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Air Force wants solid-state not chemical lasers

Boeing has been working an Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) for quite some time and so far, the program has been successful. Earlier this month, the ALTB aircraft was able to successfully target and destroy a liquid-fueled short-range threat-representative ballistic missile. The missile was destroyed while boosting after being hit by the megawatt-class high-energy laser. The next target for live tests for the system was a solid fuel missile fired an hour after the liquid fuel missile was destroyed. The solid fuel missile was destroyed by the laser as well.

With the program spanning many years and now proving to be effective in the field, many would expect the Air Force to be salivating at the thought of fielding a fleet of missile killing laser aircraft. However, General Norton Schwartz, Air Force Chief of Staff has quashed any notions of moving to production for a fleet of airborne laser (ABL) aircraft.

Schwartz said while testifying before the House Armed Services Committee this week that the ABL test was "a magnificent technical achievement," reports DefenseTech. He went on to say that the ABL "does not represent something that is operationally viable."

The reason for the statement is that Schwartz believes that the "future coin of the realm" will be solid-state lasers rather than the chemical laser that Boeing designed for the ABL program.

The Boeing system was first deemed ready for flight-testing in October of 2006 and the first shoot down test was originally scheduled for 2008. In December of 2008, the Boeing system was able to fire its laser beam through its beam control guidance system for the first time.

Developments costs for the airborne laser program have totaled $8.2 billion according to the Daily Herald.

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Proof of concept?
By FoundationII on 2/24/2010 10:56:25 AM , Rating: 4
Well, it's still a great proof of concept. Perhaps it's not exactly what the USAF wants, but it's still a great demonstration of what it can do.

I wonder why they'd prefer to wait. Solid state lasers are superior in many ways, but it'll probably take years for them to become powerful enough (and we can't forget the batteries).
Oh well, the real reason will probably be classified and they'll claim it's 'not green enough' or something.

RE: Proof of concept?
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 2/24/2010 11:31:55 AM , Rating: 2
I wonder why they'd prefer to wait. Solid state lasers are superior in many ways, but it'll probably take years for them to become powerful enough (and we can't forget the batteries).

Simple reason to wait, MONEY. Remember half the cost would be the device itself... maybe less then half. You then have to train so many techs on how to mount, upkeep, and fix the Laser. It could take 10 years or longer before fully implemented... Well what if in 7 years they have the solid state laser in working shape. Well you can not just trash your liquid laser program, you have new equipment that cost a lot of money and so you'd be stuck with older technology...

RE: Proof of concept?
By kattanna on 2/24/2010 11:37:41 AM , Rating: 2
(and we can't forget the batteries)

im highly doubtful they will want to power it via batteries.

more likely, they are looking to combine a solid state laser to a capacitor that is charged by an active power source of some sort.

that would give it superior rate of fire and endurance.

RE: Proof of concept?
By Motoman on 2/24/2010 1:05:38 PM , Rating: 3 an airplane, the only place to take power off of is the jet engines. Maybe we'll wind up with a special version of the jet with an extra engine just to charge the caps.

To power a laser of that size for a long enough time to do damage would require massive caps - and they'd take a long time to recharge with a plane-mountable engine of any source. I reckon.

RE: Proof of concept?
By weskurtz0081 on 2/24/2010 2:50:31 PM , Rating: 2
Well, not really. Heavies also have APU's, and the only thing that would really stop them from using them in flight (that I can think of) would be ripping of the intake (depending on the type of intake). They could just redesign the intake, put it in a different place.

The problem with the solid state lasers being used on an air craft the size of a 747 isn't the problem. Those 4 engines have enough power to run something like that, the problem is the heat generation and how to dissipate it, or make the lasers so efficient that heat problems decrease.

RE: Proof of concept?
By Motoman on 2/24/2010 3:51:49 PM , Rating: 2
Build the laser with heatsinks that are one with the fuselage. Direct air transfer to the outside.

There, I fixed it.

RE: Proof of concept?
By Calin on 2/25/2010 3:36:35 AM , Rating: 2
You need to feed the laser electricity, not power - and the APU is small, as there is not much need for electricity in flight or for starting the engines.
However, there is no impediment to mount a big generator instead of the puny APU (fuel and generator mass can be overcome by using a bigger plane, if necessary), and cooling can be done with water evaporation (effective, even if mass intensive).

RE: Proof of concept?
By FITCamaro on 2/24/2010 10:24:03 PM , Rating: 2
Where do you think the power for a plane comes from? Electricity generated from turbines spun off the exhaust air of the jet engines. Just route that to the batteries.

I would think on the size of plane this would be on, those generators would be big enough to charge the laser in a reasonable amount of time.

