Northrop grumman fires up rugged solid-state laser weapon

May 3, 2012
Photos show damage to outer cover of representative cruise missile threat from Gamma (Northrop Grumman photos)

Northrop Grumman Corporation has test fired the first product in its next-generation FIRESTRIKE family of high-energy, solid-state lasers that meet goals for size and weight reduction and ruggedization for operational applications.

The tests, conducted in the company's Redondo Beach laboratory, demonstrated that the laser could burn through the skin and critical components of a target drone used to simulate anti-ship cruise missile threats to U.S. Navy ships.

The laser, called Gamma, uses a "slab" architecture similar to previous high-power lasers. It operated at 13.3 kilowatts for a number of shots over a total of 1.5 hours with stable performance and a beam quality that exceeded design goals, completing the initial phase of trials.

"We previously announced the design for a product called FIRESTRIKE™ that builds on our heritage of record-breaking, high-energy, solid-state lasers. Since that time we've invested our internal funds to fabricate, integrate and test a demonstration prototype of the FIRESTRIKE laser that we call Gamma," said Steve Hixson, vice president of advanced concepts, space and directed energy systems for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector.

"Gamma has equaled or exceeded the performance we achieved in previous slab lasers, but the real advancement here is in packaging and ruggedization for operations in real-world military platforms," he added. The term "slab laser" refers to a class of high-power, solid-state lasers with a gain medium, or source of atoms that emit light, in the form of a slab about the size of a microscope slide.

"The Gamma demonstrator is built in a form factor that implements the size and weight reduction goals of the FIRESTRIKE design, which 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, directed energy systems, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

"This laser has also been ruggedized to demonstrate how robust operational FIRESTRIKE lasers can be," Wildt said. "Our company has more than 50,000 lower power laser devices in operation with the Defense Department. "We applied lessons from those systems to be sure this laser will be able to survive in real-world operational environments and keep operating reliably."

"Gamma implements a significant reduction in the number of internal optical components, while new mounting techniques eliminate sensitivity to vibrations. Key portions of the Gamma laser have already been subjected to vibration, shock and thermal testing to validate that these improvements have achieved design goals," said Wildt.

The Gamma demonstrator is a single "chain" or building block that is designed to be combined with other chains to create laser systems of greater power, as was demonstrated in Northrop Grumman's 105 kilowatt Joint High Power Solid State Laser.

"This hallmark for company lasers allows them to be combined coherently, meaning they retain their good beam quality, or the ability to focus energy at long ranges, even as more power is added," Wildt explained. "The Gamma laser was tested at a beam quality of 1.4, which beat the design goal of 1.5, and we expect it to keep improving. A perfect beam quality is 1. Owing to its excellent beam quality, the 13.3 kilowatt Gamma is also brighter than its design goal, meaning it can put more power on target at range."

The lethality testing used a single Gamma chain at short distance in a way that simulated the effects that a laser weapon of several chains aboard a Navy ship could achieve at a range of several miles. "We validated that the laser could produce the amount of energy we predicted, and that the energy would have the effect on the target that we predicted," said Wildt.

The components used in the test included the skin of a surplus BQM-74 drone and other parts configured to represent critical internal components. The BQM-74 was formerly produced by Northrop Grumman for the Navy as a representative cruise missile threat and used for testing defensive systems.

"The FIRESTRIKE laser, announced in 2008, forms the backbone near-term weapon systems from Northrop Grumman. Combined with advanced electro optical and/or infrared sensors, FIRESTRIKE™ line replaceable units and their subsystems can provide military services with active defense, offensive precision strike and enhanced situational awareness capabilities, all in the same system," Wildt said.

