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Congress fast-tracks laser weapons

Photonics Spectra
Nov 2008
Melinda Rose, melinda.rose@laurin.com

WASHINGTON – As part of the $612.5 billion 2009 defense appropriations bill signed into law by President George W. Bush in mid-October, Congress fast-tracked Defense Science Board (DSB) recommendations that the military focus on the promise of directed energy weapons such as low-, medium- and high-power lasers, high-power microwaves and millimeter waves.

The appropriations bill, formally titled the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009, requires Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to submit a report by Jan. 1, 2010, to the Armed Services committees of both the House and Senate on implementation of the December 2007 recommendations of the DSB’s task force on directed energy weapons.

Directed energy offers “tremendous promise” for certain missions, DSB Chairman Dr. William Schneider Jr. wrote in a memo to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics about the task force’s report, and funding for laser weapons should be heavily focused on high-power solid-state lasers, on fiber lasers, on free-electron lasers for ship defense and on significantly improving beam control for some applications.

The task force reviewed all of the department’s directed energy programs, which was last done in 2001, and found that, “even after many years of development, there is not a single directed-energy system fielded today, and fewer programs of record exist than in 2001,” Schneider wrote. The single high-energy laser program of record, the Airborne Laser (ABL) for missile defense, continues to experience delays, the report said, while the Space-Based Laser has been abandoned.

First conceptualized in the early 1980s as a laboratory initiative, the current focus of the ABL program is to demonstrate missile shoot-down capability with a prototype chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) weapon system integrated into a Boeing 747.

The program was supposed to demonstrate that it could turn a laser system into an effective weapon by shooting down a missile back in 2003, but it lacked the technology to do so. Its plan now is to complete laser installation in the 747, to conduct a ground test of the weapon system, to demonstrate the airworthiness of the ABL and to shoot down a missile by late 2009.

As part of the 2009 defense budget, the director of Operational Test and Evaluation must evaluate testing conducted on the ABL and cannot use funds to procure a second aircraft until the secretary of defense certifies that the laser has a high probability of being operationally effective, suitable, survivable and affordable, Congress has said.

Years of major investments in chemical lasers have produced megawatt-class systems that could have a wide range of applications, the task force said, but size, weight and logistics issues limit them to integration on large platforms, resulting in reduced expectations and interest in such systems.

Solid-state lasers (SSLs), which could provide for smaller, lighter systems with deep magazines, should receive a major increase in investment to realize their potential, the task force said. A current major objective of the Joint High Power Solid State Laser program is to produce a 100-kW SSL.

Free-electron lasers (FELs) are unique because they use a relativistic electron beam as the lasing medium instead of bound molecular or atomic states. FELs are expected to produce power levels in the multimegawatt class, and the Navy is pursuing them to provide ship defense on a future all-electric ship.

Advances in electrically based solid-state and fiber lasers have made useful low-power applications achievable within only a few years. These include nonlethal applications at power levels of less than 1 W to tens of watts of average power. Low-power lasers can “dazzle” snipers and operators of small boats and jet skis as well as counter visible and infrared sensors and night-vision systems.

Such laser-based “optical incapacitation” devices have been used in Iraq to warn or temporarily incapacitate individuals, the task force said, and green laser (532 nm) systems currently used by Marines at vehicle check points, during convoy operations and on patrols can dazzle or temporarily blind people at a distance of 300 m or more.

High-power microwave technologies can be used to damage or disable electronic components in enemy communications networks.

Also as part of the defense appropriations bill, Congress boosted Department of Defense funding for science and technology by more than $300 million and increased university defense basic research funding by nearly $50 million over what the president requested.


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