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Northrop Grumman fires up latest laser weapon

A prototype of the Firestrike system burns through a "representative cruise missile threat." The defense contractor sees a role for it on Navy ships.

This pair of photos shows the damage done to the outer cover of a "representative cruise missile threat" by Northrop Grumman's Gamma laser.
Photos from Northrop Grumman

If you want to build a laser weapon, start small and go from there.

That's one of the principles underlying the Firestrike laser from Northrop Grumman. A demonstration prototype of that system called Gamma has proved its mettle in a recent test-firing, the defense contractor announced yesterday.

This is not yet a laser weapon in the wild. The test-lasing took place at Northrop Grumman's Redondo Beach, Calif., lab, where Gamma burned through the skin of a surplus BQM-74 drone and other materials configured as internal components that stood in as a "representative cruise missile threat."

Northrop Grumman's Gamma laser. Northrop Grumman

Why cruise missiles? Because a laser could heat up the side of a missile in flight long enough to rupture it and thus knock it out of commission. The Air Force's expensive and long-running Airborne Laser program, now defunct, had a similar goal of defending against ballistic missiles, and in 2010 even had a moment of success in demonstrating that capability.

But the Airborne Laser Test Bed was a 747-400 Freighter packed to the gills with the equipment and supplies necessary for a chemical-based laser. The laser at the heart of Northrop Grumman's Firestrike is solid-state.

And it's much, much smaller than a jumbo jet -- it could, arguably, fit between your refrigerator and your kitchen sink. "The Gamma demonstrator ... cuts the weight of the finished laser chain to 500 pounds and shrinks the volume to 23 inches by 40 inches by 12 inches, or about the size of two countertop microwave ovens," said Dan Wildt, vice president of directed energy systems for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, in a statement.

During the test, the Gamma laser operated at a modest 13.3 kilowatts for a number of shots over a total of 1.5 hours, the company said. By contrast, the Airborne Laser was in the megawatt class, which is generally regarded as the desired power for battlefield systems.

The Gamma laser is designed to be scaled up. The demonstrator system is a single "chain" that could be combined with other chains to create more powerful weapons. And in the "lethality testing," it was fired over just a short distance, though Northrop Grumman says that was good enough to simulate the effects that a laser weapon of several chains aboard a Navy ship could achieve at a range of several miles.

Solid-state lasers could be the quickest ticket to a fully functioning directed-energy weapon in the hands of tomorrow's soldiers, sailors, and air crews, according to a recent report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C., think tank: "New electrically powered, solid-state lasers (SSLs) may be the most promising alternatives for laser weapons that can be mounted on large mobile platforms such as surface naval vessels."

That report also urged the Pentagon to support the U.S. Navy as the first adopter for weaponizing a 100-megawatt (or better) solid-state laser, arguing that surface ships are well-suited to the role because they have sufficient power, volume, and cooling capacity. Laser weapons, the report says, would be part of a layered defense, along with more traditional weaponry, against unmanned aerial vehicles, anti-ship cruise missiles, and fast attack craft.

Just over a year ago, the Navy and Northrop Grumman showed off a separate project, the ship-based Maritime Laser Demonstrator, zapping a variety of targets including remotely driven small boats.