Published January 21, 2010
The ray gun is real ... or at least it will be soon.
The U.S. Army is betting big on laser warfare -- designing, testing and perfecting ultra-precise weapons based on devastatingly powerful beams of light. And given recent developments, it's only a matter of time until the military has in its arsenal a weapon that until now has been the staple of science fiction -- the ray gun.
Set your phasers to kill.
Boeing, one of the Pentagon's top contractors, already has a laser weapon that will improve the military's ability to counter artillery, mortar, drone aircraft and even rockets, a spokesman tells FoxNews.com.
Boeing's is the highest-profile program of all of the projects under development for the Department of Defense, and last week it took a step closer to reality. At its facility in Huntsville, Ala., Boeing accepted a military truck built by Oshkosh Defense that will carry its laser beam control system into battle.
The device is the cornerstone of a high-priority U.S. Army project, called the High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HEL-TD), touted as the future of American war, which will enable the military to fight at the speed of light.
"The system is technically not in production right now," says Marc Selinger, a spokesman for Boeing's missile defense systems unit in suburban Washington, near the Pentagon. "Boeing is building only a demonstrator now ... in this case, a test unit."
That means the project is moving out of the design phase and, with the Oshkosh Heavy Expanded Military Tactical Truck, into production. The eight-wheel, 500-horsepower HEMTT A4, a widely used military tactical vehicle, is being tightly integrated with the Boeing rugged beam control system. Suppliers are already shipping related components to Boeing for assembly.
The weapon will eventually include high-speed processors, optical sensors, and an array of mirrors. Testing of the device's lethal capacity will begin next fiscal year at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. In addition to the U.S. Army, Boeing is developing its laser technologies for the Air Force and Navy.
A number of new materials enhance the weapon as well, including sapphire substrates for LEDs, semiconductors, and optics. One Chicago-based supplier, Rubicon Technology, provides components made of sapphire for military lasers and sensors.
Lasers are sensitive devices, yet in combat, they will be used in harsh conditions, including sand and wind storms. Sapphire is the second-hardest material on earth, next to diamonds, "yet they can be free of imperfections and perfectly flat," says Beth Hespe, a spokeswoman for Rubicon. The material helps keep the laser stable -- key to its effectiveness as a weapon.
A Brief History of Laser Guns
For decades, the Army has tried -- and essentially failed -- to develop alternative weapons that target threats before they can reach ground troops. One earlier technology was called the Trophy Active Protection System, which in concept would have fired a shotgun-like blast of pellets at incoming rocket-propelled grenades and antitank missiles.
Scientists now hope that lasers can do what flying metal cannot.
Dissipating the heat laser beams generate is one problem the military has faced in its efforts to weaponize lasers, which new, proprietary technology is overcoming. The technology consists of a laser, a power source and a command and control element. Development of an effective power source -- something that could generate enough energy to destroy incoming projectiles -- has been another key advancement.
At the most fundamental level, laser weapons are based on the concept of delivering a large amount of stored energy from the weapon to the target, thus producing structural and incendiary damage effects. A directed energy weapon delivers its effect at the speed of light, rather than supersonic or subsonic speeds typical of projectile weapons. The lasers basically obliterate their targets.
Many scientific, military, medical and commercial applications have incorporated lasers since their invention in 1958. When the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon, they planted retroreflector arrays to make possible the Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment. Laser beams focused through large telescopes on Earth aimed at the arrays, and scientists measured the time the beam took to reflect to determined distances with high accuracy. Military uses of lasers include applications such as targeting and ranging, defensive countermeasures, communications and directed energy weapons.
The military's tech at present is focused on larger, truck-mounted laser guns. But as the technology is honed and miniaturized, its easy to imagine a future with handheld versions of the ray guns -- just like in the movies.
Uses for Laser Beams
Last March, Northrop Grumman announced that its engineers in Redondo Beach, Calif., had successfully built and tested an electric laser capable of producing a 100-kilowatt ray of light, powerful enough to destroy cruise missiles. An electric laser requires much less space for its supporting equipment than a chemical laser, which is powered by a chemical reaction rather than an electrical power source.
Lasers are also being used in radar and radio applications by the military. "They are also playing a leading role in the development of wideband communications -- wideband essentially being a synonym for delivering broadband capability to the battlefield," said Jon Alhart, a spokesman for military contractor Harris Corp. Using lasers and other technologies, the military can set up broadband networks anywhere radios are conventionally out of range. This is accomplished wirelessly, over-the-air, without the assistance of gateways or other ad-hoc networking technologies.
But America's enemies are also exploring laser technology, and the U.S. military is preparing for that too.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) disclosed $2.4 million in new funding for Revision Eyewear in Essex Junction, Vt., to make new lenses to protect soldiers against lasers on the battlefield, according to Jonathan Blansay, CEO of Revision.
And last year, Leahy secured another $3 million contract for laser protective eyewear -- more than $10 million since 2005, said Blansay.
It's only a matter of time until lasers form the backbone of many different aspects of military life, not just warfare.