Explore further: Maritime laser demonstrator: Test moves Navy step closer to lasers for ship self-defense

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Standing Bear
3.5 / 5 (6) May 03, 2012
I just love this. This also means megawatt and much larger systems are possible as linear arrays. Could result in rehabilitation of large battleships to carry the resulting long 'guns' that could even destroy orbiting satellites. Limitation would be the horizon. In anti-air configuration at lower power, no air threat survives in horizon range beyond the time in milliseconds needed to notice and target it...and fire. It also in an enabling technology for a space weapon of literally infinite range and accuracy. Next step will be to match it with a 'space fighter' and 'space carrier'. Both of these though vary greatly in size could within the solar system use VASIMR/nuclear tech for propulsion. The carrier could have the size to utilize a Bussard Collector funnel for in-space refueling from free space H2 molecules or more concentrated H2 sources near other gas sources. Such method also usable for Helium-3 collection from solar wind for fusion fuel. Now to make fusion genratrs..
5 / 5 (5) May 03, 2012
It would be considerably more effective in space, but not "infinite range". The inverse square law still applies to lasers, and at very high energy densities (very well focused beams), the beam can interfere with itself, leading to further spreading.

At high enough powers, it would become a photon drive. For a small satellite, "recoil" could be an issue with even military grade lasers, after enough shots.
For a satellite based laser, we already have a fusion generator. A large mirror can concentrate sunlight as the pumping source. Thin-film mirrors can be made to reflect narrow bandwidths, allowing the unusable wavelengths to pass through, and reducing excess heating in the laser. Admittedly this would be difficult on a ship, as the mirror wouldn't appreciate maneuvers.
2 / 5 (3) May 03, 2012
This could literally make air power obsolete in conventional warfare between equally matched powers.

For peace keeping missions against rogue states, you might even be able to put small arrays of these on the bottoms of aircraft, and use them instead of bombs for precision strikes.

This is Star Wars quality weaponry, but without the incompetent operators.
5 / 5 (2) May 03, 2012
How long will it take for an array to become a "laser bank"?
5 / 5 (5) May 03, 2012
I want one if anyone out there is looking for someone to give a present to. However, it will have one terrestrial limitation and that will be weather. Dense fog (common at sea for those of us who have spent time there) and rain will scatter the beam very quickly (try turning your car's brights on in a fog). A scattered beam from a nearby laser will be as dangerous for those shooting it (blinding) as for those on the other end. Don't get me wrong, I want one for the good days, but weather will take its toll. If I were mounting a strike I would wait for inclement weather.
1 / 5 (1) May 03, 2012
A coat of carbon fiber on the missile would stop the beam
5 / 5 (2) May 03, 2012
Thermodynamics: You've found one of the big problems for directed energy weapon in an atmosphere. That's also why we use microwaves for wireless phones. Alexander Bell originally wanted to use beams of light instead of wires, but he couldn't get them to work outdoors. Even if he had had lasers, they probably would have scattered within a few miles at most.

Dirk: Carbon fiber will burn, and if the beam is the right color, it will be absorbed and heat the fiber. Even better would be to polish the front of the missile to make a mirror. That would scatter the beam to the sides, would work on any visible or IR wavelength, and would be very easy to do.
1 / 5 (1) May 03, 2012
Thermodynamics: You've found one of the big problems for directed energy weapon in an atmosphere. That's also why we use microwaves for wireless phones. Alexander Bell originally wanted to use beams of light instead of wires, but he couldn't get them to work outdoors. Even if he had had lasers, they probably would have scattered within a few miles at most.

What about microwave lasers? Are they even possible?

5 / 5 (2) May 04, 2012
if this is what they are showing the world via the web i wonder what is in the next room that makes this gizmo just a ruse.
not rated yet May 04, 2012
Dirk: Carbon fiber will burn, and if the beam is the right color, it will be absorbed and heat the fiber. Even better would be to polish the front of the missile to make a mirror. That would scatter the beam to the sides, would work on any visible or IR wavelength, and would be very easy to do.

There is already a list of known countermeasures for lasers, and a reason most of them don't actually work.

It's unlikely you'd get an efficient mirrored surface on a missile, because by the time it travels through the air it will have pitting and ablation from dust, if nothing else.

