR) wavelength around one micron. Fiber lasers typically require less power to maintain high beam quality and are more compact than other HEL designs. The laser and beam control system are mounted on a truck adapted to carry the laser and its accompanying cooling system. The adaptive-optics system, a subset of the beam control system, uses mirrors, high-speed processors and high-speed optical sensors to reshape and align the beam so it focuses directly on the target in real time.

The Army and General Dynamics Land Systems are developing a Stryker-mounted laser weapon aimed at better arming the vehicle to incinerate enemy drones or threatening ground targets. Concept vehicles are now being engineered and tested at the Army’s Ft. Sill artillery headquarters as a way to quickly develop the weapon for operational service.

 

Laser Weapons on Airborne platforms

After warships US has plans to employ laser weapon on airborne platforms, US Air Force is pursuing laser weapons systems (LWS) along with high powered electromagnetics (HPEM) to enable operations in a possible future battlespace involving a technologically advanced adversary, one with the ability to prevent or deny access to their ability to operate in a given area. There is also increased interest in defending against Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and hypersonic weapons.

Enemy surface-to-air threats to manned and unmanned aircraft have become increasingly sophisticated, creating a need for rapid and effective response to this growing category of threats. High power lasers can provide a solution to this challenge, as they harness the speed and power of light to counter multiple threats. Laser weapon systems provide additional capability for offensive missions as well—adding precise targeting with low probability of collateral damage. For consideration as a weapon system on today’s air assets though, these laser weapon systems must be lighter and more compact than the state-of-the-art has produced, says DARPA.

‘I believe we’ll have a directed energy pod we can put on a fighter plane very soon,’ Air Force General Hawk Carlisle has claimed at the Air Force Association Air & Space conference in a presentation on what he called Fifth-Generation Warfare, according to Ars Technica.

The Marines want to move toward laser weaponry as soon as possible, According to Marine Corps Combat Development Command head Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh. The Marine Corps would first start with putting the system on its KC-130 tanker planes. Walsh says the plane is a better fit to start due to its size, weight, and power restrictions, and due to the space needed for current laser weapons.

 

US Air force’s requirement

Mica Endsley, a chief scientist with Air force said, “We will be transitioning into airborne platforms to get them ready to go into program of record by 2023”. Endsley added that the Airforce plans to start using the technology with large transport planes until miniaturization efforts allow the weapon to fire from fighter jets. The Air Force scientist said the laser system could be used for air-to-air combat, counter drone, counter-boat, ground attack, and missile defense. She added that the energy to fire an aircraft laser cannon would come from on-board jet fuel, allowing for thousands of shots.

“The real advantage is it would have a much more extended magazine. Instead of having five, six, seven missiles today, with a directed energy weapon, you could have thousands of shots with a gallon of gasoline – a gallon of jet fuel,” Endsley said.

Air Force Research Laboratory released a request for information (RFI) for a laser weapon that could be mounted on next-generation air dominance fighters by the 2030s. The Air Force is interested in three categories of lasers: low-power for illuminating, tracking, targeting, and defeating enemy sensors; moderate-power for protection to destroy incoming missiles; and high-power to offensively engage enemy aircraft and ground targets. The Air Force plans to scale-up laser weapon to 150 kW and then 200 kW. A 200 kW laser cannon will be able to destroy surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles apart from armored vehicles on the ground.

USAF officers discuss requirement of tactics, techniques and procedures for laser weapons

During the second annual Directed Energy Summit in Washington, D.C., Air Force leaders expressed their eagerness to get the capability into the field. Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, the head of Air Force Special Operations Command said the Air Force needs the capability to silently and quickly sabotage enemy systems without raising alarm – an option afforded by the silent and invisible lasers. “I’m a firm believer that it’s time we take directed energy in the form of high-energy lasers and move it into the battlefield on an AC-130 gunship.” Heithold said. “The next weapon is a directed energy weapon.”

AC-130 is powered by the four Rolls-Royce T56-A-15 engines each producing 3.9 megawatts of power, enough to power a 200 kW laser weapon.  AC-130 is a lot bigger than the Predator as well, hence a 150 kW weapon would easily fit aboard a gunship.

A lot of pragmatic challenges remain for directed energy weapons to become reality. Heithold said some of the biggest issues are the size and weight of a potential laser before it can be installed on a plane. “You get 5,000 pounds and you get that pallet position. Design it to fit in that area,” he told the conference, motioning to an area forward of the wings on a C-130.

Lt. Gen. William Etter would also like a laser, but for a different mission set than Heithold. As the commander of the 1st Air Force, it’s his job to keep the skies over America safe. That could involve using a laser to knock down an incoming missile. But using a laser to hit a missile means making sure the laser doesn’t cause collateral damage. “We’ve got an additional consideration, though, and this is pretty important to us: We’ve got to make sure that we don’t hit the other folks,” Etter said. “Because in the homeland we have civilian airliners, we have small aircraft, you can range even up to a satellite. … We have to be exactly precise.” Etter also wants a laser small enough to mount on a plane, since a directed energy-equipped F-22 or F-35 could quickly travel to whichever part of the nation was under threat from incoming missiles.

