Inside the Air Force's Laser Lab

I love the bit in Bond films where 007 goes round Qs laboratory checking out the latest top-secret gadgets. Thats why I enjoyed talking to Capt.Wegner and his colleagues at ScorpWorks, source of a variety of laser weapons and other one-of-a-kind devices.ACCM.jpgThe ScorpWorks is the Air Force Research Laboratorys in-house development team for laser system prototypes. Although it has existed since 1992, they have shunned publicity until this year. A laser weapon does not need to convert the target into smoking rubble: they are much more versatile than that.The Laser AirCraft CounterMeasures (ACCM), which I detail in this week's New Scientist, is a nonlethal coaxial laser that sits alongside a helicopter door gun. It dazzles the target, preventing them from firing accurately and providing protection for the helicopter, but without risking civilian casualties.Its more than a dazzler. Experience with the Saber 203 laser dazzler in Somalia showed that it was too low-powered to affect vision, but anyone illuminated beat a hasty retreat as they knew a weapon was being aimed at them. The ACCM should have a similar effect, scattering potential threats on the ground and leaving only the truly dangerous ones - and the 4,000 rpm minigun should deal with them.The PHaSR laser-dazzling rifle unveiled a few weeks ago is similar (and not a hoax). In a riot-control situation, the idea is that lighting people up with this portable laser will separate peaceful protesters from the stone-throwers. The PhaSRs dual-wavelength laser will also make countermeasures difficult, and Capt. Wegner points out that the end product will probably be very different to the bulky prototype.The PHaSR is a relative of the Portable Efficient Laser Testbed (PELT). This is another riot-control weapon, but one that works by heat "the first man-portable heat compliance weapon of its kind" Take a close look at the picture of PELT on page 52 here and you'll see a signature Scorpion logo a rare visible sign of ScorpWorks handiwork.Elsewhere they've been utilizing the laser as a sensor. By picking up the reflections back from the human eye, invisible laser sensors can detect people looking at them - similar to the way animal eyes light up when you shine a flashlight on them. A sniper detection system is in the works.Even more sophisticated is BOSS, the Battlefield Optical Surveillance System. This is a vehicle-mounted setup which uses retro-reflection and a number of other technologies to spot targets in pitch darkness. It can be locate, identify and invisibly designate targets, so they wont even know they've been spotted until a laser-guided weapon hits (and probably not even then). Exactly how far advanced BOSS or its successors are is not known.The ScorpWorks name is a deliberate echo of Lockheeds famous Skunk Works, renowned for producing world-beating aircraft like the F-117 stealth fighter and SR-71 Blackbird on time and within budget, a feat achieved following a set of bureaucracy-busting rules laid down by the legendary Kelly Johnson.ScorpWorks reckon that many projects get completed within two years and with prototypes built for less than $300k. At that price you could get about 20,000 different projects for the price of one Airborne Laser.The Skunk Works is famous for the many black programs that originated there, and you do get the impression with ScorpWorks that what they have revealed is the tip of the iceberg. We know their customers include Special Operations Command, Air Force, Marines, DARPA and the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, but we dont know what they bought. Even their unclassified programs can only be discussed in broad terms. If they told me more, theyd probably have to kill me but I bet theyd use a really impressive laser.-- David Hambling

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