TechFlesh Blog

8 Laser Weapon Systems

Energy Type: High-power microwaves
Targets: Human
Confirmed Kills: N/A, nonlethal
Power: Nonlethal
Range: Miles
Platform: Truck
Service: Air Force
Manufacturer: Raytheon

Raytheon delivered its first ray gun crowd-control device, designed to zap angry mobs with microwaves, in 2000. Since then it’s been tested over 11,000 times on human targets. It penetrates 1/64 of an inch below the surface of the skin, creating a temporary burning sensation.

Although the military has deemed the active denial system to be safe, it has yet to be deployed in the field. The public is understandably a little timid about the government using the “Pain Ray” on people, but Mike Booen, VP of Raytheon DE Systems, says such a system could save lives. “Right now, you either shout at crowds, or you shoot at them,” he says. Raytheon developed a lower power version of the system, called Silent Guardian, which it sent to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department last year for possible use on unruly inmates.

2. Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB)

Energy Type: 10.6-micron (near infrared) chemical oxygen iodine laser
Targets: Ballistic missiles
Confirmed Kills: Three ballistic missiles
Power: Classified, “mega-watt class”
Range: Classified, “hundreds of kilometers”
Platform: Boeing 747
Service: Missile Defense Agency
Manufacturer: Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin

It cost billions and took over 15 years, but the Missile Defense Agency did it: It finally shot down a missile with a laser. In February 2010, a laser of record-breaking power housed in a souped-up Boeing 747 warmed up a ballistic missile until it exploded into flying wreckage.

Yet this program could be headed for the history books. At one time, U.S. military leaders envisioned producing a fleet of laser planes to patrol the borders of nuke-wielding nations. But in 2009 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates downgraded the ALTB to a research program. Its successful display did nothing to convince skeptical politicians, who believed it too unwieldy to use as a weapon. “We’re pushing systems right now that have the potential to be incorporated into an acquisition program sooner rather than later,” says Mark Niece, a retired Air Force colonel who runs the nation’s headquarters for high-power laser research in Albuquerque. That means that they’re focusing on systems that are cheaper, lighter and simpler than ALTB.

3. Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD)

Energy Type: 1.06-micron solid state laser
Targets: UAVs, rockets, artillery, mortar, small boats
Confirmed Kills: One unmanned test boat
Power: 15- to 100-kw-class
Range: 10 kilometers
Platform: Naval ships
Service: U.S. Navy
Manufacturer: Northrop Grumman

This past spring the Navy set an unmanned test boat aflame near San Nicholas Island off the coast of California. Using a beam director recycled from an old “Star Wars” program, researchers shot the laser—powered only by electricity from the ship—35 times and lit a remote-controlled boat on fire, despite rain, fog, 25 knot winds and 8-foot waves. “It was the first time a laser weapon engaged a sea surface target from a ship,” Mark Niece says.

4. High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HELTD)

Energy Type: High-power solid state, 1 micron
Targets: Rockets, artillery, mortars
Confirmed Kills: None
Power: 100-kw-class
Range: up to 10 kilometers
Platform: Heavy Expanded Mobility Truck
Service: U.S. Army
Manufacturer: Northrop Grumman, Boeing and OshKosh Defense

The High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator is the Army’s truck-mounted laser weapons system. Developers hope to fit a powerful laser on an existing cargo transporter called the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck and use it to target small mortars. “The purpose is to demonstrate in a relative operational environment that a high energy laser can engage CRAM [counter rocket, artillery, mortar] projectiles,” program manager Bill Gnacek says.

The Army has the truck, and it has a beam control system, which guides the laser to its target. One crucial component is missing—the laser. The Army must choose between two lasers that are powerful and compact enough to do the job—one option was built by Northrop Grumman, the other by Textron. Both achieved the 100-kilowatt war-worthy power level—enough energy to shoot down a small mortar from kilometers away. And they did it with solid state lasers, which can be much smaller than the chemical lasers used in the 747-mounted Airborne Laser Testbed.