Directed energy could also fill in an emerging gap in missile defense, the ability to hit fast moving targets, he said. “We currently don’t have anything that’s going to shoot down a hypersonic vehicle,” Etter said, referencing missiles that can travel at speeds of Mach 5. “The policy has not kept up with the threat,” Etter said. “The policy’s actually more difficult than the actual technology. I need rules of engagement. Are we shooting down a [small drone], are we shooting down an aircraft?”

And there’s going to be a whole host of other things to consider too, “It’s going to take confidence building,” Lt. Gen. (ret.) Henry “Trey” Obering told Air Force Times. “It’s going to take tabletops and war-games and exercises.”

“You make sure [airmen] are understanding and educated on what the potential and what the capabilities are, and they in turn begin to understand how they will fit that into their tactics, techniques and procedures,” he said. It could be something as simple as getting airmen comfortable with the fact that they’re firing a weapon that’s invisible and makes little noise.

 

DARPA’s HELLADS

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded Northrop Grumman a $10.4 million contract modification under what’s called its Endurance project. Endurance grew out of DARPA’s Excalibur program, which developed a 100-megawatt system using a 21-element optical phased array that reduced the size, weight and power requirements for a laser. Now, the agency is looking to further miniaturize a system that can be pod-mounted on a manned or unmanned vehicle and use a lightweight beam director to track and engage incoming targets.

HELLADS “is designed to counter rockets, artillery, mortars; counter cruise missiles; counter air[craft]; defend against surface to air missiles,” said Michael Perry, the vice president in charge of the company’s laser programs. During the tests at White Sands, the targets could include real rockets, real mortars, and real missiles. “There’s a whole variety of targets that will be shot with this system,” Perry said.

The goal of the HELLADS program is to develop a 150 kilowatt (kW) laser weapon system that is ten times smaller and lighter than current lasers of similar power, enabling integration onto tactical aircraft to defend against and defeat ground threats. With a weight goal of less than five kilograms per kilowatt, and volume of three cubic meters for the laser system, HELLADS seeks to enable high-energy lasers to be integrated onto tactical aircraft, significantly increasing engagement ranges compared to ground-based systems. The project goal is to develop a 150 kilowatt (kW) laser weapon system with maximum weight of 750 kg (1,650 lb) and maximum envelope of 3 cubic meters (70.6 cubic feet).

According to The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), enemy threats to aircraft, both manned and unmanned, have grown increasingly sophisticated and necessitate a powerful response. HELLADS could be the answer, with lasers to counter multiple threats with the power and the speed of light. In addition to defense purposes, combat lasers could also be of great help in offensive missions, as they would allow for precise targeting while minimizing the extent of collateral damage.

“The technical hurdles were daunting, but it is extremely gratifying to have produced a new type of solid-state laser with unprecedented power and beam quality for its size,” said Rich Bagnell, DARPA program manager. “The HELLADS laser is now ready to be put to the test on the range against some of the toughest tactical threats our warfighters face.”

The HELLADS program has been developing an electrically driven solid state laser at greatly reduced size and weight over lasers of similar power for tactical use. The laser was developed by DARPA performer General Atomics.

The technology behind HELLADS is a liquid laser in which the fluid lasing medium contains the active chemical species pumped for laser action, uses rare earth minerals. While the details of the design are classified, industry veterans have speculated that the liquid is actively cooled to avoid the problems inherent in solid-state HELs.

DARPA wants to integrate HELLADS with UAVs, and this third-generation prototype from General Atomics is compact enough for the job. General Atomics plans to integrate this laser system with the Predator C Avenger UAV for deployment by 2017.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have already carried live-fire tests at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. A Predator drone armed with a 150-kilowatt laser is is being fired at a wide variety of airborne targets over the next 18 months. Michael D. Perry, General Atomics vice president of laser and electro-optic systems, said the laser is close to being operational. “We shot several targets,” he said. “These are not benign things.”

HELLADS Combat Lasers on War planes by 2020

GA already has developed a smaller, self-contained Generation 3 High Energy Laser and is working on an even more compact Gen 4 HEL to respond to AFSOC commander Heithold’s goal of putting such a weapon on AC-130 gunships by 2020.

The possible targets for an AC-130 laser are many, Heithold said. The silent, invisible beam might be used prior to a hostage rescue mission, for example, to covertly disable motor vehicles, boats, airplanes or any other “escape mechanism” an enemy might use to move the hostages or flee from U.S. forces. The laser might also be used to disable or disrupt an enemy’s communications, he said.

