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Manpackable Laser Weapons on the Way for U.S. Military’s Future Soldiers?

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By David Crane
defrev at gmail dot com

March 31, 2009

There’s a scene towards the end of the movie Congo (1995) where Laura Linney’s character, Dr. Karen Ross, slices through an attack force of homicidal and generally-disagreeable grey gorillas with a diamond-based portable laser weapon like a Ginsu knife through a ripe tomato. It’s scenes like this that excite the minds of U.S. military/DoD (Department of Defense) weapons developers, and encourage them to make them a reality. But lightweight, manpackable solid-state weapons-grade lasers a.k.a. weaponized lasers a.k.a. laser weapons have so far been relegated to the realms of science fiction and entertainment, but thanks to companies like Northrop Grumman and Boeing, they very well may become a reality in our lifetimes.

It’s being reported that Northrop Grumman has successfully developed a seven-laser-chain 105.5 kW solid-state laser called “Firestrike” that’s scalable up to 120 kW by adding an eigth chain. Firestrike’s scalable “building-block” approach was apparently the…

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answer to the long-sought weapon-level power question.

The Firestrike high-power laser, a product of the Joint High Power Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) program, was tested at five minutes of of continuous operation, and has been operated for a total duration of 85+ minutes to date. During the 5-minute test, the laser achieved electro-optical efficiency of 19.3 percent (19.3%), and reached full power in less than 0.6 seconds. Beam quality was better than 3.0.

So, how does it work? Here’s how Noah Shachtman of Wired Blog Network “Danger Room” fame explains it in his article Military Laser Hits Battlefield Strength (grammar-corrected):

In its lab, south of Los Angeles, Northrop combines 32 garnet crystal “modules” into “laser amplifier chains.” Shine light-emitting diodes into ‘em, and they start the laser chain-reaction, shooting out as much as 15 kilowatts of focused light. Combine all those beams into one, and you’ve got yourself a battlefield-strength ray.

While a 100-kilowatt (100kW) laser may have been the “proof of principle” sought for weapons-grade laser systems by DoD officials, a Northrop representative asserts that a 25-50kW laser has military utility, or as he/she puts it, is capable of “militarily useful effects, provided the laser has good beam quality, as Northrop’s system does.

But, don’t start counting your sliced, diced, and fricasseed enemy combatants just yet. Mr. Shachtman offers up this little nugget of celebration-mitigating buzzkill, er, caveat:

Does that mean energy weapons are a done deal? Hardly. There are still all sorts of technical issues–like thermal management and miniaturization, for instance, just to name two–that have to be handled first. Then, the ray gunners have to find the money. The National Academies figure it’ll take another $100 million to get battlefield lasers right.

And, in the current economic climate, and with an anti-defense-spending White House, that $100 million might not be all that easy to come up with in a timely fashion. Then again, next to the gargantuan dollar numbers of Obama’s mega-billion-dollar “stimulus” packages, $100 million does seem like a rather piddling sum for next-generation, paradigm-shift-level weapons tech. And, it’s green (we think), which Obama should like.

DefenseReview is curious as to what the battery power solution will be. Adequate battery power has been a constant thorn in the side of all future soldier/warfighter-type R&D programs to date.

By the way, as we briefly alluded-to above, Boeing is reported to have used a ground-based “kilowatt-class” solid-state laser called “Laser Avenger” to shoot down a UAS/UAV (Unmanned Aircraft System/Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) earlier this year. Previously, Laser Avenger’s primary claim to fame was as an IED (Improvised Explosive Device)/unexploded munitions neutralizer.

But, getting back to manpackable weaponized lasers, it will be interesting to see if they pass Hague, who’s perameters/restrictions the U.S. seems intent on following, even though we never signed on and we’re currently fighting a subnational conflict against an enemy with no flag or uniforms. It’s DefenseReview’s opinion that if we ever achieve truly manpackable 100kw+ lasers, the deterrent value alone is worth fielding them, let alone the warfighter-survability aspects.

Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman

Company Contact Info:

Northrop Grumman
1840 Century Park East
Los Angeles, California 90067-2199
310-553-6262 Office
http://www.northropgrumman.com/ Website

Boeing Corporate
100 North Riverside
Chicago, Illinois 60606
Main switchboard: 312-544-2000
Investor Relations: 312-544-2140
http://www.boeing.com Website

Boeing Integrated Defense Systems
P.O. Box 516
St. Louis, Missouri 63166
314-232-0232 St. Louis Office
562-797-2020 (Seal Beach, California)
http://www.boeing.com/ids Website

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About David Crane

David Crane started publishing online in 2001. Since that time, governments, military organizations, Special Operators (i.e. professional trigger pullers), agencies, and civilian tactical shooters the world over have come to depend on Defense Review as the authoritative source of news and information on "the latest and greatest" in the field of military defense and tactical technology and hardware, including tactical firearms, ammunition, equipment, gear, and training.
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