RE: Proof of concept?
By Motoman on 2/25/2010 9:48:33 AM , Rating: 2
Yes, perhaps my expectation is unreasonable, but it just feels like the amount of electricity needed to recharge caps big enough to sufficiently power a laser of that size would be enormous.

IANAEE, so what do I know. Maybe it's not that much of an extra load...

RE: Proof of concept?
By mindless1 on 2/25/2010 5:27:52 PM , Rating: 2
The generator for a plane is not oversized enough to both provide the power the plane will still need, AND charge up massive capacitor banks in a short period.

Remember one goal in aircraft design is to keep weight down, to use an existing craft it will require a concession in that area to refit the craft with a generator that meets their needs.

RE: Proof of concept?
By Suntan on 2/24/2010 1:21:10 PM , Rating: 5
Perhaps it's not exactly what the USAF wants

That's just what he wants you to believe "officially."

"No, no, no Mr. Putin and Mr. Jintao. No worries. We have decided that we do not want to make any of these for our air fleet - after successfully demonstrating that they can, in fact, neutralize your long range weapons... So no need for you to do anything about it, we're just going to be sending this one demo unit out to the desert and then we'll throw away all the drawings. Nothing more to see here..."


RE: Proof of concept?
By ekv on 2/24/2010 5:16:37 PM , Rating: 3
I hope you're right, but I suspect that the people who cut NASA's budget, who cut the ground based missile defense (i.e. EKV), etc., are the ones cutting ABL.

It's interesting that the money wasted on the recent Senate "Jobs" bill, around $15B, would be more effectively spent on this program. If you get 10 planes then that'd be enough to scare the crap out of N.Korea and ... appease China and Putin. [I use "appease" because that's the current administrations dialog-first perspective. Personally I believe in peace-through-strength]. And another result, of course, is hi-tech jobs.

Waiting for megawatt-class solid-state lasers looks kind of like waiting for a hydrogen car. Interesting idea and all, but there are good cars available now. You don't have to buy a fleet ... just a couple prototypes. Enough to make Iran and N.Korea think twice, er, thrice.

Again, I hope you're right.

RE: Proof of concept?
By JackPack on 2/24/2010 8:49:16 PM , Rating: 1
That's just what he wants you to believe "officially."

LOL. Get real. It isn't too hard to see the show-stopping limitations of the current technology.

The fact is, flying a chemical laser on a 747-400 with a range of 600 km simply isn't realistic -- particularly when it's flying over an area with one of the world's most sophisticated air-defense networks.

How is that 747 supposed to get within the launching area of anything other than an island country?

You need a low-power solid-state laser to put on a stealthy drone. A 747 with a big laser is just easy target practice for S-300/S-400 systems.

RE: Proof of concept?
By ekv on 2/25/2010 4:13:00 AM , Rating: 3

Hmm, I wonder if AWACS are considered a high priority target? or perhaps Air Force 1? And of course we know that high priority targets aren't protected .... wait, maybe they are. How, do you think?

The range of a 747-400 can be extended by in-air refueling. Or Boeing could build another prototype using a 747-800. Range is not a technical challenge, realistically speaking.

Are you saying N.Korea has "one of the world's most sophisticated air-defense networks"? or Iran? I suppose if you consider N.Korea a proxy of China then yes they'd have access to some hi tech stuff. Some. Iran would be a proxy of Russia and hence there may be access to some S-300's. The S-400 does not appear to be ready for export...

Apparently HARMs (High speed Anti-Radiation Missiles) did quite well in Kosovo, suppressing enemy air-defenses. That would've been against Russian technology.

The newer AARGM ought to be fielded fairly soon ...

Additionally, though the ABL is designed for ballistic missiles, perhaps it'd simply be a matter of re-programming to take out something like an S-300.

Or, a modification of your idea, put AARGM on an appropriate UAV to suppress air-defenses and then you can loiter the ABL as necessary. I don't think we have any stealthy drone's in production, besides hand-launched units. Lots of stuff in the planning stages.

I don't see anything terribly show-stopping. Do you? Yes, it's not perfect, but it is kind of bad-a**
[just thought you'd like to check it out ... one more time 8]

As a side-note, can you explain why helicopters scared the hell out VC? do you think it may have been something psychological?

RE: Proof of concept?
By JackPack on 2/25/2010 6:57:45 AM , Rating: 2
You clearly don't get the point.

Boeing's Airborne Laser is supposed to kill a missile during the boost phase. The tests of the laser were around 100 km. Even if the program reaches its design goal of 300 or 600 km and can kill missiles at that range, it's still no good. A 747 cannot get to the launch area that quickly, except for small countries with large coastlines like North Korea. By the time it reaches the launch site in the heart of Iran, the crew of the airborne laser has failed its mission. The missile is long gone. That's a show-stopper.

HARM missiles don't help get that 747 in place any faster.

