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Soon lasers may go from the realm of science fiction to real battlefields.  (Source: LucasFilm Ltd.)
Next-gen solution will supplement today's projectile-based auto-turrets

Perhaps it's the indelible "cool" factor of having a weapon that long has been a dear dream of the science fiction agency.  Perhaps it's practical considerations like range and time to target impact.  But for whatever the reasons, the U.S. armed forces and its contractors remain dogged in their pursuit of real-life laser weapons.

I. Projectile-Equipped Auto-Turrets Pave the Way For Laser Defenses

The current line of thought is to use lasers onboard sea ships and on armored vehicles as automated turrets capable of creating a shield against incoming hostile projectiles.  While ineffective against solid slugs, high powered lasers could successfully detonate more-destructive explosion ordinances -- rockets, mortars, and explosive shells.

Col. Pete Newell, the head of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, says that such systems are crucial for defending locations like small outposts in the mountains of Afghanistan from deadly rocket and mortar fire, which are often directed over rocky outcroppings.  States Col. Newell, "No radar can find that."

For now, the Army is looking to field defensive auto-turrets to target such projectiles.  Key to that effort is the Counter-Rocket and Mortar (C-RAM) Land-based Phalanx Weapon System (LPWS).  Developed primarily by the U.S. Navy, but also fielded on land, the C-RAM system has been relatively effective, considering that it's not far from being a glorified tech demo.

Phalanx C-RAM
Proven effective in real-world deployments, the Phalanx C-RAM auto-turret could be enhanced by anti-ordinance lasers. [Image Source: PopGun Reviews]

While the C-RAM's "kill sheet" is relatively small -- 170 mortar and rocket attacks in the battlefield since 2005 -- the Navy says it has proved equally valuable for its early detection capabilities, helping warn of over 2,000 attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last seven years.

The life-saving system is hauled on a trailer.  Precise details are scarce, but it is known to be a scaled down version of the Navy's Phalanx Close-in Weapon System (CIWS).  The sea-based Phalanx CIWS packs a 20mm M61A1 Gatling gun capable of firing between 3,000 to 4,500 high-explosive self-destruct rounds per minute at incoming enemy munitions.

II. More Turrets Incoming

Top defense contractor, Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC), in February scored a $132M USD contract to install and sustain several of the LPWS units at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The lead designer of the sea-based CIWS, Raytheon Comp. (RTN) (which acquired the project as part of its recent acquisition of General Dynamics), has also scored an estimated $78.3M USD contract to develop the LPWS/CIWS successor, dubbed the Accelerated Improve Intercept Initiative (AI3).

Steve Bennett, project leader for the AI3 says it will be "saving soldiers' lives by 2015."  He comments that the refined anti-projectile system will leverage "technologies from the Sidewinder, Avenger and Small Diameter Bomb II programs as well as leveraging program and IR&D efforts from our key suppliers."

III. Multiple Laser Solutions Vie for Land, Air, and Sea Supremacy

But what about the lasers?

Many commanders remain hopeful that lasers will be a crucial part of future campaigns, as do defense contractors like Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. 

In the air realm The Boeing Comp. (BA) is showing off its advanced YAL-1 Airborne Laser (ABL) system [1][2], a system designed to ward off enemy rockets and even potentially shoot down incoming ballistic (nuclear) missiles.  The chemical laser system has been in the works since 1980s, which could be seen as either a source of optimism given the long string of improvements or pessimism given that it's still not fully battle ready three decades later.

Boeing ABL
Boeing's ABL has been stuck for three decades in development purgatory. [Image Source: Boeing]

Boeing has also showed off a second design, geared towards gunship use, dubbed the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL).  Packed aboard a Hercules C-130H gunship, Boeing is targeting a power of 100 to 300 kW laser with up to 100 shots.  It hit a stationary Humvee in 2009 tests, burning a hole in its front hood.  The status of the project is unclear, with little news since that high profile success.

At sea, Northrop Grumman is leading efforts with its Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD).  Armed with a $98M USD contract, Northrop Grumman is aiming to install 100-kilowatt lasers on ships.  Last April the system scored a "kill shot" on a small ship, swaying in a choppy sea.  The U.S. Navy is also working on free electron lasers, hoping to produce an in-house one megawatt design, a systems so powerful that it could penetrate armored ships.

Raytheon is working on a rival system.  It has paired the aforementioned Phalanx's artificial intelligence with a battery of six 32 kilowatt lasers to form the Laser Weapon System (LaWS), which shot down four unmanned aerial vehicles in 2010 testing.

IV. HEL MD Looks to Give Enemies Land Projectiles Hell

The latest efforts in laser weapons have been to bring a laser-endowed auto-turret system onto land.  Boeing is working on a contract with the Army’s Space & Missile Defense Command to produce the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD).  A prototype unit was successfully integrated onboard a Oshkosh HEMTT A4 vehicle last summer and underwent low-power testing in the fall and winter.

Boeing DES
Boeing is developing laser war-wagons. [Image Source: Boeing]

Assuming the Army bites on a follow-on contract, Boeing will next engage in field testing in 2013.  Blaine Beardsley, HEL MD program manager at Boeing, spoke to Defense News about the program. 

