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U.S. Investment in Lasers Starting to Pay Off

by: Matthew Potter
July 29, 2010

Category: Boeing, Business Line, Companies, Department of Defense, development program, Events, Lockheed Martin, MDA, Military Aviation, missile defense, Northrop Grumman Corp., production program, Raytheon, S&T, Services, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy | RSS 2.0

The idea of laser weapons has been a fixture of science fiction novels and movies. The idea of an almost unlimited range and power weapon using light has caught the imagination of people for decades. Now different U.S. defense contractors working for a variety of customers are starting to see some accomplishments in this area.

Raytheon (RTN) has begun testing a point defense system for use on U.S. Navy ships that successfully engaged drones and destroyed them in an at-sea test. The electric powered system is mounted on a Phalanx weapon system that currently provides close in defense against missiles using a 20 mm gatling gun. There are reports that Raytheon will be using a similar system as part of a proposed defensive system for U.S. Army helicopters designed to protect against infra-red guided surface-to-air missiles.

Boeing (BA) has been developing a light weight laser system to defend against weapons such as the artillery, mortars and rockets. The High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HEL TD) will be integrated onto an Army standard HEMTT transport vehicle. This truck made by Oshkosh (OSK) will have Boeing’s beam control system installed to support further testing in 2011.

One of the oldest laser “weapon” programs in development by the United States has been the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB). This mounts a high power chemical laser onto a modified Boeing 747. The system when it enters service will be used to engage theater ballistic missiles to provide missile defense. The overall program is supported by Lockheed Martin (LM) who make the Beam Control/Fire Control System. This provides fire control for the Northrop Grumman (NOC) produced laser that is used to destroy the target. The ABLT had success in tests earlier this year but the program has been scaled back significantly by the Obama Administration as part of their defense reforms.

These systems demonstrate that the focus of current U.S. research and development is on defensive systems to protect troops, ships and aircraft. The ALTB is also a defensive weapon but scaled up to destroy ballistic missiles. The footprint of the laser systems and their need for decent amounts of power and chemicals dictate that the vehicle and ship mounted systems be short ranged.

As more data and experience is gathered with these types of systems they can be increased in power and capability and ultimately perform more missions. The end game should be the development of some sort of offensive weapon that will replace artillery and potentially small arms and infantry support weapons. Then it will be like the laser guns of science fiction novels and movies.

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