Walking through my old neighborhood yesterday, I noticed a girl, maybe 17, wearing a little painter's cap, the brim flipped up and cocked slightly to one side. It was a look I hadn't seen since I was 17, myself. And I never dreamed that it would come back to Manhattan, even as aren't-we-ironic kitsch.I mention this because, just like in fashion, defense technologies have a way of cycling back into style no matter how silly they might seem the first time around. Boeing is hoping that it's found one of those retro-chic systems, Aviation Week reports: an "elaborate relay mirror prototype to extend the range of laser weapons."It's an idea that first gained currency in the 80's, during Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" anti-missile frenzy, and then died down, after controlling the beams proved too difficult.There have been experiments, off-and-on, ever since. But Boeing would like to lead a full-scale revival the laser-directing mirrors, maybe as part of its Airborne Laser (ABL) project the modified 747 that's being designed for the Air Force to zap missiles in mid-air. Right, now the ABL has a planned range of about 200 km. By bouncing the ABL's beams off of high-flying blimps or satellites, those rays could reach much, much further."If you can get it out of the atmosphere, light goes a long way," the Air Force's Dr. Billy Mullins told a Washington conference earlier this year, "you can extend out to hundreds and hundreds of kilometers You can strike deep into enemy territory at the speed of light."Missiles wouldn't be the only target. "The relay mirrors could also be used in conjunction with the Advanced Tactical Laser," says Aviation Week. That's the AC-130 gunship, modified to carry a chemical oxygen iodine laser, which special forces hope to use to take out enemy vehicles and the enemies themselves, if need be.For years, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation has been pushing the idea of a "magic," world-wide ring of laser-directing mirrors. The beams could be used to relay communications, supply energy to solar-electric devices, or, y'know, put smoking holes in the less-than-cooperative.Getting this long-distance roasting to work in the real world is going to be extremely tough, Aviation Week notes.
Later this year, Boeing plans to hoist a mirror onto a crane at Kirtland AFB, N.M., to simulate the relay capability of an airborne platform...Among [the] challenges is proving the integrity of the high-tech coatings on the mirror system; they must withstand and reflect an enormous amount of heat to redirect the laser's energy. Furthermore, Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of Boeing's ABL program, says the integrity of the pointing and tracking systems is critical to avoid jitter that could misguide the laser.Weather and dust [also] pose problems for the system, as with any laser program."It certainly won't be an all-weather system," Fancher says. "Heavy cloud cover will impair its operation. But, that's true of any weapon system. It will have environmental limitations on its range of operations."Funny. I bet they said the same sorts of things the first time around, too.