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Military working to unleash laser weapons

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The military is inching closer to using laser weapons on the battlefield after recent tests in which lasers were used to shoot down a drone aircraft and were fired from an airplane to damage a vehicle on the ground.

The Air Force recently test-fired its Advanced Tactical Laser from a C-130 Hercules, scorching a truck’s hood. And last month the Army and Air Force teamed with Boeing Co. for a demonstration in which lasers on the ground shot down drones at China Lake, Calif., company officials said.

Laser weapon projects in the works include the Navy’s powerful Free Electron Laser; the Advanced Tactical Laser; the Laser Avenger, which was used to shoot down the drones at China Lake; and the Army’s High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator, or HEL TD.

“The technology is there,” said Scott McPheeters, senior research engineer at the Army’s Program Executive Office Missiles and Space in Huntsville, Ala. “What we need to do is get the systems put into more rugged configurations [to handle different environments].”

One of the reasons the Army is interested in lasers is because lasers travel at the speed of light, which means such systems have a quick reaction time, McPheeters said.

Some laser weapons the Army is working on could be ready in as little as six months, but fielding those weapons would take longer due to procurement and production processes, McPheeters said. The HEL TD could take two or three years to put together, he said.

Lee Gutheinz, Boeing’s program director for High Energy Laser/Electro Optical Systems for Directed Energy Systems, described HEL TD as a “wheeled mobile laser cannon” with a range of eight to 10 kilometers.

Northrop Grumman Corp. and Textron Systems also are developing the lasers for the HEL TD, McPheeters said.

The Navy’s pursuit of lasers includes a special center at its Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif., opened this month, to test a Free Electron Laser on loan from Stanford University, said Bill Colson, a professor and FEL expert at the Navy school. The Air Force has shown an interest as well, he said.

Air Force officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

The Navy has spent $120 million on FEL research since 1997, and hopes to develop such a weapon to knock anti-ship missiles out of the sky and defeat other threats to its fleet by 2025, a release said. Other uses mentioned include taking out smaller ships, including pirate skiffs.

“It doesn’t destroy as much as a lot of other offensive weapons would, which is one of its advantages and disadvantages,” Colson said.

Laser systems do have drawbacks, officials said. Dirty, gusty, cloudy or rainy conditions could hamper lasers’ ranges and cause other problems.

To see the laser in action, visit the Boeing Web site at: http://www.boeing.com/defense-space/ic/des/videos/index.html


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