This article first appeared in AviationWeek.com.
A U.S. Navy plan to test a high-power laser against the small-boat threat to its warships provides the first real opportunity to transition electric lasers from the laboratory to the field, says Northrop Grumman, which has won a $98-million contract for the Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD).
Within 12-18 months, a prototype laser weapon system is to be installed on a ship and tested against a remotely controlled small boat in a representative at-sea environment. The system will use technology from the Defense Dept.'s Joint High Power Solid-State Laser (JHPSSL) program, under which Northrop Grumman in March achieved an output of 105 kw. by optically combining the beams from a chain of laser modules.
"This is an opportunity to transition solid-state laser technology to the warfighter," says Dan Wildt, vice president of directed-energy systems for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector. "We've been trying to make the transition for a long time, and we see the Navy being very serious about understanding this capability."
Since the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni harbor of Aden, the Navy has been looking for an answer to the small-boat threat. The potential threat ranges from tens of jet skis carrying individuals armed with rocket-propelled grenades to handfuls of fast-attack craft carrying short-range cruise missiles. The challenge includes discriminating, identifying and prioritizing the most threatening targets in a littoral environment crowded with waterborne traffic.
A high-energy laser is a promising solution, says Wildt, because it allows a graduated response to the threat. The weapon's powerful optics can be used to identify a threatening craft, which can then be illuminated with a low-power green laser to send a visual warning to stay away from the warship. If the boat continues to show intent, he says, the high-power laser can be used to attack the motor or hull to disable the craft.
Northrop Grumman is building the prototype, which will combine electric laser module technology from JHPSSL with a purpose-designed beam-control/fire-control system. After land-based testing to ensure safety, the laser weapon will be integrated with the combat control system on a testbed ship for at-sea testing.
The Navy has said it is looking for "tens of kilowatts" of power, and the company's JHPSSL design approach is based on 15-kw. building blocks, or "benches," the beams from which are tiled--laid side by side--and their phases controlled so they combine optically into a single beam.
Although the weapon will operate at a wavelength, 1.06 microns, where there is an atmospheric "window" that maximizes propagation and minimizes absorption of the beam, Wildt acknowledges no one has ever fired a high-power solid-state laser in a maritime environment, where aerosols could scatter the beam.
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