As for the ABL taking on S-300 missiles, that's pretty hard to imagine. The ABL has limited sensors and a limited arc of fire. The 747 would have turn to enagage missiles from behind. What about two missiles from different vectors? Game over.

BTW, S-400 systems are already in China.

RE: Proof of concept?
By ekv on 2/25/2010 3:37:22 PM , Rating: 3
And you clearly missed my point. With air superiority you can loiter an ABL indefinitely. In fact, what's to prevent you from loitering multiple ABL's? tag-team style even.

Answer me this, do you think there is any psychological advantage in having an ABL?

Launches, in case you didn't know, do not happen in a minute, or an hour, or overnight. We knew of the last N.Korea ballistic missile launches several days in advance. Same with Iran. More than several days, and that's all I'll say. We do have satellites. We can detect a missile being launched.

HARM and (soon) AARGM help suppress air-defenses. If you're N.Korea (or Iran), and you know I can put a number of ABL's anywhere inside your country are you still going launch? Now who has the show-stopper.

Did I say the ABL would take on the 48N6 or 9M96 missiles? While that's an interesting idea, and certainly a technological milestone we ought to strive for, the link I gave you, which you obviously did not read, says the ABL development team is looking to target planes and cars. The S-300 launcher is essentially a big car.

Please provide a link for S-400 systems "already in China."

RE: Proof of concept?
By 91TTZ on 2/25/2010 5:04:20 PM , Rating: 2
The range of a 747-400 can be extended by in-air refueling. Or Boeing could build another prototype using a 747-800. Range is not a technical challenge, realistically speaking.

When he referred to the range of the 747-400 ABL, he meant the range of the laser, not the aircraft. The 747 can fly thousands of miles but it won't be able to get close enough to the missile during its boost phase.

RE: Proof of concept?
By ekv on 2/26/2010 3:32:30 AM , Rating: 2
Thanks for your post.

However the point I was driving at was that technologically there really isn't a lot to stop this from being a small, but significant deterrent. Budgetary and other administrative challenges I do not address.

I attempted to discuss hurdles to not being "able to get close enough..." E.g. range of the 747 (and implicitly range of the laser), and S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries. I believe my thoughts, while not definitive, are pragmatic.

Using the ABL would involve serious decisions. But if a rogue nation is going to start lobbing nukes, what are you going to do? Right, you ask "Hey General, what are my options?" If you don't have EKV or ABL, then your General may say something like "bend over and kiss your *** good-bye." That may or may not be motivating to you, but it is to me.

How would the ABL not get close enough?

RE: Proof of concept?
By mdbusa on 2/24/2010 10:03:43 PM , Rating: 2
How incredibly ridiculous your post is.

He can fool ol Putin and Jintao but theres no fool'n suntan

I heard
By amanojaku on 2/24/2010 10:38:29 AM , Rating: 5
The Air Force said no because Boeing was having problems mounting it to a shark. True story.

RE: I heard
By Motoman on 2/24/2010 11:40:27 AM , Rating: 5
No, that's why the Navy didn't want it.

The Air Force wanted it mounted to a dragon. But the United Dragon Workers union felt that such a device demeaned their natural ability to breath fire, so the union walked.

RE: I heard
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 2/24/2010 12:02:20 PM , Rating: 4
"so the union walked."

Interesting... They most be related to the Canadian Goose. When you have wings you'd think you fly over things like the road... but instead they walk across the road a in a line to stop traffic for the maximum amount of time. Making you blast your horn and wish you could just run them down... I would imagine a line of dragons would be very impressive but I would not blast my horn.

By MrBlastman on 2/24/10, Rating: 0
RE: Look...
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 2/24/2010 11:37:17 AM , Rating: 2
You have to admit, it would be quite hilarious to fly around in a 747 and set random people's hair on fire with a laser beam a la Michael Jackson for the heck of it. I can definitely see the operators getting into some disciplinary situations with this thing.

Hmmm... so your saying you could just turn some people into some real FLAMERS, and they may not wish to be... Which will start up a Don't blast don't tell program. Yea, I could see that getting real ugly.

RE: Look...
By Adonlude on 2/24/2010 11:42:49 AM , Rating: 2
A megawatt laser would do closer to a tripod beam from The Day The Earth Stood Still than just setting hair on fire. Ouch!

RE: Look...
By MrBlastman on 2/24/2010 11:54:51 AM , Rating: 1
Not if you just flash the hair for a millisecond or two. It will be like a video game--they'll run around screaming with their hands up in the air while their hair is burning.

Fire ants!


RE: Look...
By marvdmartian on 2/24/2010 1:45:23 PM , Rating: 2
That's what is commonly known in the military as a "screaming alpha fire". ;)

RE: Look...
By Jaybus on 2/24/2010 4:53:11 PM , Rating: 2
A 1 megawatt laser delivers 1000 joules in a millisecond. A way to appreciate that energy level is to imagine a 50 gram tennis ball moving at a velocity of 200 meters per second (720 km/h), which has an equivalent kinetic energy of 1000 joules.

