Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Today's laser weapons buzz may mean military deployment will be sooner than we think
Posted by John Keller
There's suddenly a lot of buzz in our industry about laser weapons development. Several different technological advances and upcoming laser weapons tests has me thinking that the first field deployments of laser weapons may be sooner than we think.
The latest news is a completed systems integration by Boeing Directed Energy Systems of the U.S. Army's truck-mounted High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HEL TD) -- a high-energy solid-state laser weapon designed to shoot down incoming rockets, mortars, artillery shells, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- and planned tests of the experimental weapon this fall at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
That announcement, which came on 27 June, follows closely on last week's $39.8 million contract award from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in San Diego to develop a 150-kilowatt high-energy solid-state laser weapon that could be mounted to ships, fighter aircraft, armored combat vehicles, and perhaps even unmanned vehicles. The contract is part of the fourth phase of the DARPA High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) program.
Just two months ago laser weapons experts from DARPA and the U.S. Navy demonstrated a high-energy laser off the California coast as the laser disabled the engines on a small boat. This demonstration was part of the military's Joint High Powered Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) program. The laser fired off California, called the Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD), was built by the Northrop Grumman Corp. Space Systems segment in Redondo Beach, Calif.
So what might all this activity in laser weapons research mean? It might mean nothing beyond several programs coming to fruition at the same time. On the other hand, it might mean a lot.
We often read in the press about nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile development in Iran. Now couple that with the upcoming demonstration of a powerful laser weapon designed to defeat incoming rockets and missiles. Coincidence? Maybe, and maybe not.
Despite several laser weapons research programs recently yielding promising technology, a lot more has to be done before these technologies deploy in fielded military systems. The military services first must demonstrated a tangible need for laser weapons, and then they need to find money in their budgets to develop and produce them. That's much more difficult than it sounds.
Still, we've developed high-energy laser weapons technology, and see a demonstrated threat out there. The rest is up to the U.S. military to put two and two together.