Silent, invisible, deadly: The weapon that could change warfare
This month, the Force awakens in theaters. Next month, a new force awakens in the New Mexico desert, where the Defense Department is to start testing a weapon worthy of “Star Wars” — a silent, invisible laser that needs just a couple of seconds to burn a hole in targets miles away.
“What it really boils down to is a silent weapon that nobody sees or hears,” said Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC, pronounced “AFF-sock”).
Heithold is eager to put a laser cannon on four or five of AFSOC’s three dozen or so AC-130 gunships. AC-130s are typically used to cover special operations troops on nighttime missions.
“I think we can do this now,” Heithold said of the laser weapon. “When I say now, I’m talking about by the close of the decade.”
If Heithold is right, that’s a revolutionary turn of events — after decades of costly research.
A laser — the word is an acronym meaning “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” — is an intense beam of light that can be produced using a variety of materials. Bursts of energy are “pumped” into a “gain medium,” which can be a gas, liquid or solid, to excite the gain medium’s electrons and release photons.
“You create the laser beam inside the airplane, and you steer it off the left, just like we do our guns.”
– Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold
Low-power lasers are a major part of modern life, using helium and neon gas to generate harmless light beams that do everything from scanning bar codes to changing TV channels to providing lecturers with handy pointers.
Higher-power lasers are used for everything from eye surgery to drilling precision holes in diamonds and steel, and those can damage a person’s eyesight or cause other injury.
But while visions of lasers powerful enough to kill people or knock aircraft out of the sky or sink boats have been a staple of sci-fi since “Star Wars” was just a gleam in George Lucas’s eye, laser cannons are only now on the verge of becoming reality.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Defense Department spent billions of dollars experimenting with laser weapons that relied on gases or liquids to generate extremely powerful beams.
The Air Force tested airborne chemical lasers by installing them in both a C-130 cargo plane and a 747 passenger jet. But those lasers were large, heavy, ghastly expensive and required the aircraft to return to base after only a few shots to refuel the chemicals.
“Laser weapon systems have been demonstrated a number of times. It’s just that none of them have really made the step of going into operation in the field,” said Mark Kramer, the Air Force manager for the upcoming New Mexico tests.
A 1999 Pentagon review concluded that chemical lasers were impractical as weapons, leading academics and the industry to shift their attention to “electrically pumped” solid-state lasers of two kinds: “bulk” and “fiber.” Both types generate their beam by sending electricity into laser diodes — tiny semiconductors — that convert the electricity into powerful light that is pumped into the gain medium.
Bulk lasers use slabs or strips of rare earth minerals — ytterbium, for example — as their gain medium. Fiber lasers “gang” fiber-optic cables together as the gain medium.
The laser set to begin live-fire tests at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, in January uses rare earth minerals. It was developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of Poway, Calif., the company that produced the revolutionary MQ-1 Predator drone. Its precise power levels are classified, but Michael Perry, the company’s vice president for laser programs, said the experimental weapon’s beam is in the 150-kilowatt class. That’s more than 100 times the power needed to heat an electric oven to 350 degrees.
The General Atomics laser is five times more powerful than the only laser the military has fielded, the 30-kilowatt-class Laser Weapon System, a fiber laser the Navy developed that has knocked down small drones and crippled small boat swarms in tests at short range. That laser was installed on the USS Ponce, an Afloat Forward Staging Base deployed to the Middle East, in 2014. This past October, the Navy awarded Northrop Grumman a $53 million contract to develop a more powerful shipboard laser.
The General Atomics laser is to be tested at White Sands for 18 months or more by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force Research Laboratory. The testers will fire live laser shots at a broad range of airborne targets, including rockets, artillery, mortars, cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles.
The laser’s design was frozen in 2011, and the system is far too large to fit in an aircraft. But General Atomics has developed another version that fits in a box 12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 2 feet tall. General Atomics is also
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