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Applications: Advanced Tactical Laser Combines Precision and Stealth

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
Amanda D. Francoeur,

The Boeing Co., the largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft, received a $30 million Extended User Evaluation contract from the US Air Force’s Air Armament Center to continue flight testing of the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) at Kirtland Air Force Base.

The ATL, a C130-Hercules gunship mounted with a chemical oxygen-iodine laser (COIL), includes beam control capability and optical sensing technology. The laser can target and destroy stationary and moving ground objects from a distance of 20 km, at an ideal altitude of 10,000 feet, with little to no collateral damage. Its high-energy and ultraprecision engagement technology could enable covert airborne operations and avoidance of high-risk situations.

The laser is mounted on the belly of a C130-Hercules gunship. The aircraft is used for airborne assault, search and rescue, scientific research support, weather reconnaissance, and aerial refueling and firefighting. Image courtesy of Boeing Missile Defense Systems.

A mixture of gasses

COIL is a mixture of chlorine and hydrogen peroxide molecules that stimulates iodine to produce the laser energy. It has the shortest wavelength – 1.315 μm – of any high-power chemical laser. It also is closed-cycle to prevent harmful exhaust from being emitted into the atmosphere and to allow the ATL to operate at any altitude. The beam, which is 10 cm wide, has a low heating power for targeting distant objects for up to 100 shots, marking it the “long-range blowtorch.” The laser also produces a 4-in.-diameter beam that can slice through metal at a distance of nine miles away.

The 100-kW-class ATL is fired through a rotating turret positioned underneath the aircraft. It moves at the speed of light, firing at several targets in rapid succession. Dwell times vary, depending on the distance of the target, and it takes approximately 5 s for the laser to relocate between each destroyed entity.

The above animated graphics depict the path of the ATL. The high-energy laser can target and destroy a stationary or moving object when positioned 20 km away at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Image courtesy of AFRL Directed Energy Directorate.

The high-energy laser not only destroys a target but also is projected to disable an entity with little or no effect on surrounding areas. Operators use an optical control bench, beam director, infrared surveillance and acquisition sensors to locate and identify only the intended entity. This advanced accuracy allows for humanitarian engagements and control of high-risk situations that may be necessary in urban environments and congested areas that are prone to terrorist or insurgent activities. Therefore, it is intended to prevent hostage or civilian fatalities.

Another advantage of the ATL is that, because of its potentially long firing range and silent, invisible strike, there would be no way of confirming that it was the source for a destroyed or disabled target. The laser does not leave behind ammunition remnants that could tie it to the destruction, bringing a whole new outlook to a covert operation.

The ATL is undergoing a series of ground and flight tests before it can be used in the field. Development for the laser began in 2002, with a $176 million contract awarded by the US Department of Defense’s Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrations. The finished ATL is projected to be deployed by spring.

beam control capabilitychemical oxygen-iodine laserdefenseindustrialoptical sensing technologySensors & DetectorsTrends

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