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Los Angeles Times October 20, 2002

Homing In on Laser Weapons

By Peter Pae

Turning a Buck Rogers fantasy into reality, Southern California defense companies are on the verge of building a laser weapon small enough to fit on a fighter jet, yet powerful enough to destroy an enemy aircraft at the blink of an eye.

After more than four decades of doggedly pursuing the elusive technology, engineers working in at least three laboratories around the Southland have been quietly developing high-powered, solid-state lasers that some defense analysts say could revolutionize warfare.

The laser guns are still years away from being used in combat and won't play any role if the U.S. goes to war with Iraq. In fact, it may be the end of the decade before they are installed on fighters, tanks and destroyers.

But laser scientists say significant technical challenges recently have been overcome, transforming laser weapons from a laboratory project into a promising part of the U.S. arsenal. With such lasers, a fighter jet could destroy ground targets with pinpoint accuracy, significantly reducing the chance of injuring civilians.

A Navy ship could use the laser, with its beam traveling at the speed of light, to fend off even the fastest missiles. And ground troops could use a Humvee-mounted version of the weapon to instantly knock out incoming enemy artillery and mortar shells.

"This is not a pipe dream anymore," said Chaunchy F. McKearn, director for high-energy laser programs at Raytheon Corp. in El Segundo, where a laboratory recently was built to put together a table-size solid-state laser weapon. "The glacier is finally moving."

Besides Raytheon, other large defense contractors working to build laser weapons at their Southland facilities include TRW Corp. in Redondo Beach and Boeing Co. in the San Fernando Valley. Southern California is also home to HRL Laboratories in Malibu, where the first laser was built 42 years ago and continues to be the foremost center for solid-state laser research.

Raytheon already is working with Lockheed Martin Co. to outfit the next-generation fighter jet, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, with a solid-state laser. Lockheed officials said they are considering modifying the short takeoff-vertical landing version of the plane to carry a 100-kilowatt laser gun. The weapon would be powered by electricity generated by the jet engine and used mainly to defend the warplane from missiles.

Raytheon also is teaming with Northrop Grumman Corp. to outfit the next-generation Navy destroyer, dubbed DDX, with a laser that would use the ship's electric drive to power a laser-based air-defense system.

TRW, which has about 500 engineers working on laser programs, has been exploring the possibility of developing a laser that would fit in a casing the size of an external fuel tank. It could then be attached under the wings of fighter jets, much like a missile or a bomb.

At Boeing's Integrated Defense unit in West Hills, engineers are working on advanced tactical lasers that could fit on the company's V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft and other helicopters to take out short-range targets.

The word "laser" is an acronym that stands for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation." The technology turns atomic particles into light with enough radiation to damage an object it encounters.

The range and severity of the damage depend on how much power can be generated and how well the light can be focused on the target.

Solid State vs. Chemical

The beam from a solid-state laser is powered by electricity, which can be generated by a gas-powered jet engine or the turbines of a tank.

Chemical lasers are capable of producing much more energy, but because the energy output relies on the quantity of chemicals used, they take up a lot of space.

The laser's potential as a weapon was recognized when it was conceived in 1957, but development has been slow. Critics had been skeptical of claims made by defense contractors regarding laser technology because the companies have long promised more than they have delivered.

Yet John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense research firm that often criticizes weapons programs as impractical, said solid-state laser weapons technology finally appears to be moving from "pure physics to engineering."

"They're starting to talk about specific platforms and specific missions for the lasers," Pike said. "They are getting close enough that they can actually ask for money with some confidence that they can deliver on what they promised."

Although the Pentagon has emphasized development of chemical lasers, the focus in the last year has begun to shift to solid-state variants, which would be easier to package and transport. Low-power solid-state lasers are used in a variety of commercial applications, from compact disc players to grocery store scanners.

The Holy Grail

Research insolid-state lasers received a major boost last month when the Pentagon quietly launched a $50-million initiative to develop a 25-kilowatt laser by the end of 2004, with the goal of deploying by the end of the decade a 100-kilowatt laser that could be installed on warplanes, tanks and ships.

The most powerful laser currently is a 10-kilowatt model that is being tested by the Army.

Information about the damage such lasers could inflict is classified. But in general, experts say, a 25-kilowatt laser could blind an enemy sensor several hundred miles away. It also could put a hole through a sheet of metal from a distance of several miles.

Correspondingly, a 100-kilowatt solid-state laser -- the Holy Grail for weapons developers -- could deliver a destructive beam to a target dozens of miles away, making it an effective tactical weapon.

A laser's beam would not by itself cause a target to explode. But it could slice through the outer casing of a missile, disabling the guidance system or causing the missile's propellant to explode.

Lasers do have one big drawback. The beam is not very effective in inclement weather and requires greater levels of energy to pierce thick clouds.

Still, such technology is at the center of a major strategic shift underway at the Pentagon, where war planners are looking for so-called transformational weapons.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "is hot on ... the notion of zapping people," Pike said. "Lasers are in line with Rumsfeld's idea of transforming the military, which is to come up with wonder-weapons that other countries can't emulate."

Advancing Technology

The Pentagon's focus on solid-state lasers represents a significant step in the technology.

"Based on the knowledge of the science that we have and the technology breakthroughs that have been coming from the contractors, we felt it was a good point in time to encourage competition to push the technology along," said Capt. Kalliroi Lagonik, the Pentagon's project manager for solid-state lasers.

For the military, low-kilowatt solid-state lasers have been used mainly for determining the distance of a target or to tag targets to improve the accuracy of other weapons. Pentagon research dollars have been spent mostly on developing chemical lasers, which for years have held the most promise for producing high-energy beams with ranges measured in miles instead of inches.

It's not clear how much the Pentagon has spent developing a laser weapon, but an Air Force official last summer said that his service alone had poured $4.5 billion into direct-energy weapons, which include microwave and chemical laser technologies.

But in recent years, Pentagon officials have raised concerns about the size of the system required to fire a deadly chemical beam. What's more, some have expressed worries about the potential environmental damage from caustic chemicals.

Weapons developers at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, for instance, have been able to shoot a chemical laser and put a basketball-size hole in a Scud missile replica from dozens of miles away. But to do that required several truck-size vats filled with chemicals.

Environmentalists are concerned about the deployment of a modified Boeing 747, the world's largest commercial jet, that would operate the nation's first airborne chemical laser, contending that the chemical beam could be harmful to the atmosphere and that the potential for toxic spills is unacceptable.

It may be possible to scale down the chemical laser to fit on a fighter jet or an armored vehicle, but it could take decades to perfect the technology, some analysts said.

Meanwhile, scientists working on solid-state lasers have made major strides in boosting the power output and the quality of the beam, two key factors for determining a laser's lethality and accuracy.

"Over time, solid-state lasers will become more powerful and more compact, which will make them more useful on the battlefield and perhaps revolutionize the conduct of war," said Loren B. Thompson, chief operations officer for Lexington Institute, a defense think tank.

"I have no doubt that by the end of the decade, we will have a laser weapon installed on a Joint Strike Fighter jet or an AC-130 gunship."


Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times