The beam from this is no more than a few centimeters across, so even if you have an 80% mirrored surface, you're looking at about 2600 watts concentrated in a tiny area. This will immediately destroy the finish there and be back to full power in a few seconds.

This is not like a cartoon.

This is above Fresnel lens intensities. It will melt or burn a hole in cement even.
not rated yet May 04, 2012
Pretty sure orbiting lazer equipped aircraft over a battle group will mitigate surface fog. Dense weather/heavy rainfall could pose a problem, but then, no single weapon system is deployed in a vacuum. This doesn't obsolete Phalanx, just adds to it.
not rated yet May 04, 2012
@Stargazer2011: While MASERs are a reality, due to their lower frequencies, there is less power brought to target. This is why UV lazers are more powerfull than say, Red Lazers. It's also why the ultimate goal is X-ray Lazers. Greater Angular Momentum per apparent illumination.
1 / 5 (1) May 04, 2012
@Stargazer2011: While MASERs are a reality, due to their lower frequencies, there is less power brought to target. This is why UV lazers are more powerfull than say, Red Lazers

Correct. You want the shortest wavelength possible.

As for defending against a laser, you don't need to defend against the laser. You just need to make your missiles difficult to detect and target. Use a stealthy cruise missile fired by a stealthy aircraft at standoff range. I believe the US either already has, or is working on low-observable smart weapons. It's a lot easier to stealth coat a missile than an entire aircraft. From a head-on view, a low observable weapon is going to look an aweful lot like a bird to an automated targeting system, if it sees it at all. A low-flying antiship weapon is very hard to pick out with the waves just below, even without stealth designs.
1 / 5 (1) May 04, 2012
This is the kind of laser that is destroying the N.Korean rockets :p

The US build missle defense platforms all around the world incuding poland, romania and the philipines.
not rated yet May 04, 2012
Lurker: Pitting and ablation shouldn't be an issue. These aren't being developed for ICBM defense, but for short range cruise missiles, traveling at fast aircraft speeds. If the skin can't keep it's finish you need a better missile, and if the air is that dusty, the laser won't work anyway.

For an ICBM counterdefense mirror finishes wouldn't work, at least partly because most heat resistant surface can't be polished. Either the laser would burn through, or reentry friction would.
1 / 5 (1) May 04, 2012
One very nice application for this type of system will be defense against rocket and mortar fire, in places like Isreal for example. It sounds like the Gamma system should be deployable on trucks, similar to the existing anti-missile missiles.

Thermodynamics mentioned accidental blinding, but intentional blinding is also possible with a laser weapon. You can of course blind people, both temporarily or permanently, but you can also "blind" enemy communication and detection hardware. It doesn't take much to disable a radio or microwave tower, or a power transformer or generator.

The real problem for energy weapons like lasers has always been power supply though. The above system is far too small to include the power supply, even for a one-shot system.
not rated yet May 04, 2012
GSwift7: "Power supply": True, which is why it's probably limited to ships or fixed positions for at least the near future. Both have hardwired access to large power supplies. Trucks would have to be accompanied by a generator and fuel, probably requiring at least one extra tow vehicle, and planes would have severe weight limits.

A truck mounted system could be used when there was time to deploy it. Bring in generators and build a "temporary fixed" position, which could be moved on relatively short notice, similar to an artillery battery. But I doubt that it would work for defending trucks in combat.

An airborne system might be able to charge capacitors for one shot, but likely would then require several minutes or longer to recharge, not much use in combat situations.
5 / 5 (2) May 06, 2012
No matter the subject matter, I always find people making comments meant to lead others to believe that said commentator finds developments quite obvious and "Elementary my dear Watson.". Stunningly brilliant armchair scientists appear from nowheres. They even offer immediate improvements and confident suggestion for how further to develop the invention of others. Well evidently humanity has scientific talent out the wazzu...and our problems should find solutions pronto.

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