The United States military has already created combat laser weapons that have been tested and work, and is now hustling to get some of these designs refined and rugged enough for troop use. In a program created by Congress, as a way to force the services to pool money for laser research and development, the U.S. Defense Department's High Energy Laser Joint Technology office (JTO) expects to demonstrate three different 25 kilowatt solid-state laser system designs by December. Solid state lasers only require electrical power to operate, so they are much more desirable for battlefield applications than chemical-based lasers (which consume exotic and corrosive chemicals to crate their laser light). More importantly, chemical lasers are limited, by the chemicals they carry, to a limited number of shots. Since both the Army and Navy are moving to hybrid-electric and electric systems in vehicles and ships, a solid state laser weapon could simply be plugged into a power source on the battlefield. The ultimate goal is to build a 100 kilowatt demonstration model by 2012, a laser weapon that would be powerful enough for missile defense and a variety of other applications. In the next few years, a 25 kilowatt system is being developed as that would weigh about 3300 pounds. Such a laser weapon would use whatever supply of electricity it could find in the combat zone.
Army, Navy, and Air Force participants all agree that creating the JTO got them to work together and get faster results than they would have on their own by spending their individual smaller funds. JTO was started in August with $30 million, combining separate funds from the Defense Department, Army, Air Force, and other organizations. The Navy hasn't joined up, but has people carefully watching the effort. The program is designed to have technology transfer "off-ramps" to take the core research and move it into service-specific programs once concepts are proved. For instance, the Army may take a 25 kilowatt system into field experiments to determine how effective such a system would be in destroying materiel such as tents and wooden ammunition boxes. Ultimately, the Army anticipates they would need 100 kilowatts to have an effective ground-based system capable of countering short-range missiles, artillery, and RPGs, as well as having secondary uses against unarmored targets like communications antennas.
The Air Force would like to have a 25 kilowatt system next year in combination with a relay mirror to demonstrate techniques and test effectiveness for shooting down cruise missiles. In addition, the Air Force is making noises they would like to look at putting lasers on B-1 and B-2 bombers for defense against surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. Such a laser would also be powerful enough to use against cruise missiles and soft targets on the ground, such as fighter planes parked on an airfield. Doug Mohney