He emphasized its virtually-unlimited "magazine" and early succes in tracking targets, remarking "[The system was] very successful in acquiring and tracking the object and putting the beam on it.  [Y]ou can drive it out to any location and emplace it quickly and be able to set it up with full 360-degree coverage.  Even while you're utilizing the magazine and engaging targets, you’re charging that magazine."

The new system's test targets included 60 mm and 120 mm rounds.

V. Laser Weapons -- Wither Art Thou?

It's reasonable to take such claims with a degree of skepticism, or even pessimism, given that laser weapons have been a regular promise since the 1980s.

But the advent of high-power solid-state lasers -- a recent development, may prove the salvation of the promising future-weapon.  Unlike gas lasers, which often require toxic chemicals and costly-charges, the solid state laser offers a virtually unlimited number of shots, as long as you can keep it powered and cooled.

Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says lasers have the advantage of instant kills -- crucial for anti-ordinance systems.  He remarks, "You don’t have to wait for a kinetic weapon to fly to a target — it goes at the speed of light."

Storm trooper shooting laser
Real-life laser weapons may soon become a reality. [Image Source: LucasFilm Ltd.]

But even if the state of the art can be advanced to the point of having limitless shots and reliable target striking, traditional projectile weapons will still be needed, he argues, "Directed energy weapons can't completely replace kinetic defenses. They’re complementary.  You need both of them because lasers have limitations in bad weather and so forth."

Ultimately the best counter to the laser -- a crucial future weapon -- may be yet another future weapon -- the rail gun.  By delivering slugs at hypersonic speeds, future rail guns' ordinance may be too fast for a laser defense system to hit.  And even if the laser system was fast enough to react, it would likely be unable to harm the projectile, as rail guns aim to deliver solid slugs with equivalent destructive force to explosive munitions.  The laser need to be able to set off an explosive in order to "kill" an incoming round -- for now, at least.

Source: Defense News

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By Amiga500 on 5/14/2012 2:36:00 PM , Rating: 2
The F-35 is useless.

When these things get airborne and are capable of burning through missile seeker heads, then air combat (in the shorter term) resorts to gun-gun dogfights. The F-35 is a turd in ACM. Any other contemporary aircraft with one or two pylon mounted self-protection lasers will simply be able to intercept the F-35 missile shots and then kill the JSF post-merge.

Longer term, fighters will have to be heavily shielded to deal with ever more powerful lasers, I would expect fighter aircraft to grow to J-20 size to deal with the extra weight/power requirements.

This community service announcement was brought to you 5 years ago by Amiga500. :-)

By dflynchimp on 5/14/2012 3:01:15 PM , Rating: 3
Your argument assumes the non-factor of development costs and timeframe. It's like saying we should never have used spears and swords at any point in history because we eventually developed guns, or saying body armor is useless because there are such things as armor piercing bullets.

The fact is warfare isn't a simple matter of rock beats scissors and paper disproves Spock. It's about the dynamics of utility.

This weapon's weight in its current form limits its deployment options, meaning the the conventional strategy of combined arms, of which the F-35 is a part of, is still very valid.

The advent of AA flak cannons, SAMs, and any number of other anti air measures certainly didn't stop the continued development of air combat aircraft, and neither will this.

You can make any other valid statements based on the information in this article, but it's clear you one of the less than objective crowd of F-35 detractors that would jump on any sliver of a chance to detract from it.

The F-35 program has plenty of flaws directly applicable to it, but this is not one of them.

In any case, I'm just hoping to see Gundams before I die.

By SPOOFE on 5/14/2012 3:28:59 PM , Rating: 2
When these things get airborne

... Won't be for a long, long time. These are incredibly heavy devices. Look at the "laser wagon" up there; makes an Abrams look like a Hotwheels toy.

There's a reason they want to put these on boats... because that's the only platform that can easily carry them.

By geddarkstorm on 5/14/2012 3:51:04 PM , Rating: 2
I think most of the weight relates to powering the laser, and that's really where the constraint comes in. A naval ship, or even a 747 (barely), is big enough to power a laser to destructive levels, but a little fighter plane?

By Amiga500 on 5/15/2012 1:50:32 AM , Rating: 2
Won't be for a long, long time.

In ways they already are airborne.

Some current AESA sets already possess limited DEW capability.

By FITCamaro on 5/14/2012 5:05:54 PM , Rating: 3
You can be quite the funny man.

Suggesting that we'll have flying laser-armed stealth fighters within the F35s lifetime is quite amusing. The F35 will be retired before that becomes a reality simple due to power requirements. Even if they got the size down, you'd need a mini-reactor to power it. If libs complain about shooting nuclear material into space how do you think they'll react at the thought of fighter planes flying around with reactors in them to power lasers?

By Amiga500 on 5/15/2012 1:54:18 AM , Rating: 2
How much power do you think an AESA requires?

The APG-77 for instance, is already the far side of 10 kW. There has been much speculation that the -77 would already be capable of screwing up a seeker head.

These things are on the cusp of being on aircraft right now. So stretch that over the next 20 years...

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan

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