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Cash boost for laser weapons

12 Dec 2002

TRW and Raytheon receive multi-million dollar contracts to build 25 kW solid-state lasers.

A US government project to develop a high-power solid-state laser weapon has taken a leap forward. The Department of Defense has awarded a USD 21.3 million contract to TRW and a USD 16.9 million contract to Raytheon to build rival prototype 25 kW lasers by the end of 2004.

The contracts are part of the Joint High-Power Solid-State Laser (JHPSSL) program and consist of two initial phases. Phase one, which lasts 14-months, is to show that solid-state lasers can be scaled up to the order of 10 kW with high beam quality (1.5 times diffraction-limited (1.5xDL)).

Phase two, which finishes ten months later, involves the laboratory demonstration of a 25 kW 1.5xDL laser that suits pre-production. If successful the project could lead the way to the development of 100 kW devices.

Although other laser weapon projects are already under development, such as the Airborne Laser (ABL) and the Mobile Tactical High-Energy Laser (MTHEL). These are designed to operate at much higher powers and rely on gas lasers.

The ABL makes use of a chemical oxygen iodine laser that delivers megawatt powers but will weigh around 300 tons. The MTHEL, which recently shot down an artillery shell in testing, is based on a deuterium fluoride laser.

The hope is that the JHPSSL program will result in a new breed of compact lasers that suit tactical applications requiring less power.

"This program will open the door to many new military applications for high-energy lasers, ranging from electronic warfare tasks such as blinding or destruction of enemy sensors to air defense or ship self-defense," said Jackie Gish, director of directed energy technology and products at TRW.

"I think that the move [to solid-state lasers] is because some of the services for some of their missions would prefer non-chemical solutions so that they don't have to add the logistics stream that you do for chemical lasers. In addition for lower power levels, solid-state lasers will package smaller."

Both TRW and Raytheon have much work to do to succeed. TRW says that its solution will be based on 1.06 micron diode-pumped Nd:YAG laser technology. To date it has demonstrated a version operating at 5.4 kW with good beam quality. Raytheon is a specialist in diode-pumped Yb:YAG technology and earlier this year demonstrated a 2.65 kW solid-state laser.

Oliver Graydon is editor of Optics.org and Opto & Laser Europe magazine.

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