Prospects good for solid-state laser weapons

UNITED STATES--The Army should plan to spend about $470 million over the coming decade to develop solid-state laser weapons for defense against rockets, artillery, and mortars (RAM), says a National Research Council review panel.

Oct 15th, 2008

UNITED STATES--The Army should plan to spend about $470 million over the coming decade to develop solid-state laser weapons for defense against rockets, artillery, and mortars (RAM), says a National Research Council review panel. Shifting to a staged development plan would increase spending by about $100 million beyond current Army plans, but should increase the chance of success, says the panel.

Traditionally, armies have defended against RAM attacks by targeting enemy artillery with their own weapons, but that tactic is ineffective when attacks come from insurgents dispersed in civilian populations--a particular problem in the Middle East. Targeting the projectiles in flight with high-energy laser beams promises less collateral damage to noncombatants. U.S. and Israeli tests of the Tactical High-Energy Laser (THEL) showed promise earlier this decade, but the deuterium-fluoride chemical laser occupied several trailers, and the chemical fuels it required posed serious logistic challenges.

The current goal of the Joint High Power Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) program is to develop a 100 kW diode-pumped demonstration laser with near-diffraction-limited beam quality suitable for tactical deployment, and eventually scale power to 400 kW. The panel, headed by Millard Rose, CTO at Radiance Technologies (Huntsville, AL), recommended shifting to a phased approach that sequentially tackles key system issues such as power sources and system durability as well as the laser technology.

The first stage should be ruggedizing a 25 kW laser and installing it in a movable testbed for field trials. That system would “very likely pay for itself” by reducing risks in building higher-power demonstration systems, the panel wrote in a summary report issued at the end of September titled “Review of Directed Energy Technology for Countering Rockets, Artillery, and Mortars” (the full report is classified). The next step would be construction of a 100 kW demonstrator that “would also likely give the army some useful military capability.” The panel also urged full funding for a follow-on 400 kW laser that could be tested by 2018 and “would offer much greater military effectiveness.”

The panel considers ceramic slab lasers the most-promising approach for reaching weapons-grade powers in the near term, but urge supporting research on competing approaches that may prove promising in the longer term. Important issues remain with all approaches, including thermal management and beam quality (see Table 1).

Other recommendations include a quantitative study of solid-state laser effectiveness against potential threats, considering laser power levels, atmospheric conditions, obscurants, countermeasures, and deployment tactics; establishing an Army team specializing in laser systems engineering and integration; concentrating on trailer-mounted “transportable” systems until laser efficiency can be improved enough for installation in a self-propelled “mobile” vehicle; and to consider possible inadvertent exposure of people and equipment in developing system operating concepts. Concerns include eye hazards to operators, friendly troops, and civilians, and possible accidental illumination of aircraft or spacecraft that come into the line of fire.

--Jeff Hecht

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