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Weapons: Underpowered, Unreliable and Unused
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June 4, 2010: Last month, the U.S. Navy successfully tested their laser weapon, using it to destroy a UAV. This is the seventh time the navy laser has destroyed a UAV. The laser cannon was mounted on a KINETO Tracking Mount, which is similar, but larger (and more accurate than) the mount used by the Phalanx CIWS (Close In Weapons System). The navy laser weapon test used the radar and tracking system of the CIWS. Last year, CIWS was upgraded so that its sensors could detect speedboats, small aircraft and naval mines. Knocking down UAVs is not something that the navy needs help with, and the current laser gun technology has to be improved quite a bit before it's worth mounting on a ship.

This is a similar situation with laser weapons in the other services. Earlier this year, for the first time, after a decade of development, the U.S. Air Force fired its ALT (Airborne Laser Testbed) laser while in flight and hit a rapidly (1,800 meters a second) rising ballistic missile. The laser beam took several seconds to weaken the missile structure, and cause it to come apart. This test came only eight months after the smaller Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) was fired in flight for the first time. The target was some lumber on the ground, which was hit. The ATL weapon was carried in a C-130H four engine transport.

Five years ago, manufacturers of combat lasers believed these weapons were only a few years away from battlefield use. To that end, Northrop-Grumman set up a new division to develop and build battle lasers. This optimism was caused by two successful tests six years ago. In one, a solid state laser shot down a mortar round. In another, a much more powerful chemical laser, hit a missile type target. Neither of these tests led to any useable weapons, and the combat laser remains the "weapon of the future." The basic problems are reliability, and ammo (power to generate the laser).

Solid state lasers have been around since the 1950s, and chemical lasers first appeared in the 1970s. The chemical laser has the advantage of using a chemical reaction to create the megawatt level of energy for a laser that can penetrate the body of a ballistic missile that is still rising in the air hundreds of kilometers away. The chemical reaction uses atomized liquid hydrogen peroxide and potassium hydroxide and chlorine gas to form an ionized form of oxygen known as singlet delta oxygen (SDO). This, in turn is rapidly mixed with molecular iodine gas to form ionized iodine gas. At that point, the ionized iodine gas rapidly returns to its resting state, and while doing so releases photons pulsing at the right frequency to create the laser light. These photons are channeled by mirrors and sent on their way to the target (which is being tracked and pinpointed by other lasers). The airborne laser weighs about six tons. It can be carried in a C-130H, producing a laser powerful enough to hit airborne or ground targets fifteen kilometers away. The laser exists via a targeting turret under the nose of the aircraft. The laser beam is invisible to the human eye. The chemicals are mixed at high speeds, and the byproducts are harmless heat, potassium salt, water, and oxygen. A similar laser, flying in a larger aircraft (B-747) is to have enough range to knock down ballistic missiles as they take off. This is what was used in the recent test.

Nearly half a century of engineering work has produced thousands of improvements, and a few breakthroughs, in making the lasers more powerful, accurate and lethal. More efficient energy storage has made it possible to use lighter, shorter range ground based lasers effective against smaller targets like mortar shells and short-range rockets. Northrops' move was an indication that the company felt confident enough to gamble its own money, instead of what they get for government research contracts, to produce useful laser weapons. A larger high energy airborne laser would not only be useful against ballistic missiles. Enemy aircraft and space satellites would also be at risk. But companies like Northrop and Boeing are still trying to produce ground and airborne lasers that can successfully operate under combat conditions. The big problem with anti-missile airborne lasers is the power supply. Lots of chemicals are needed to generate sufficient power for a laser that can reach out for hundreds of kilometers and do sufficient damage to a ballistic missile. To be effective, the airborne laser needs sufficient power to get off several shots. So far, no one has been able to produce such a weapon. That's why these lasers remain "the weapon of the future," and will probably remain so for a while.



Next Article → FORCES: Not-Warsaw-Pact-II Expands

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blkfoot       6/4/2010 7:33:42 PM
Maybe they should mount that "Laser" system on some sharks!
Of course with budget will end up on seabass instead...
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Skylark       6/5/2010 2:03:27 AM
     If you took out the word "Laser" and replaced it with "Jet fighter", there would likely be similar to stories outlining developmental problems published in the 1940's.  Early jets were so unreliable, that they frequently had to be towed to the end of the runway before start-up because of the low amount of hours between overhauls.  Range was poor, reliability was a joke, wings twisted off in flight, and a flame-out on take off was uncomfortably common, and almost always fatal.  But the designs got better, faster and more reliable to the point where these days, the quality of a new jet fighter is based more on economy and maintainability than performance.  In the future, this might also be the story of the combat laser.  The potential of the laser cannot be ignored forever, and history has proven time after time that a technological breakthroughs can be worth a million men under arms in time of war.  The cannon made castles obsolete, the ironclad made wooden warships obsolete, the aircraft carrier made battleships obsolete, and the jet fighter made propeller driven fighters obsolete.  Now we are looking at a weapon system that can destroy a ballistic missile in flight.  The technology required to counter such a weapon is likely beyond the means of smaller nations, potentially making the nuclear missile arsenals of two-bit dictatorships like Iran (If and when they get them.) and North Korea obsolete overnight.  That alone justifies the time and expense in ironing out the difficulties in seeing the next generation of weapons through to maturity.  The technical issues of size, power and reliability can be overcome, all that is need is a little vision, patience and guts.
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Hamilcar    Especially GUTS.   6/9/2010 9:10:20 AM
Every time we get close, they CUT the funding and we have to start over from scratch to rebuild the research terms and TECH base. If we didn't have SHIVA during the Clinton interregnum, and a few other small irons in the fire, we would have NOTHING achieved from the time we started under Reagan. We are so !@#$%^&*() close!
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HeavyD       8/31/2010 4:53:24 PM
What about a laser sniper weapon.  O.K., so some may think that it is immoral to burn someone's eyes out (as opposed to lodging a 750 grain projectile somewhere in their torso?!?) but a laser sniper rifle would have tremendous range and no battlefield signature.  After all, by the time you spot it, zap.  No more cornea.
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