5. Laser Weapons System (LaWS)

Energy Type: High-power fiber laser, commercial laser
Targets: UAVs, mortars, rockets, artillery
Confirmed Kills: 16-mm stationary mortars in 2006, 5 UAVs in 2009 at China Lake, 4 UAVs in summer 2010 San Nicholas
Power: 50 to 100 kw
Range: Shorter than most other systems
Platform: Phalanx close-in-weapons (CIWS) system
Service: Navy
Manufacturer: Raytheon

Raytheon took a drastically different approach to a laser weapon when its engineers strapped lasers normally used for welding to a hunk of metal that usually holds a Gatling gun. The idea: to replace the Navy’s 20-mm Gatling bullets with photons. “People tend to focus on the tech and not the problem,” Raytheon’s Mike Booen says. “We decided to focus on the problems that are on the customer’s ‘give-a-hoot-o-meter,’ ” he says—in this case, mortars falling on troops.

A big challenge with laser weapons is the power-killing effects of the atmosphere. The material that makes up the atmosphere air acts like a bunch of tiny lenses on a laser beam, distorting it and reducing its effectiveness. Scientists build complicated devices to counteract these effects. Even with a dirt-simple beam director and no compensation system, Raytheon showed that its simple laser system could be used against both mortars and unmanned aerial vehicles. And, Boone hopes, the full military version isn’t far off. “By 2017, it should be a part number that you order.”

6. Free Electron Laser (FEL)

Energy Type: Free electrons
Targets: Antiship cruise missiles, swarms of boats
Confirmed Kills: None
Power: 100-kw class
Range: “Short range tactical”
Platform: Naval Ships
Service: U.S. Navy
Manufacturer: Boeing

In 1989 Boeing were awarded a contract to build a unique laser weapon made from a Free Electron Laser—essentially a laser made out of a particle accelerator. Navy ships are the only military platforms big enough to handle such a thing, but the program never really took off. “The USSR went away, and the wall came down,” Ed Pogue says.

Two decades ago Pogue worked on the original system; now, he is Boeing’s program manager for a new FEL program. This laser tech is back because the beam can be “tuned” to any wavelength, which means it can cut through the misty, salty air at sea. Certain colors of light absorb water better than others—the trick is to use the color that interacts the least with water and salt.

After all these years, though, Boeing still has plenty of work to do to actually build serious FEL weapons. At minimum, the laser would need to reach 100 kilowatts, and so far the free electron laser power record is only 14. Pogue hopes to reach 100 kilowatts in the lab by 2015—and then figure out how the heck to get a particle accelerator on a ship.

7. Electric Laser Large Aircraft (ELLA)

Energy Type: High-power solid state
Targets: Air-to-air and air-to-ground
Confirmed Kills: None
Power: 100-kw class
Range: Unknown
Platform: B-1 Bomber
Service: Air Force
Manufacturer: Lockheed Martin

The goal of the ELLA program are to equip a B-1 Bomber with a 100-kilowatt electric laser. Such a system would weigh over a thousand pounds and take up the space of several refrigerators at the very least. The system is still in the design phase as engineers try and figure out if it’s even possible.

8. MK38 Tactical Laser System

Energy Type: Fiber
Targets: Air and surface maritime targets
Confirmed Kills: None
Power: 10-kw
Range: “Tactically relevant ranges,” according to Chris Abbott, science adviser for commander, U.S. Second Fleet
Platform: Naval Ships
Service: U.S. Navy
Manufacturer: BAE Systems, Boeing

Earlier this summer, weapons designers integrated a fiber laser with an MK 38, the 25-mm machine gun the Navy has used since Desert Storm. There are 150 systems installed world wide, and the gun can deliver 180 rounds per minute at a range of 2000 yards. The addition of the laser means more effective detection, tracking and classification of targets. During the summer test, the laser was able to distinguish friend from foe in a swarm of fast-moving small boats. It’s yet not clear if the Navy plans to scale up the laser power enough to destroy targets.

Graduated Response

One unique quality of lasers is that you can dial the power up and down at will. That means you can set your laser to stun before setting it to kill. But how much power do you need to hurt (or kill) a person? Here’s a quick guide.

0.005 watts = laser pointer
5.0 watts = set a small piece of wood on fire
60 watts = most powerful laser used at laser shows—dangerous, but readily available to anyone with 50 grand to spare.
15,000 watts = enough to light a small boat on fire
100,000 watts = power goal for “militarily significant” tactical ranges and tactical targets. Solid state lasers have just gotten this powerful.
1,000,000 satts = strategic targets (such as ballistic missiles)