Lasers have long been the stuff of science fiction and dreams, but good ideas have a habit of moving from fiction into the realm of reality. Boeing is certainly moving the laser from the realm of fiction into reality as a tactical weapon.
Boeing announced that it successfully completed the first ground test of the entire weapon system integrated onboard the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) aircraft. Boeing said on August 7 at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, the ATL aircraft successfully fired its high-energy chemical laser through the aircraft beam control system. According to Boeing, this achievement is a key milestone in the ATL aircraft Technology Demonstration Program.
During the ground test, the laser beam control system acquired a ground target and guided the laser beam to the target as directed by the ATL aircraft battle management system. The laser beam was passed through the rotating turret on the belly of the ATL aircraft.
Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems said in a statement, "By firing the laser through the beam control system for the first time, the ATL team has begun to demonstrate the functionality of the entire weapon system integrated aboard the aircraft. This is a major step toward providing the ultra-precision engagement capability that the warfighter needs to dramatically reduce collateral damage."
Boeing also reported that on May 13, the ATL aircraft's high-energy laser was fired from aboard the aircraft, but during that test an onboard calorimeter captured the laser beam before it left the aircraft. Boeing reported that after conducting additional ground tests and air tests, the ATL aircraft will then fire the laser in-flight at a ground target later this year.
Boeing stated that accuracy is the hallmark for the ATL aircraft and its high-energy chemical laser, but the company is rather coy on exactly how accurate the laser is. Wired stated that the ATL aircraft and its high-energy laser are capable of phenomenal accuracy during the day or at night.
Wired also added that the nature of the laser weapon and its accuracy allows for plausible deniability in the face of any direct action performed with the ATL aircraft. The only thing a witness would see is the result of the laser hitting the target. The ability for the ATL aircraft in the high-energy chemical laser to strike without attribution reportedly appears in two separate briefing documents delivered by Air Force personnel describing the benefits of the new directed energy weapon.
Another exceptionally impressive aspect of the ATL aircraft and the high-energy laser is that the laser operators and mission planners can choose at will whether the laser is lethal or non-lethal. The laser can be used to either destroy a vehicle completely, or simply blow out tires rendering the vehicle inoperable.
Wired showed an image depicting the phenomenal speed and accuracy of the laser, which claims that the ATL aircraft could in theory, in a mere 26 second engagement strike 32 different tires, 11 antenna, three missile launchers, 11 EO devices, four mortars, and five machine guns in a convoy of military vehicles. The entire strike could be done without hitting one single soldier or refugees nearby. If the capabilities of the ATL and its high-energy laser live up to the claims, it will simply be a phenomenal weapon platform.