Boeing's ATL laser recently burnt a hole through the fender of a moving target. The ATL is seen here during testing, mounted on the belly of the Hercules C-130H gunship (see the white dome in the craft's front underbelly).  (Source: Ed Turner, Boeing)

Boeing's ATL laser burns a hole in a car in an earlier test of a strike on a stationary vehicle.  (Source: Boeing)

A closeup of the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) shows its scale with respect to a human.  (Source: Washington Post)
New laser can cut through traditional unarmored vehicles

Warfare is quickly advancing and the U.S. military and its contractors in the private sector are cooking up all sorts of exotic next generation weapons.  Among those that may soon be hitting battlefields include smarter killer soldier-bots, improved UAVs, exoskeletons, semi-autonomous fighting vehicles, railguns, and spy airships.  However, one of the future weapons that always excites the most is the high-power laser.

Leading this field is defense contractor Boeing, whose directed-energy chemical laser is causing quite a stir in the defense circles.  Dubbed the "Advanced Tactical Laser" (ATL), the new weapon is already being field tested aboard modified Hercules C-130H test aircraft.  Boeing is also testing another variant dubbed the "Laser Avenger" aboard its Humvees, designed to shoot down UAVs.

The laser aboard the gunship weighs approximately 6 tons, with the entire weapons system weighing 20 tons.  Limited shots may initially limit the device's capabilities, somewhat.  It may be only able to muster 6 shots, according to current estimates.  Eventually, Boeing is aiming for a 100 to 300 kW laser with up to 100 shots.  The C-130H, though, likely features a lower kW design. 

The laser is mounted to a ball turret on the aircraft's belly.  It requires toxic chemicals to refuel, a tricky process.  The beam generated is approximately 10 cm in diameter and cuts like a blowtorch.

In the most recent round of testing the ATL managed to score a hit on a moving vehicle, burning a hole through its fender.  In an earlier test in September, Boeing pronounced that it hit a stationary ground vehicle with the laser and had "defeated" it.  Videos of this test can be seen here.  With the subsequent remote-controlled, moving vehicle test, Boeing offered for a more conservative statement, saying a hit was scored and the vehicle was "damaged".  Boeing would not reveal specifics on the vehicle or its armor, but it was presumably unarmored.

The testing was carried out at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, with the aircraft flying out of Kirtland Air Force Base, located near Albuquerque.

Gary Fitzmire, VP of the Boeing Missile Defense Systems' Directed Energy Systems unit, was cautiously optimistic about the test, stating, "In this test, a directed energy weapon successfully demonstrated direct attack on a moving target.  ATL has now precisely targeted and engaged both stationary and moving targets, demonstrating the transformational versatility of this speed-of-light, ultra-precision engagement capability that will dramatically reduce collateral damage."

The greatest promise of the aircraft is its ability to make stealthy strikes.  It will be hard for enemies to prove that the U.S. gunship is to blame, as the results are less obtrusive than a bomb or missile.  The gunship can fire on targets from up to 9 miles away.

Boeing is also developing a larger raygun, dubbed the "Airborne Laser" that's mounted in a 747 jet.  Boeing hopes to field the beefier nose-mounted design to shoot down ballistic missiles in case of a nuclear threat.  Competitor Northrop Grumman has also fielded a 100 kW laser.

"I modded down, down, down, and the flames went higher." -- Sven Olsen

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