General Atomics explains. “An objective unit cell laser module with integrated power and thermal management is being designed and fabricated and will demonstrate an output power of >34 kW.” He said the current design can get off five or six shots before needing to recharge, which happens in the air, over the course of several minutes.

For now, the HELLADS project still has a long way to go. After the field tests, the military services will further refine and test the system before it clears operational use.

 

AFRL’s SHiELD

AFRL has two major integration and demonstration programs at the moment: the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHIELD) and the Demonstrator Laser Weapon System (DLWS). The former addresses the risk of integrating on LWS onto an aerial platform, while the latter demonstrates the effect of a fully integrated ground-based LWS against representative targets.

The SHiELD Advanced Technology Demonstration (ATD) is a two-phased effort to showcase the ability of a podded laser system. The program will develop and integrate a more compact, medium-power LWS onto a fighter-compatible pod to demonstrate effectiveness of an LWS in a relevant flight environ-ment for self-defense against ground-to-air and air-to-air weapons. The purpose of the SHiELD ATD is to reduce and retire the risk of an airborne LWS in a calculated and precise fashion, meeting and resolving the technical challenges of power-scaling, beam quality, thermal management, and packaging.

In its first phase, the flight demonstration is expected to prove that targets can be tracked at sufficient range and speed to subsequently engage with a laser. In the next phase, a moderate-power laser will be incorpor-ated to assess the performance of the LWS in an operationally relevant environment. Flight tests should occur in the FY20 timeframe. Air Combat Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory are working on a program to place a 30-kilowatt powered laser into an externally carried pod.

AFRL is in the early stages of a separate program to develop a smaller laser that can fit inside a pod no larger than a standard 600-gallon external fuel tank and be used to defend legacy fighter aircraft such as the F-16 or F-15 against surface-to-air missiles.

 

 Russia have developing many types of laser weapons

Russia’s Defense Ministry has revealed that the military has commissioned several new types of laser weaponry, without further elaborating on any specifics of the system. The term “weapons based on new physical principles” was coined in the 1980s by Soviet military officials and used in reference to directed-energy weapons, geophysical weapons and wave-energy weapons, among others.

Russia is developing laser weapons alongside with the US, army general Yury Baluevsky, former Chief of the Russian General Staff, told RIA Novosti. Citing a statement made by Matthew L. Klunder, Chief of US Naval Research, Baluevsky asserted that the last four months of testing a ship-based laser weapon system “have exceeded all expectations.” According to him, the US Navy has developed a new combat laser capable of destroying small vessels and UAVs.

Russia’s work on laser weapons is focused on air-defense, but reportedly also comprises an aircraft-based system. Russian weapon expert Igor Korotchenko said “Russia are also supposed to develop and create an aircraft-based laser weapon. I should say such research needs a large amount of money, but it is needed to be done in order to maintain a technological balance with the US.”

 

Vehicle-Mounted Laser

Russia is developing vehicle mounted lasers for targeting threats like UAVs which can otherwise evade surface to air missiles.

Russian military science professor and the president at the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, Konstantin Sivkov has suggested that the Russian Armed Forces might have already passed into service the laser systems for jamming tank armament command systems. “There might also be laser weapons for the sea-based ballistic missile defense and for jamming optronic surveillance and target homing guidance equipment,” Sivkov said.

 

Airborne Laser

Russia is currently developing a plane with a new-generation laser weapon, a source in the Russian defense and industrial sector told TASS. “Work on a new-generation airborne laser weapon is currently under way,” the source said. According to the source, the talk is about a plane called A-60 by open sources. Media outlets reported earlier that the plane was being developed as part of the Sokol-Echelon R&D work.

The weapons based on new physical principles, including the aircraft-mounted laser which is currently being developed in Russia, will reliably ensure the national security, according to Igor Korotchenko, a respected Russian military analyst. He further explained that a powerful laser system mounted on an Il-76, a multi-purpose four-engine turbofan strategic airlifter, will be able to counter enemy reconnaissance systems. It’s guaranteed to disrupt optoelectronic equipment and field sensors operating in the infrared range in space, at sea, and on land.

“It is a known fact that similar military equipment is under development in the US, however the American airborne lasers are mostly targeting foreign intercontinental ballistic missiles and their re-entry vehicles,” the expert said. “And while the Americans haven’t been very successful here, Russia’s aircraft-mounted laser has proved its ability to successfully fulfil the set tasks,” he added.

Reports suggest that Russia’s flying airborne laser laboratory first took flight in 1981, and fired against an aerial target in April 1984. However, work ceased in the early 1990s for lack of funds.

