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ONR Wants Game Changers

The Office of Naval Research held its annual partnership with industry conference last week here in Washington, DC. The envelop-pushing Navy lab is particularly keen on developing “game changing” laser beam and hypervelocity rail gun weapons. Much of the available funding is for early phase modeling and simulation. Some of ONR’s high-priority research areas include:

Solid-State Fiber Laser. Defined by ONR as: “A laser in which the active gain medium is an optical fiber doped with rare-earth elements such as erbium, ytterbium, neodymium, dysprosium, praseodymium and thulium.” Okay. ONR says a fiber laser is the way to go for a 100 kW laser weapon that could fit into aircraft pods.

Free Electron Laser. A shipboard point defense weapon, the laser will fight off swarms of both high end anti-ship cruise missiles and low-tech, explosive laden small boats. The trick will be developing controllable laser beam strength for “graduated lethality and speed of light engagement." An Innovative Naval Prototype program is scheduled to begin in 2010.

High-Power Microwave Directed Energy Weapons. A focused microwave beam transmits high levels of energy via concentrated radio waves that will knock out computers, sensors, most anything electronic. So far, ranges have been limited by weak projectors and a cluttered environment, but newer, compact high-power microwaves under development may eventually produce a “destructive" capability.

The Revolutionary Approach to Time-Critical Long Range Strike (RATTLRS) Program. An ONR, DARPA, Air Force and NASA collaboration, started in 2004, to build a faster than Mach 3 air-breathing cruise missile. ONR says building the high Mach turbine engine remains a challenge.

Next Generation Integrated Power Systems. With a multitude of power hungry electrical and automated systems, including propulsion, launchers, sensors, countermeasures and ultimately high-powered weapons, running simultaneously, shipboard power management and supply will require smaller, lighter, quieter, cooler running and stealthy batteries and generators. As with the rest of the world, the Navy seeks solutions to the battery limitation challenge.

Electromagnetic Railgun. A rail gun uses magnetic rails instead of an explosive charge to accelerate a solid projectile to super high velocities, around Mach 7, promising accurate strikes on targets out to 230 miles with damage inflicted by the projectile’s kinetic impact. ONR set a world record this year with its laboratory gun for the highest electromagnetic muzzle energy launch of a projectile – 10 megajoules (I’m told a hand grenade is equivalent to somewhere around 1 megajoule). Drawing enough power - around 3 million amps per shot - to fire the guns remains a distinct challenge, particularly onboard smaller destroyer sized vessels. Finding strong enough material to build barrels that can stand up to repeated firings at such high muzzle energies pose another challenge.

ONR is funding research into enabling technologies for next generation air-launched missiles, including: new rocket motors using solid propulsion technologies, low erosion nozzles, pulse motors and advanced radomes designed for ultra-high speeds.

Laser-based Landing Aids. A new start (for 2009) Enabling Capability, the program will develop laser terrain video imaging that can spot obstacles or uneven terrain for helicopter pilots trying to land in brown-out conditions. The hoped for system will be compact, lightweight and rugged.

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