By Noah Shachtman
So the military now has an electric laser that’s weapons-grade. But it still may take four years, and another $100 million, before the Army gets its first working laser weapon.
The military and Northrop Grumman announced today that its solid state laser at hit 100 kilowatts — generally considered battlefield-strength — in lab testing. So now the push begins to weaponize the ray.
First, the Army is planning to move the 100 kilowatt blaster to the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range. There, the device will be hooked up to the tracking, pointing, and optics systems from Northrop’s old, chemical-powered ray gun, the Tactical High Energy Laser. Tests against “static” targets on the ground should happen this time, next year. By 2011, the laser combo should be blasting mortars and rockets out of the sky.
In the meantime, researchers working on a separate Army program, the High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator, will be crunching all that pointing and tracking and optics machinery into a single heavy truck. By 2012, the Army will hook the Northrop solid state laser up to the truck, for test-firing. The following year, if all goes well, the truck should get a ray gun of its own.
Total cost: $100 million, says Dr. Brian Strickland, an Army program manager.
Technically, he tells Danger Room, none of this should be that hard — not even reducing the size and weight of all of this intricate machinery. The tough part is going to be mass-producing the mobile laser cannons. “The only real showstopper is we’ve got the get the costs down,” Strickland says. Manufacturing the laser and associated gear right now would cost about $40 million per ray gun truck — way too much, for a defense against munitions that can be made for next-to-nothing. “We want to have a laser that costs $15 to $20 million.”
While the Army works on its laser truck, the Navy is looking to zap targets at sea. The Navy recently launched its Maritime Laser Demonstration program. The idea is to demonstrate laser “subsystem technologies” that can help “defeat small boat threats” against a larger ship. The 100 kilowatt laser could very well be one of those systems.