 

Blinding Laser Weapons

Leonid Ivashov, president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, says that laser weapons could also be used by ground forces to blind the optronic equipment of the enemy. “These weapons will be used, first of all, by the ground forces as blinding equipment. Lasers will blind the optical intelligence equipment and fire control sight systems as well as some command and communication systems,” he said

US Navy report also confirmed Russia’s plans to develop laser weapons, “Russia plans to develop a high-energy laser weapon with anti-satellite and cruise missile defense capability, and is working on the weaponization of its laser energy systems.”

However, the report writes that Russia faces a challenge in weaponizing lasers, which involves “combining the beam into a solid state, which is dependent on its quality as well as atmospheric compensation. These systems require a high quality of manufacturing using mirrors, lenses, and exotic laser materials like diodes and non-linear optical crystals.”

 

China’s laser weapons

Chinese People’s Liberation Army also introduced portable laser weapons for military use, such as the PY132A, WJG-202, and BBQ-905 laser rifles. These laser weapons are expected to be very useful in blinding slow flying UAVs or in destroying thermal imagers of enemy tanks. Knocking out enemy security cameras and rendering sensors useless are also easier now with the use of these bad boys.

A powerful militarized laser developed by a joint venture between the Chinese Academy of Physics Engineering and Jiuyuan Hi Tech Equipment Corporation was unveiled at the Africa Aerospace and Defense 2016 tradeshow in South Africa.The Low Altitude Guard II, or LAG II, is a laser weapons system capable of firing a high-power 30 kilowatt laser beam to knock small airborne targets such as UAVs and drones out of the sky at a range of up to 2.5 miles.

Even with all this power, marketing agency Poly Technologies reports that the system is compact enough to be mounted on medium-sized trucks or 6×6 armored personnel carriers. Using a eletro-optical guidance system, the weapon is capable of using directed energy as a defense against small incoming aircraft.

A Russia media has recently exposed: China’s Aviation Research Institute No. 611 is doing research for the development of J-28, its sixth-generation fighter jet. Year 2020 will be the deadline of China’s sixth generation fighter, according to report. It will carry very high powered laser directed energy weapon, enough to melt a nuclear missile launched from any planet or satellite in solar system. The report says as the United States has conducted enough survey to know the Mars, it is expected that the US will establish a nuclear missile base in 2018.

To underscore Beijing’s fixation with laser weaponry, the Hong Kong Standard reported Nov. 15 that the Chinese have developed a laser-based anti-missile, anti-satellite system. “China’s system shoots a laser beam that destroys the [guidance systems] and causes the projectile to fall harmlessly to the ground,” the paper said.

 

Experts still doubtful of their future reality

Valerie C. Coffey wrote in “Optics and photonics”: The biggest challenge for researchers is creating a laser that can reach high enough powers to partially destroy or defeat a target while tracking numerous objects simultaneously. In turbulent atmospheric conditions, like dust and humidity, the laser must propagate efficiently and stay accurately focused on the target. The system must compensate for the movement of the target, the motion of the platform and the distortion of the beam from weather or environmental conditions. The platform must be compact enough to fit on a vehicle or even a soldier’s shoulder, while the optics must be ruggedized to withstand shock and high irradiance. In addition to these requirements for size, weight and power (SWaP), they must be safer to use than chemical-based high-energy lasers.

Professor of Military Sciences Vadim Kozyulin points out, “the problem with laser weapons is that to function they require an enormous amount of energy. The main problem is to create a battery capable of feeding the laser cannon so that it can fire not one but several hundred shots.”

Subrata Ghoshroy of MIT’s Science, Technology and Global Security Working Group wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: Any weapon that relies upon light traveling through the atmosphere runs into the problems of dust, humidity, and fog—features which absorb and scatter the laser energy. In addition, atmospheric distortions such as turbulence can deflect a beam of light. And at the same time that the photons in a laser’s beam must overcome all of these obstacles, they must also stay focused in a tight column and keep advancing forward without diminishing in power. Meanwhile, the user of the laser weapon must account for the movement of the target, the movement of the firing platform, and any decoys, dummies, or multiple war warheads that the enemy throws up.

Moreover, lasers can only be used in certain weather conditions. They can’t, for example, be used in cloudy and humid conditions. Dmitry Litovkin, writes for RIR “For this reason the LaWS were tested in the Persian Gulf, which usually has sunny weather, and not in Alaska with its fog, rain and snow.”

Sea air is full of moisture, which can weaken and distort the laser beam. Higher altitude air is clearer, but airborne lasers still require sophisticated corrective optics to stay focused on their target.

“Air applications actually can be the most challenging,” said AFRL laser guru David Hardy. “On a ship, I’m probably going to have more SWAP [Size Weight And Power] than I’m going to have on an aircraft,” Hardy said. What’s more, he went on, “aircraft tend to shake more than a ship does: A ship rolls but it doesn’t vibrate as much.” Vibration is hard on any complex machinery, but it’s especially problematic for a laser, which has to hold its beam steady enough to burn through a single spot on the target.

 

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