Textron creates directed-energy weapons business

Sept. 1, 2009
WILMINGTON, MA—“A large segment of Textron Defense Systems’ business is focused on producing precision weapons for our U.S. Air Force and Army customers.

WILMINGTON, MA—“A large segment of Textron Defense Systems’ business is focused on producing precision weapons for our U.S. Air Force and Army customers. So the creation of this new DEW organization was very much a natural extension of both the company’s expertise and existing direction,” said Dr. John Boness, VP, Directed Energy Weapons, Textron Defense Systems.

Officially created in July 2009, the Textron Defense Systems’ Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) business line in Wilmington, MA has a staff of roughly 100 employees either directly employed by the DEW group or working on DEW programs. The team includes experts in a wide range of laser technologies—not just solid-state lasers (which are a particular area of interest for the DEW business line), but also chemical, gas, and liquid lasers. Boness says that Textron Defense Systems and its predecessor, the Avco Everett Research Laboratory, have amassed more than five decades of experience in laser research and development.

“The creation of this dedicated DEW business line, as previously mentioned, really formalizes our commitment to developing laser weapon products for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD),” says Boness. “Our goal is to combine Textron Defense Systems’ extensive laser technology experience with its traditional precision weapons engineering capability to transition laser technology into engineered weapon system applications—providing DEW suitable for our DoD customers’ specific mission requirements.”

DEW market size

“From some informal research based upon DoD budgets relating specifically to DEW (not the entire category of high-power lasers), the DEW market might be somewhere in the range of an estimated $1 billion,” says Boness. “Efforts in this domain are focused primarily on research and development, as well as demonstration programs, and it can certainly be expected that this market will grow as technology matures.”

Boness says the DEW concept poses many possible benefits: “One of the most important is speed-of-light engagement. Unlike conventional armaments, these weapons can engage targets almost instantaneously. In addition, they offer the kind of highly precise targeting and low collateral damage that are important in modern warfare,” he adds.

Because of the highly advanced nature of this technology, says Boness, international sales would be unlikely. This type of information exchange would likely be prevented by the export control guidelines that govern our entire defense and aerospace industry (see www.laserfocus

Unique capabilities

“Textron has been active in the field of high-power lasers for weapons applications for decades, pretty much from the time that the U.S. began to show interest in using laser technology for weapon system development,” says Boness. “As early as 1973 the Avco Everett Research Laboratory delivered a high-power gas dynamic carbon dioxide laser to the Army which was integrated onto the Mobile Test Unit and successfully used to engage and defeat drone targets during lethality demonstrations.”

The Textron business line today is focused primarily on laser-based DEW, as opposed to microwave, particle beam, or other directed-energy technologies. “During the decades of research and development in which we have been involved, we’ve seen focus shift from gas, liquid and chemical lasing media to solid state,” says Boness. He points out that the rugged and compact nature of solid-state laser technology makes it more compatible with integration onto military aircraft and vehicle platforms. “In contrast to the lethal high voltages required for electric gas lasers, and large volumetric capacity and toxic chemicals required for chemical lasers, solid-state lasers have none of these drawbacks,” adds Boness.

Textron’s DEW business line includes a proprietary solid-state laser concept called ThinZag, which employs ceramic Nd:YAG, pioneered specifically for DEW applications, as the gain material. Boness says ceramic materials allow scaling to higher powers than would be possible using crystalline gain material. ThinZag uses a novel optical configuration that offers modular, series scaling to very high powers in a single aperture configuration with no beam combining.

Textron Defense Systems was selected as one of two companies to participate in Phase III of the Joint High Power Solid State Laser, or J-HPSSL, program jointly funded by the Joint Technology Office, or JTO, and the U.S. Army Space & Missile Defense Command (USASMDC). Their goal under this program is to build and test a 100 kW laser in the laboratory using ThinZag technology by the end of 2010. And more recently, the company was selected for the DARPA High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) program. Boness says, “Textron Defense Systems is honored to be part of the two preeminent high-power solid state laser technology programs in the U.S. today.”

—Gail Overton

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