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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Weapons Grade Lasers by Next Year

Defense contractor Northrop Grumman is promising the Pentagon that it'll have weapons-grade electric lasers by the end of 2008. Which means honest-to-goodness energy weapons might actually become a military reality, after decades of fruitless searching.

For the longest time, the military concentrated on developing chemical-powered lasers. They produced massively powerful laser blasts. But the noxious stuff needed to produce all that power makes the weapons all-but-impractical in a war zone. So the Defense Department shifted gears, and poured money into solid-state, electric lasers instead. Under its Joint High-Powered Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) project, these beams -- once considered too weak to do soldiers much good -- have made steady progress. Now Northrop is promising to hit what's widely considered to be the threshold for military-strength beams: 100 kilowatts. With that much energy, lasers should be able to knock mortars and rockets out of the sky.

Northrop's system combines a bunch of smaller lasers into a bigger one -- Death Star-style, sorta. In March, the company announced that it had completed the first of these eight "laser chains." Yesterday, the company said it had joined two of the chains together. What's more, the beam combo ran at peak power -- 30 kW -- "for more than five minutes continuously and more than 40 minutes total; and achieved electrical-to-optical efficiency of greater than 19 percent."

"We are completely confident we will meet the 100 kW of power level and associated beam quality and runtime requirements of the JHPSSL Phase 3 program by the end of December, 2008," Bob Bishop, a Northrop Grumman spokesman, tells Defense Daily.

And it's not the only energy weapon project that's making progress. The Army just gave Boeing a $36 million contract to develop a laser-firing truck. The company recently test-fired the real-life ray gun on its Advanced Tactical Laser -- a gunship equipped with a chemical-powered blaster. Raytheon has worked up a prototype of its Phalanx mortar-shooter that uses fiber lasers, instead of traditional ammo, to knock down targets. Even the eternally delayed, chemically powered Airborne Laser -- a modified 747, designed to zap ballistic missiles -- may finally get a long-awaited flight test.