Lockheed Martin announced that it has ramped up the power of its 300 kW laser system to 500 kW under a new contract with the U.S. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (OUSD (R&E)). The move is part of the second phase of the High Energy Laser Scaling Initiative (HELSI), which aims to increase the power of solid-state laser weapons to combat larger, heavier and more maneuverable threats.
Lasers have been an attractive proposition in military circles for six decades due to their ability to intercept targets at the speed of light and operating costs as low as one dollar per shot. However, the practical application of laser weapons on the battlefield has been delayed by the need to make such systems lightweight, compact, reliable, and powerful enough.
The laser is generated by coils of optical fibers doped with neodymium yttrium-aluminum garnet and integrated into a system that includes a target illumination laser (TILL) for target acquisition and tracking and a beacon illumination laser (BILL) for measuring atmospheric distortion, which is compensated for by adaptive optics. These, as well as the high-energy laser, are in turn linked to the battle management system, which monitors terrain, tracks and assesses potential targets, and determines threat levels.
Lockheed Martin faces the challenge of increasing the weapon’s power without compromising its ability to combine multiple beams in the spectrum used to generate the output laser and the quality of the output beam, while meeting Department of Defense Modular Open System Approach standards for interoperability and integration of multiple missions.
“OUSD (R&E) is investing in the development of high-energy lasers to support the U.S. military,” said Rick Cordaro, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems & Weapons division. “At the same time, Lockheed Martin has invested in our manufacturing infrastructure in anticipation of Department of Defense demand for laser weapons that have additional layers of defense with deep magazines, low cost per shot, high speed light delivery and high accuracy response that reduces logistics requirements. The 500-kilowatt laser will build on our successes with the 300-kilowatt system and lessons learned from legacy programs to further prove the ability to defend against a range of threats.”
Lockheed Martin is not the only company working on laser weapons. Raytheon is also developing directed energy weapons that use a powerful microwave beam to disable drones and other unmanned systems. Northrop Grumman is also developing a solid-state laser weapon system to defend against drones, missiles, artillery and mortars.
The development of laser weapons is not without controversy. Some experts raise concerns about the legality of using such weapons in terms of international law, while others question their effectiveness against more advanced military technologies. Nevertheless, the U.S. military continues to develop laser weapons in an effort to maintain technological superiority over potential adversaries.