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Directed-energy weapons keep on truckin'

The defense sector is busy with work on solid-state lasers that could shoot artillery shells out of the sky.

In its quest to develop laser weapons, the Pentagon is aiming both high and low.

The sky-high plans for the Airborne Laser call for a squadron of 747s that would train chemically generated laser beams on ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) to knock out those missiles long before they become a threat to targets in the United States. A "lethality" test of that system is scheduled for 2009, though if past delays are any indication of future performance...

Solid-state laser at work
A solid-state laser does its thing under the watchful eye of a Northrop Grumman engineer. At its new Directed Energy Production Facility in Redondo Beach, Calif., the defense contractor aims to build a 100-kW device that can be used on the battlefield. Northrop Grumman

For a more down-to-earth system, look no further than a truck-mounted solid-state laser now in the early stages of development. Rather than intercontinental missiles, this system would protect ground troops from smaller projectiles including rockets, artillery rounds and mortar shells. Advantages that solid-state lasers have over their COIL (chemical oxygen iodine laser) counterparts include smaller size and lighter weight--there's a reason that the Airborne Laser requires a 747--and the avoidance of big doses of toxic materials. COIL systems pack a bigger punch, however.

The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command has enlisted two defense sector heavyweights to vie with each other to produce the ruggedized beam control system, a key component of what will become the High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HEL TD). Northrop Grumman this week said it received an $8 million, one-year contract to do that work, followed in about a month by Boeing's receipt of a $7 million deal to do the same. For both contractors, options could extend the programs to about $50 million.

The Space and Missile Defense Command is the lead agency for the Army's high-energy solid-state laser program, the next phase of which is to boost the power capability from 25 kW to 100 kW. (According to a report from the BBC earlier this year, a solid-state laser in a lab set a record by reaching 67 kW.)

But the laser engine itself is just one factor in a very challenging equation; what Boeing and Northrop Grumman will have to wrestle with is getting it to work when mounted on one of the Army's Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks, or HEMTTs.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the truck-mounted directed-energy beat, the Associated Press on Wednesday ran an in-depth story on the Active Denial System, which uses millimeter waves to blast human targets with a scorching--but nonlethal--sensation of heat. For months, the AP reports, military leaders have asked for the ADS, which is still in the prototype stage, to be deployed to Iraq to help quell civil disturbances, but the Pentagon, worried that the system could be seen as inhumane, has repeatedly said no.

If the Defense Department continues to stall for a more favorable moment, that may give Raytheon the opportunity to pitch its similar "Silent Guardian" system (it has one ready to go), the AP says.

Politics aside, directed-energy weapons still are in their infancy. As Thomas Killion, chief scientist of the Army, told last month, "It's still a very hard technical problem. We are working hard to make this a reality--it's going to take some time."