On a bright sunny day, that's about the same as the solar radiation striking a 1 square meter area for 1 full second. So with a big magnifying glass a little over half a meter in diameter, not the little dinky things sadists usually use to fry ants, you would have to focus it onto the hair for one full second to equal the energy received from a millisecond of that laser. Ouch!

By xxsk8er101xx on 2/24/2010 11:11:34 AM , Rating: 5
he wants more pew pew!! :P

Weapon viability?
By 2tweeked on 2/24/10, Rating: 0
RE: Weapon viability?
By Uncle on 2/24/2010 2:09:24 PM , Rating: 1
I doubt they blew 8 billion, a lot of the tech can be transferred.

RE: Weapon viability?
By JediJeb on 2/24/2010 3:52:59 PM , Rating: 2
The guidance and aiming systems are probably worth more than the laser. That part is now proven, just need a different laser to shoot through it. If you can scale the laser down to where the unit will fit into a C130 or even smaller aircraft you have an even better weapon. I doubt Boeing will just call it quits on this.

RE: Weapon viability?
By mindless1 on 2/25/2010 5:31:26 PM , Rating: 2
... and with a scaled down laser they will shoot down what, birds and balloons?

Solid State Vs. Chemical
By Regs on 2/24/2010 12:36:49 PM , Rating: 2

RE: Solid State Vs. Chemical
By Jaybus on 2/24/2010 5:33:37 PM , Rating: 3
The chemical laser is powered by a chemical reaction that excites iodine until it undergoes stimulated emission and lases. It can produce a megawatt of laser (coherent) light, but takes quite a bit of chemicals to fire once.

The solid-state laser uses a solid gain medium, such as a crystal, that is optically pumped by a light source such as arc lamps or laser diodes. The light source is powered by electricity.

Bottom line is that the solid-state laser only produces a 10th the laser power of the chemical laser, but it is easily powered by electricity and can fire as many times as needed. The chemical laser is limited in how frequently it can fire and for how long.

By pbrain on 2/24/2010 11:00:28 AM , Rating: 2
Perhaps a bit nit-picky, but Gen Schwartz is the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF). Air Force Chief of Staff is also correct.

"Air Force Chief" is short for the Air Force enlisted rank of Chief Master Sergeant.

By Brandon Hill (blog) on 2/24/2010 11:16:43 AM , Rating: 2
Thanks for pointing that out :)

By gemsurf on 2/24/2010 12:49:45 PM , Rating: 2
I think he's just worried that the ruskies and chinese might be a little concerned over this. Better to throw a curve publicly while creaming his jeans in private!

By Motoman on 2/24/2010 1:13:54 PM , Rating: 2
By Uncle on 2/24/2010 2:07:03 PM , Rating: 2
On a side note, what is the range of the laser. Is this laser for one rogue missile or multiple warheads. Where can you get details if their is any.

RE: Distance
By Jaybus on 2/24/2010 5:46:10 PM , Rating: 2
The range is at least 100 km, maybe more, and depends on altitude and how much atmosphere it has to shoot through.

It is for taking out one or more missiles in the boost phase. It is not for shooting down warheads in the re-entry phase. It is also not for shooting down the payload during the ballistic flight phase when it is outside of the atmosphere, which would probably require the laser to be in space where it would have a much further range.

In deference to you Kent
By Chernobyl68 on 2/24/2010 12:49:59 PM , Rating: 2 would be like lasing a stick of dynamite...

By Jacerie on 2/24/2010 1:09:16 PM , Rating: 2
If the Air Force says no, screw it... make a consumer vehicle model. Perfect for all those annoying drivers on the way home.

Not wasted
By FPP on 2/27/2010 2:49:34 PM , Rating: 2
This was not a wasted exercise. I think the future is in some kind of microwave weapon. These energy weapons are instant, covert and only threaten the aggressor. We should be keeping the research up.

That's hot
By heulenwolf on 3/4/2010 10:00:10 AM , Rating: 2
At the speed these things are moving, shooting them down with anything at all is incredible. What an achievement! Knocking a ballistic missile down basically right over where it was launched from would really change the landscape.

Its too bad the General isn't behind the tech since the USAF blew the $8.7 billion to get it this far. I've got to wonder whether it really took that much investment to determine the tech isn't viable. Either there's something about the technology that's not releasable info that makes it "not operationally viable," (e.g. flying around with the necessary chemicals is so dangerous its not worth the payoff) or there's some other political reason behind the scenes (e.g. the same "destabilizing" complaint other leaders have with the ICBM Defense System) that's preventing the General from moving forward.

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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